Everything You Need To Know About Vegan Beer

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Tony Yanow runs around Los Angeles maniacally three days before his Vegan Beer and Food Festival hits Portland for the first time. He’s taking care of last minute errands, completing business deals, and attending to family matters before flying from LAX to PDX the next day. Yanow, the founder of the festival, is also affiliated with L.A.’s craft brewery Golden Road Brewing and is a longtime veg-head. But, he says with a hint of deadpan humor in between ignoring three other incoming calls, “Being vegan isn’t something that’s necessarily associated with fun.”

The fest itself, after growing rapidly in Los Angeles for the past five years, has now arrived in Portland, and plans to move to other U.S. cities, as well. It began as a way to unite vegans and like-minded consumers, and of course, highlight vegan beers. And this past weekend, Yanow and the Vegan Beer and Food Festival hosted 36 breweries and cider companies with vegan offerings at the Portland kick-off event.

While 36 choices may seem like a lot, they actually represent a small percentage of the total vegan beers on the market. Because luckily for those who have chosen to remove meat, poultry, fish, and other animal-derived products from their diets (furnishings, wardrobes, etc.), beer remains a pretty safe territory. In fact, affirms Yanow, “Most beer is vegan.”

Duke Geren, Director of Hearts and Minds for Bison Organic Beer (who essentially serves as the West Coast Sales Manager), elaborates, “the vast majority of your beers out there that exist in this day and age are malt, hops, water, and yeast.” Bison, an all-organic Berkeley, Calif.-based, certified B Corporation, brought its rich Chocolate Stout to Portland last week. Geren explains that because they use organic Peruvian cocoa powder that’s derived straight from the beans rather than post-produced, milk-based candy bars, their dark, smooth, chocolaty goodness is also vegan.

Both Yanow and Geren admit that some recent trends in small-batch beer can be detrimental to vegans, though. They rattle off the usual culprits that are pretty obvious from the names. There’s the lactose used in most milk stouts (Left Hand’s Milk Stout is a deliciously common example that’s okay for vegetarians, if not vegans), the honey in your favorite honey wheat (that can be as commonplace as Blue Moon’s summer seasonal), and the oysters actually used in some oyster stouts (like in Flying Dog’s Pearl Necklace Chesapeake Stout). Things get a little more eccentric with Denver-based Wynkoop Brewing Company’s Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout made with 25 pounds of roasted bull testicles, and the beer Yanow says has been aged in Mezcal barrels that used to hold chicken breasts.

And then, there’s bacon. Because the bacon fad has not yet seemed to die, Geren has to acknowledge, “the odd bacon beer” and its inherent not-vegan-appropriateness. Some bacon beers like Uncommon Brewers’ Bacon Brown Ale are actually brewed with pork fat. Additionally, Rogue’s now-retired Voodoo Doughnut Maple Bacon Ale lists Applewood-Smoked Bacon as one of its 13 ingredients. And while others like South Florida’s Funky Buddha’s special Maple Bacon Porter are not brewed with any pork or meat (“just thinking about meat in beer gives me the heebie-jeebies,” writes Marketing & Design Coordinator Felipe Lobón), they do use lactose sugar for sweetness and creaminess, making it acceptable for vegetarians, if not vegans.

But the most common technique that makes beers not safe for vegans involves the usage of fish bladders (also known as isinglass) or gelatin as binding agents during filtration. The refined fish bladders are used to clarify the beer, the process that removes excess yeast and reduces any aesthetic cloudiness. For some lower budget craft breweries, isinglass serves as an inexpensive and highly effective method to achieve the same results as many technological developments in filtration.

With Yanow at the helm of the Vegan Beer and Food Festival, specialty vegan beers are also becoming more available as those animal-based clarifying tools are decreasing. For the past five years (at Yanow’s request), Golden Road Brewing has produced an Almond Milk Stout especially for the festivals that mimics the thickness and weight of a stout, but without the milk fat.

“We get calls all the time from people like, ‘Can I get a keg of that for a house party?’ Bars ask for it. Everyone asks for it and we always say the same thing: ‘We make it once a year for Vegan Beer Festival and that’s it,’ says Yanow with a laugh before describing the product: “It’s a sweet, creamy stout and it’s got a little bit of coffee flavor, a little bit of chocolate flavor. Typically dryness and sweetness don’t go hand in hand, but it actually has elements of dryness and sweetness because it has a dry finish, but a sweet beginning.”

So, like with most precautions that vegans have to take, beer-drinkers need to heed obvious warnings and ask gently about filtration when consuming from smaller breweries. Because, says Yanow, “The truth is that most beer is vegan. And most big breweries—everyone always wants to hate on the big breweries—they can afford highly effective and efficient filtering systems, so most of them do not use [non-vegan methods]. It’s actually the craft breweries that are using them.”