Craft beer and veganism have more in common than you thought
Story by Marcy Franklin // Photograph by Robert Tardio
It’s no secret that vegans are here to stay—tofu, soy milk, Vegenaise, and tempeh are taking over grocery store shelves, and if you’re one of many people who have chosen the vegan lifestyle, we commend you. However, if you are a vegetarian or vegan (or an aspiring one—we too have a hard time giving up bacon), you should note that not all beer is vegan.
[Pause for reaction] Vegan beer? What kind of animal could possibly be in my beer? Glad you asked. Technically speaking, there are no animal byproducts in your beer. (We think you’d notice them floating around in there.) What makes beer un-vegan are the fining agents used during the brewing process.
Brewers can choose from a number of different fining agents when brewing beer, and different agents are used depending on the desired final result. Fining is the step, or steps, in the brewing process that filters the yeast, proteins, and any other residual gunk out of the beer. Sounds OK, except that two common fining agents are gelatin, the same collagen in cow or pig bones that you find in Jell-O, and isinglass, made from the swim bladders of fish.
Tony Yanow, owner of L.A.’s Golden Road Brewing and two vegan-minded neighborhood pubs, including Tony’s Darts Away, says the reason some breweries choose isinglass or gelatin for fining is because of the low cost. Smaller craft breweries (and homebrewers) can’t afford advanced filtering equipment, like a whirlpool, centrifuge, or plate filters to fine beer. “[Using gelatin] is an inexpensive way to filter beer,” he says. “It doesn’t strip away too much flavor.” Of course, that’s if you’re OK with using animal byproducts.
However, it’s not all bad news for animal lovers—the fact is, most beer is vegan, say Derek Humbard and Kory Stetina, founders of the San Diego-based, vegan-friendly organization lovelikebeer. Practically speaking, it’s more economical for breweries to use a whirlpool (a separate tank that swirls the wort around, creating a teacup effect) for filtering. “[Isinglass and gelatin] are crude fining agents,” Stetina says. “Most regional craft breweries are going find other ways [to filter] that are more dependable.” Breweries like Sierra Nevada and Firestone Walker use Irish moss (red algae) and Whirlfloc to remove proteins that can cause hazy beer. Another option is Polyclar, a non-soluble clarifier that has a similar effect to Irish moss. All three of these options are also available at homebrew supply stores, and are relatively inexpensive.
Beyond filtering, there’s more gray area for what constitutes “vegan beer” in the way of beer ingredients, Yanow says. There are some obvious standouts—milk stouts and oyster stouts are obviously a vegan taboo. But other ingredients used in beer, like honey, are disputed by vegan beer enthusiasts. It’s disputed in food as well—some animal advocates, like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), claim that beekeeping is an exploitative system that creates unnatural living standards for bees and genetic manipulation like factory farming; others disagree.
When Jon Carpenter, Golden Road’s brewmaster, first began brewing the hefeweizen, Yanow noticed that he was using honey and asked him to tweak the recipe to exclude the sweetener. The result: a hefe made with agave nectar instead. There is one Golden Road specialty beer, El Hefe Anejo, that uses honey, he says, but it’s a low-production brew.
“Vegan is such a tricky word,” Yanow says. “I don’t like to use it because it means something different to different people. I prefer not to eat honey, but that’s not going to stop me from using it. It’s not offensive to me—it’s not like it’s a hunk of blue cheese.”
Minus the use of some fining agents and funky flavor ingredients like oysters and bacon for example, most beer is vegan. So why the division between vegan and non-vegan beer? It’s a distinction vegan beer enthusiasts are trying to avoid. “It’s not like there’s a separate style of beer known as ‘vegan beer,’” says Stetina. “It’s just that most beer happens to be vegan. There’s no veggie-burger alternative to beer.”
Instead of alienating beer drinkers who love cheeseburgers, Humbard, Stetina, and Yanow instead try to show the fun side of vegan beer. For them, that means organizing tasty vegan food and beer pairing events in southern California.
Yanow works with Quarry Girl, a vegan blogger (quarrygirl.com), and Nik Adler, founder of the Sunset Strip Music Festival and Vice President of the Sunset Strip Business Association, to produce the L.A. Vegan Beer Fest every May. The fest has gourmet vegan eats from local L.A. restaurants, 60 vegan beers on tap, and live music. It has become such a success that the organizers have moved to a bigger lot and included more live music acts.
The event isn’t meant to separate vegans from non-vegans, it’s just about good food and beer. “The reason we have a vegan beer fest isn’t to shine a light on beers that aren’t vegan,” Yanow says. “It’s to expose vegan breweries to a community that can see what brands are safe for them for the diet they’ve chosen.”
Humbard and Stetina’s lovelikebeer organization produces beer-paired vegan dinners to support charitable efforts in San Diego. “Our main focus is pairing craft beer with craft food, some of which happens to be vegan,” says Humbard. The pair began lovelikebeer to give vegans (like themselves) a venue to enjoy craft beer with a vegan/vegetarian option for food. (After all, many beer fests lean heavily on meat.)
With pairings like tomato gazpacho and fried squash blossom with Automatic Brewing Co.’s Coffee Coconut Wheat beer, it’s easy to see how their dinners have appealed to hundreds of beer enthusiasts. “We try to make events that are really inclusive,” Humbard says. “We’re trying to create a welcoming environment, rather than a vegans-only event.”
It’s simply that the vegan movement is emerging at the same time as the craft beer movement, says Stetina. Not only that, but awareness of both movements is on the rise. Yanow says the age of information has made it easier for people to know exactly what they’re putting in their bodies. So whether you’re actively avoiding foods made from animals, or you’re anxiously awaiting your next meat lover’s pizza, we can all raise a glass to beer—vegan-friendly and all.
No animals were harmed during the creation of this magazine article.
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