This was a question asked of me in a bit of a cheeky way a few weeks ago by a friend. We were having meal together and I had ordered one of the local beers. You see our friends are vegetarian but are still convinced that veganism is just a bit to, well “extreme” so of course he asked me “is your beer vegan” with a glint in his eye waiting for me to start the usual banter between us. However, although he had asked it as fun it is actually a very interesting question, so is alcohol vegan? lets take a look.
Before we go on to look at the question and hopefully give an answer I just want to say that this isn’t an article about the merits or not of alcohol. Certainly, in the UK I think that most of us are aware that excess alcohol is harmful in many ways. It is possibly highlighted more because of the instant affect that it has on the body and not just the long-term effect. We could argue that excess food is actually a worse long term problem.
So why shouldn’t we occasionally enjoy a glass of wine or, as with me, a local beer when out with friends. Well absolutely no reason whatsoever, unless of course it’s not vegan!
Vegans and Alcohol
When most of us start on our vegan journey we of course focus on eliminating meat, dairy, and eggs from our diet. Then as we learn more we start to consider other issues, like, honey, wool, leather and…alcohol. Some new vegans may choose to completely overhaul their life and decided to eliminate drinking entirely.
This, of course, is not the case for all and of it doesn’t have to be. We are all individuals and being vegan is no different. We come in different shapes and size with different likes and dislikes, some will enjoy a drink and some wont. Some of course may abstain for health or religious reasons.
But whether you are beer or larger drinker, prefer spirits to wine, or red over white let’s have a look at why some alcohol is not vegan and what we can do to check.
How are Alcoholic drinks made?
So, let’s have a very very quick look at how our alcoholic drinks are made. Wine and beer are of course two very different drinks but they are both made via a process known as fermentation. This is the process that converts grape juice to wine and water and grains to beer. Humans have used this method for thousands of years and the key ingredient to this process is of course yeast.
Yeast basically uses a range of enzymes to convert the natural sugars found in beer’s grains and wine’s grapes into carbon dioxide and ethanol. The carbon dioxide is then trapped in beers, ciders and sparkling wines by the bottle cap allowing them to retain their bubbles. In contrast it is allowed to dissipate when making still or non-sparkling wine. The ethanol is of course the alcohol component and is measured by volume and is what makes us feel drunk.
The process for spirits like whisky, vodka and brandy etc is different because yeast cannot survive in the high alcohol content of spirits. To produce alcoholic spirits a process known as distillation is used. Distillation requires a liquid to be boiled and the vapours collected. Because alcohol has a lower boiling point than water distillers can evaporate the alcohol, collect the vapours into a tube and then use cold temperatures to force the alcohol to condense back into liquid. A better explanation of the process can be seen here!
So Alcohol is vegan then?
Well based on the simple explanation of how alcoholic drinks are made you would think that they must be vegan right? Well no actually. Typically, there are two ways that an animal product might find its way in to your drink.
Number one is of course as an ingredient in the drink itself. This should be fairly obvious when we think of drinks like a honey mead or a cream liqueur. However, the second and much less obvious way, is during the filtering/fining process. It is during this filtration/fining process that many alcoholic drinks cease to be vegan. So what is fining?
Well fining is the process of refining alcoholic drinks, to improve clarity, or adjust the flavour or aroma and generally make them more appealing to consumers. Ok so we know the main two ways that animal products might find their way in to our drinks but what are these products I hear you ask, well just for you below is a list of my top 10
Top 10 non-vegan ingredients in your alcoholic drink.
So we know that animal products can be used both as a direct ingredient or as part of the fining process but what are they? Well for your reading pleasure they include the following:
- Albumin: From either eggs or dried blood
- Carmine: From the cochineal insect
- Casein: From milk
- Charcoal: From animal bone
- Chitin: From the shells of crabs or lobsters
- Gelatine: From bones and connective tissues of cows or pigs
- Honey: From bees
- Isinglass: From the swim bladders of fish
- Lactose: From milk
- Pepsin: From pigs
Now it’s true that that pepsin won’t always come from pigs and charcoal from animal bone but unfortunately, we won’t always know where the ingredients have come from or indeed what they are. Why you may ask? Well one of the main reasons is that EU regulations do not require alcoholic drinks with a strength by volume (abv) of 1.2% or more to list their ingredients.
The USA also has a similar piece of legislation. But never fear the good news is that there are online resources that will help you check if your drink is vegan. More of that later.
Vegan Beer and Cider
Ok so we now know that our drink might not be vegan but let’s look at the various types of drink and the likelihood of them being vegan or not. Well there is good news for lager lovers as many of the main brands are free from animal products.
Real ale however is a different story mainly because of the lovely isinglass (fish guts!) which is added to the casks to accelerate the clearing of the beer so you don’t end up with a cloudy pint. Unfortunately, the majority of ciders are not vegan friendly either. Many mainstream brands incorporate gelatine into their manufacturing process.
The good news is that things are changing. Vegan beers are becoming more and more popular with both consumers and manufactures. Many craft beer companies are now producing vegan beers with many traditional brewers following suite. As well as the ethical benefits most agree that the removal of isinglass actually improves the flavour of the finished product.
Guinness are a good example of a major brewer that removed isinglass from their draft beers so now you can enjoy a vegan pint of the black stuff on draft.
What about Wines
Wouldn’t it be nice to think that our friendly alcoholic grape juice was vegan! and of course in some cases it is. Unfortunately though in many cases we are back to those dreaded fish guts! As with our dark beers the fining process often uses animal derivatives to remove any impurities in the wine before bottling.
White, rosé and sparkling wines typically use isinglass to ensure the end product clear and bright. In red wine egg whites and milk protein are sometimes used to remove any bitter flavours. Fortified wines such as port and sherry more often than not aren’t vegan due to the addition of gelatine.
These processes however are not essential and the good news is there are more and more vegan wines becoming available with manufacturers choosing to clarify naturally.
Spirits and mixers
So on to the hard stuff! And for those that like a nice glass of malt whisky the good news is that the majority of spirits are mostly vegan. There can, however, be some exceptions and it is worth checking. For example it has been noted that certain vodkas have been filtered with charred animal bones as part of the refining process.
As we previously mentioned certain liquors have a cream base and milk and cream can often make an appearance in cocktails. All of these are usually pretty easy to spot but its worth keeping on your toes. I’m sure you know that one of the ingredients in a Bloody Mary is Worcester sauce but what you may not know is that it contains anchovies.
As for mixers again the majority are vegan but here are some soft drinks which are not vegan friendly. A small number of orange-coloured drinks contain gelatine and one or two red-coloured ones contain cochineal. As these are non-alcoholic these ingredients must be listed on the packaging.
How to choose you vegan alcohol
As we have said things are changing. Many manufacturers are now producing more and more vegan products and this is true of wines and beers. The easiest way of checking is to see if they have the vegan trademark which of course will confirm that they are vegan.
If there is no obvious vegan labelling then our recommendation is that you use the website Barnivore. Here you will find, (at the time of writing), a database of over 43,000 drinks which have been checked to see if they are vegan. Although not available as an app the mobile version works really well and the search facility will help you determine what is vegan, and what is not.
So Barnivore is without doubt our top tip to avoid the embarrassment of drinking wine filtered through fish guts. What it can’t do for you though is stop you from embarrassing yourself in front friends or co-workers so do make sure you drink responsibly.
So is Alcohol vegan?
Well I guess if we were being pedantic the answer is that ‘pure’ alcohol is vegan. But of course we are talking about alcoholic drinks so as usual with many things vegan the answer is yes and no.
Hopefully our guide has given you an insight on how to look out for any pitfalls and the great news is that with more and more vegan products available and resources like Barnivore to help us out having a cruelty free drink has never been easier.