Vegan(ism) is currently fashionable so let's jump on the band wagon!
The vast majority of beers are vegan. That said, some breweries do use animal products. We’ll look at why that’s the case, and how to avoid these beers.
Mass-Market Vegan Beers
If you want to know whether an inexpensive, mass-produced beer is vegan, the answer is nearly always yes. Foster’s, from Australia that inexplicably sells in large quantities, is the one notable exception.
Cheap Vegan Beers
Here are some of the world’s bestselling beers, all of which are vegan:
Budweiser and Bud Light (USA)Coors and Coors Light (USA)Miller Original and Genuine Draft (USA)Lite beer from Miller (USA)Heineken (Netherlands)Beck’s (Germany)Corona (Mexico)Pacifico (Mexico)Skol (Brazil)Tsingtao (China)Snow (China)Harbin (China)
Many of the above beers are brewed at regional breweries scattered around the world. For each beer listed above, I’ve included its primary market in parenthesis. I regard all these beers as fairly interchangeable. But maybe think twice about buying beers made in China since the country’s food safety track record is appalling.
It’s usually the premium beers where we can run into trouble. Let’s look at why that’s the case.
Fining Substances and Other Animal Ingredients
When breweries add animal ingredients to their beer, they usually do it for “fining” purposes. Fining ingredients are commonly sticky animal products. Two of the most common are isinglass (fish bladder) and gelatin. These substances adhere to particulates floating in the brewing tank, enabling easier and more complete filtering prior to bottling.
Fortunately, breweries are gradually abandoning the practice of using animal byproducts for fining. As vegan diets continue to catch on, it’s becoming bad for business for brewers to deliberately muck up their beers with these substances. This trend away from animal-based fining ingredients became undeniable in 2017, when Guinness made its famous Extra Stout beer vegan by installing new equipment at its main brewery in Dublin.
Some beers also contain honey, and—very rarely—milk products. Most countries exempt breweries from having to comply with ingredient labeling laws. This results in a situation where fining ingredients rarely appear on the label.
Vegan Beer Reviews
There are hundreds of delicious vegan beers brewed all over the world—more than enough choice to paralyze you with indecision.
So to get you started, here are my reviews of what I regard as some of the best beers, broken down by category. As much as possible, I’ve chosen beers that are widely-available, but from independently owned breweries. I’d have liked to choose nothing great beers from tiny independents, but there’s no point in featuring beers here that are impossible for most people to get.
That said, drinking locally is as important as eating locally. So I hope you’ll go out of your way to purchase vegan beers brewed by small independent breweries near you.
Lagers and Pilsners
Before heading into our capsule reviews, let me offer a bit more coverage of lagers and pilsners, since these are by far the world’s bestselling beers.
Just like stouts and porters are tough to tell apart, casual beer drinkers can’t differentiate a lager from a pilsner. In America, the flagship brands of the largest breweries are all Lagers: think Budweiser, Coors, and Miller beer. They all taste pretty much the same. Germans and Canadians drink lots of lager and claim their beer is heartier than American beer. But that’s like comparing a 98-pound weakling to a 102-pound weakling.
Finally, many lagers like Beck’s and Heinekin come in pretty green bottles. Avoid beer bottled in either green or clear glass. These bottles allow in ultraviolet light that gives your beer a skunky flavor.
Recommended Vegan Lagers and Pilsners
The beers recommended below are of the same style as the mass market beers listed at the start of this guide. But they’re brewed in smaller quantities, and often using higher-quality ingredients. Many mass-market beers use corn syrup, which has no place in beer as far as I’m concerned.
Sapporo or Kirin or Asahi lagers: The flagship versions from these breweries are all well-made beers, although most cans sold outside Japan are brewed elsewhere under contract. Regardless, this is as good as lager gets. I adore vegan sushi, but will turn it down unless I can have a Japanese lager to accompany it.Sam Adams Boston Lager: As good as lager beer gets, and one of the best beers brewed in New England.Pabst Blue Ribbon: The official beer of hipsters, and a fine choice if you’re drinking lagers. It’s dirt cheap and as good-tasting as any.Labatt Blue: A cheap Canadian pilsner, not worthy to be added to this list except for the fact that I wanted to include a lager form Canada. Does it taste any different from Budweiser or Miller? Not really.Pilsner Urquell: If you want to try the original Pilsner, which gets its name because it’s brewed in the Czech Republic’s town of Pilsen, this is it. If you’re in Europe there are other Czech beers just as good at half the price, but those brands are tough to find internationally.Modelo Especial: Not recommended outside of Mexico because it’s overpriced. But in Mexico you can get a 24 ounce ice cold bottle for under a buck, squeeze some lime into it, sit on the beach, and be happy. I regard Modelo as Mexico’s best lager. I love dark beers but Modelo’s “Negra” version doesn’t impress me.
Recommended Vegan Pale Ales and IPAs
These styles of beer were at the heart of the West Coast microbrew movement that took off in the 1980s and 1990s. They’re hoppier and have significantly more alcohol than the lager-style beers favored by brewing giants like Anheuser-Busch and Miller. Once you get a taste for these brews it’s hard to go back to lagers and Pilsners.
Take care when drinking IPAs, since they contain significantly more alcohol than any other variety of beer apart from Belgian ales.
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Torpedo IPA: If you’re new to pale ales and IPAs, these are the beers to try first. Both these brews are wildly popular and deservedly so. They each have beautifully floral hop flavors, and just the right amount of bitterness. The Torpedo IPA packs a strong 7.2 percent alcohol by volume. The beer gets its name from a “torpedo” chamber that loads the beer up with strong hop flavors.Bear Republic Racer 5: Hard to distinguish from Sierra Nevada’s Torpedo IPA, which given Torpedo’s quality amounts to a major compliment. 7.5 percent alcohol by volume. This is a flawless beer that also has one of the coolest looking labels of any microbrew.Lagunitas IPA: Another West Coast IPA that’s impossible to criticize. At 6.2 percent ABV, it’s got less alcohol than Torpedo or Racer 5. Lagunitas also makes several massively hopped specialty Imperial IPAs and other strong beers with ABV upwards of 8 and even 11 percent.Harpoon IPA: This could be the best beer brewed in the Northeast United States. It’s quite similar to the top West Coast IPAs, but a bit lighter at just 5.9 percent ABV.
Recommended Vegan Stouts and Porters
Both these styles are coffee black, and they’re hard to tell apart unless you really know your beers. The main difference is that porters generally contain more alcohol.
These are the ultimate beers to serve in the dead of winter. No surprise, then, that the best stouts and porters often come from places with miserable winters. These beers are best either unrefrigerated or minimally chilled. Despite their color and body, most stouts contain only about as much alcohol as lager beers. But several breweries make Imperial Stouts, which are extremely high in alcohol (usually 8 percent ABV and up).
Anchor Porter: I don’t have effusive praise for Anchor Steam, the beer that ushered in the microbrew revolution. But Anchor Porter may be the finest porter on the market, and it comes in Anchor’s gorgeous brown bottles, which rank alongside vintage Coke bottles as a design classic.Sierra Nevada Porter and Stout: Hard to tell them apart, hard to say which is better, and hard not to pour a second glass.Deschutes Obsidian Stout: A fine example of stout from one of the West Coast’s most consistently excellent breweries.Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout: from one of England’s oldest breweries. Robust but not overpowering, and often compared to freshly-baked bread.
Recommended Vegan Belgian Ales
These come in an astonishing diversity of styles, but the hallmark of this sort of beer involves the unique yeast varieties used by each brewer. These “top fermented” yeasts impart a distinctive flavor that sets Belgian ales apart from many other beers. Many of the top Belgian breweries are located at monasteries. Such beers typically have the word “abbey” on the label.
Belgian ales are affordable in Belgium and much of Europe, but are pricey elsewhere. Brewing giant Unibroue produces some excellent Belgium-style ales in Canada. Two delicious Unibroue varieties are Maudite and La Fin du Monde. While these offerings are quite expensive as beer goes, they’re still significantly cheaper than their counterparts imported from Belgium.
Most Belgian-style ales are quite strong, with many over 8 percent ABV. But Belgium’s breweries also churn out delicious sour fruity beers called lambics. These beers are usually quite low in alcohol content—usually under four percent.
Chimay: Maybe not the best Belgian ale but certainly the most widely-distributed (not counting the ever-disappointing albeit vegan-friendly Stella Artois). Available in four varieties: gold, red, white, and blue. Blue is most expensive but I consider white best.Augustijn Dark: Another delicious abbey ale, available in three varieties ranging from 7.5 to 9 percent ABV.Floreffe Prima Melior: A very dark, almost porter-colored abbey ale. Weighs in at 8 percent ABV.Gulden Draak: An exceedingly strong beer (10.5 ABV) with loads of interesting flavors, and pretty easy to find internationally. Not an abbey ale, but it does have a cool golden armor-wearing dragon on the label, which is something you don’t see every day. Available in two Belgian-style varieties, each at 10.5 percent ABV. They also make an imperial stout, that comes in at a scary 12 percent.