In many areas of life, being vegan can seem tough. Ascertaining whether or not a foodstuff or other material or product is vegan or not can take extensive research and a lot of effort. Our Is It Vegan? section can help, whilst we also have loads of information on things like vegan protein, the best vegan chocolate and much more besides.
One area that is often not all that problematic, and indeed one of our favourite things too, is booze. Whilst some may be shocked to learn that some wine is non-vegan as it is filtered using isinglass (i.e. the innards of fish), most spirits tend to be vegan and a lot of modern beer is too. What’s more, unlike many other food and drink companies, those that produce alcoholic beverages tend to be very good when it comes to labelling. Many vegan beers and wines are clearly marked as such so it is usually straightforward enough to find what you are looking for.
However, over the past few years we have seen more and more beers, including lactose in their ingredients. Does this make them non-vegan? What should you look out for? In a world where more and more food and drink products are being made vegan, why would brewers reverse that trend and start making previously vegan-friendly beers non-vegan?
What Is Lactose?
Lactose is the sugar that occurs naturally in dairy milk and can be found in cow’s milk, sheep’s milk and goat’s milk (among others). It is found in most products made from milk, such as milk chocolate, cheese, butter, ice cream and yoghurt. We could bore you with a lot more information about how it is digested, its chemical structure, the issue of intolerance and much more but none of that is hugely relevant here.
Before we look at what is relevant, though, we should point out that lactose-free does not, by any stretch of the imagination, equate to vegan. Many non-vegan items do not contain lactose. In addition, even food and drink made with dairy milk may have the lactose removed, or broken down. This is lactose free but the base product, the milk itself, is still from an animal and still absolutely non-vegan.
Returning to the matter at hand though, as far as this article is concerned, the key thing to note is that lactose always originates from dairy milk. In other words, it is always non-vegan but whilst it is “inherent to the milk of mammals (it) can also be isolated from this original source and crystallized”, ready to be used in a whole range of products. This means that lactose is not something you only have to be aware of when it comes to milk and dairy as it is added to many other items too. Those include baked goods, soups, sauces, meat products, desserts, fudges and caramels … and beer.
Why Is Lactose Added to Beer?
Up until very recently, perhaps around 2018 or 2019, lactose was by and large reserved for stouts, in particular milk stouts, sometimes known as sweet stouts. To use lactose in other beer styles was frowned upon by many in the industry. However, it was not commonly done anyway because there was no real need to use it.
Lactose is especially useful when it comes to brewing because, unlike most other sugars, it does not ferment and turn to alcohol. This means that if brewers add lactose, it remains intact in the end drink, lending its properties to the beer.
What are those properties we hear you drunkenly cry over a pint of vegan beer? Well, unsurprisingly, sweetness, but also body and mouthfeel. They helped give stouts and similar beers that creamy “texture” and a little bit of sweetness to offset some of the traditional bitter flavours. But many other beer styles, especially some of the most popular modern ones, such as various types of pale ales, tend to be crisp and bitter, rather than sweet and creamy. So, why the sudden increase in lactose use?
Perhaps the biggest driver of more brewers using lactose is simply experimentation. The world of modern, craft beer is all about pushing boundaries and trying new things. The only rule of craft beer is there ain’t no rules. That and you should ideally have tattoos and a beard (whether man, woman, child or anything else!).
New styles of beer are being created whilst old ones evolve, with beers, such as pastry stouts, milkshake IPAs, fruity weisse beers and sour gose beers, all increasingly using lactose. It is reasonably obvious why the first two styles would use lactose, whilst the others use it to balance flavours, especially sourness, and also to add depth and body to beers that otherwise might be rather thin.
Hazy IPAs and New England IPAs (arguably the same thing but that’s a debate for the beer geeks) also increasingly use lactose. This is for many of the same reasons and also to help carry some of the fruitier flavours common to them.
Low & No Alcohol
One of the biggest areas of growth in the beer world has been with no- and low-alcohol drinks. Many confirmed, card-carrying members of the serious drinkers’ club may be appalled at this but more and more people are turning to these drinks, largely for physical and mental health reasons.
These products have improved dramatically in recent years and whilst most would not stand up to the best “normal” beers in a blind taste test, and of course none will get you tipsy (which is the point, after all… but, of course, please drink responsibly!), many are palatable enough. Creating a good beer without alcohol is a major challenge for brewers. However, it is one that provides increasingly sizeable rewards and so they have been trying to improve their alcohol free (AF) and low alcohol offerings.
As well as helping brewers add flavour to beer, alcohol also adds body. Take it out, and the beers can often seem thin and so in many ways, lactose is an obvious choice. It gives a beer a lot more weight and heft, filling it out with a mouthfeel more akin to a typical alcohol-containing ale. All is well and good for non-vegans, but rather irritating for those on a plant-based diet who also want to reduce their alcohol intake.
Several popular AF beers have changed from being vegan to non-vegan and this is almost always down to the addition of lactose. One of the biggest names in UK craft beer Brewdog, still offer an AF vegan beer in the shape of Nanny State but it is, in our opinion, appalling. The thing that is wrong with it is that total lack of body. It is just thin and bland, a little like drinking watered-down beer, not something anyone wants to do.
Brewdog offer a number of other AF beers, including versions of Hazy Jane, Punk, Elvis Juice and Lost but all of these now contain lactose. We are not 100% sure if they have changed the recipes for these beers, or whether, in fact, they were always non-vegan. However, the key thing is that they most certainly are unsuitable for vegans now.
The good news is that any beers that contain lactose will make it clear among their ingredients, in part due to the issue of intolerances. So, spotting which beers to avoid should be easy enough, but what AF beers are vegan?
Vegan Beers with No or Low Alcohol
The following is a very small selection of beers that are currently both alcohol free (or contain limited amounts of the good stuff!) and also suitable for vegans. We’ve included our favourites, plus one that we certainly won’t be drinking again. Ever! As usual, this information is correct to the best of our knowledge but is subject to change so always check before you dive in!
- Brooklyn Special Effects – This hoppy lager is our favourite alcohol-free vegan option and beats all others hands down. Non-vegan friends agree that it is a cracking AF option too and it even uses vegan glue on the label!
- Erdinger Alkoholfrei – Another very good choice with no lactose and added B vitamins too.
- Stella Artois (AF) – Vegan and very drinkable!
- Heineken 0.0 (Blue) – One of the best AF lagers though not all that different from the Stella option.
- Lucky Saint – Passable lager from Germany that ticks the two key boxes.
- Nanny State – Thin and unappealing Brewdog option.
Lactose in Beer Conclusions
Lactose has long been an ingredient that vegans have needed to look out for in their beer. However, whilst it has generally only been used to lend creaminess to beers like stouts, things have changed over the past few years. Most vegans would know to check a beer described as a “milk” stout but would they think to check the ingredients or vegan labelling of a strawberry sour, or a hazy IPA?
We have previously said that most modern beers, by which we mean craft products rather than mass-market ones, are vegan unless they obviously contain an animal-derived ingredient, such as honey, milk, cream or even stranger foods, such as bacon. Whilst this may still be true, there are certainly far more beers that contain lactose nowadays. As this is always isolated from animal milk, any beers containing lactose are not vegan.
There are some styles that are generally more likely to have lactose than others. As well as stouts, alcohol free beers (and low alcohol ones) are the most common offenders. This is because the lactose is used to replace the body and weight that alcohol normally provides.
However, it is certainly not necessary to avoid all stouts or all low alcohol beers. Most vegan beers are clearly labelled, whilst any that include lactose will always list it among their ingredients. All in all, this means that with just the minimum of fuss, a vegan can find a suitable beer no matter what they are after, so cheers to that!