By Kris McDowell
For the Oregon Beer Growler
For some it's what’s not in their beer that matters most. If you are or have friends and family that are vegan, then a lack of animal products in your beer is important. Many commercially-brewed beers are vegan, and most brewers are happy to tell you if theirs are, especially in Portland where the status of a product being vegan is an often-asked one. However, if you're interested in making your own vegan beer it may be easier than you think.
The main component that generally keeps a beer from being vegan is the use of an animal-based fining/clarifying agent. Isinglass, made from the air bladders of fish, is the most common fining agent although gelatin, made from cow and horse hooves, is also sometimes used. Both are available at homebrewing shops and from online retailers, as are two vegan options that are equally effective.
One option is Biofine Clear, a liquid made from silicic acid, and another is Polyclar, a powdered, insoluble plastic polymer. Both will cause yeast and other haze-causing particles to drop out and won't add significant cost to your beer. Additionally, homebrewers may opt to skip the use of a fining agent and rely on racking and cold crashing to achieve the desired level of clarity.
On the topic of clarity, the style of beer that you choose to make will have an impact on whether clarity is important. Making a pilsner? Then you'll be looking for a very clear finished product. Making a hefeweizen? Here you might get some skeptical looks unless your beer is slightly hazy. Unless you're planning to enter your beer in a competition, make it the way you like it. That's the great thing about making your own beer; personal preference trumps just about anything else.
Another area of consideration to note is that there are a couple of non-vegan ingredients that are called for in some recipes. Those can easily be avoided by keeping them in mind during your recipe selection or formulation. The first is lactose, which provides both sweetness and mouthfeel in beers such as milk or sweet stouts. Honey is another ingredient you'd want to avoid, but keep in mind that many beers with honey in their name may not contain actual honey. The name may simply be referring to the malt used and/or the color of the beer.
Finally, a discussion about vegan beer wouldn't be complete without addressing the fact that yeast is required in the making of beer, just as it is required in the making of other fermented products like kombucha. Back in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, before people had a full understanding of the process of making beer and yeast was not known about, spontaneous fermentation "just happened" due to wild yeasts in the air. These days there are a wide variety of yeast strains available. And while some may consider products made with yeast to be non-vegan, perhaps their role in helping you make beer can be seen as divine providence. By brewing beer you are providing the yeast with a happy home and plenty of food in exchange for its labor -- turning wort into beer.
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