Beer & Lager

Ethical shopping guide to Beer & Lager, from Ethical Consumer

Ethical shopping guide to Beer & Lager, from Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

We're sorry but the score table for this report has been removed because it is currently out of date. It will be restored when it has been updated later this year.

This report includes:

  • ethical and environmental ratings for 44 bottled and canned beers and lagers
  • Best Buy recommendations
  • the carbon and water footprint of beer
  • Fairtrade and vegan beer
  • organic beer directory
  • making your own beer
  • profiles of selected companies
  • the marketing practices of the drinks industry


Best Buys

as of November/December 2010

As our ratings are constantly updated, it is possible that company ratings on the score table may have changed since this report was written.

Usually we’ll suggest a ‘least worst’ Best Buy of the readily available mainstream brands featured on the scorecard. Happily in this market there’s no need with more than 700 micro-breweries in the UK and many smaller brands widely available. Not only do they offer genuinely lower carbon footprints for local customers, but they are also widely acknowledged to offer superior product quality in many cases.

More details about locating such beers appears in the ‘Alternatives to Mainstream Beers’ in the full text below. The very best of these smaller brewers also offer organic (and vegan) options, and 26 of them are listed in our Organic Beer Directory below.

to buy


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The problem with alcohol


Alcohol is no ordinary commodity. While for many of us it evokes pleasure and sociability, the harm it causes is massive and pervasive.

Beer is the third most popular drink in the world, after water and tea.(3) In the UK consumers spend more than £30bn annually on alcohol, accounting for an astonishing 5.8% of consumer expenditure.(4) That’s more than we spend on personal goods and services or power and fuel.


image: beer in ethical shopping guide


While many of us enjoy alcohol without problems, beneath such levels of consumption in the UK lie a 95% increase in alcoholic liver cirrhosis since 2000, according to the Royal College of Physicians, and an 18% increase from 2002-2005 in alcohol-related deaths. Alcohol consumption is responsible for 70% of peak A&E admittance. And according to the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) about one in four UK adults drinks too much – and are damaging, or at least risking, their health.



Regulating the industry

The drinks industry as a whole is closely involved in Government efforts to reduce problem drinking. However not everyone agrees that this cosy arrangement is without problems. In 2006 the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported that, following discussions with the industry, a 2005 Government standards document for the production and sale of alcoholic drinks omitted any “obvious mechanisms of monitoring, implementation and enforcement...”(1)

According to the Foundation, the industry was “opposed to policies that seek to control overall levels of alcohol consumption” and rejected “evidence linking levels of alcohol consumption to levels of harm.”

The alcohol industry spends £800m a year on advertising in the UK, 45 times more than the government spends educating people about the dangers of alcohol. Promotion is restricted by a voluntary code of practice banning advertising aimed at under-18s, encouragement of irresponsible drinking, and linking drinking with social or sexual success or with masculinity or femininity.

However, the British Medical Journal accused the industry this year of ‘pushing the boundaries’ of the code, and of using market research on 15- and 16-year-olds to guide their ad campaigns. Diageo brand Smirnoff Ice was reported to want ‘to become the most respected youth brand.’ In our Product Guides, the Irresponsible Marketing column will help identify some companies criticised in this respect.

A voluntary code of conduct is clearly not enough. According to evidence presented by Professor Michael Marmot alcohol consumption among 11- to 15-year- olds rises in line with increases in expenditure on alcohol advertising.(2)

Marmot attributes the increasing problems with alcohol consumption to the fall in the relative price of alcohol (which relative to income has halved since 1960), the removal of restrictions on alcohol sales, and increased promotion by the alcohol industry.

The latest advice from NICE about how to tackle problem drinking includes:

  • a possible ban on all alcohol advertising to protect children
  • a reduction in alcohol licensing hours
  • a minimum national price per unit of alcohol.

The Scottish government recently rejected a proposal on minimum pricing, as has the UK Coalition government. The drinks industry claimed it would unfairly target the poorest families. The Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) calculated a 45p minimum unit price (as suggested in Scotland) would cut consumption of shop-bought drinks by almost 25% in households with incomes below £10,000. But only 12% for those with incomes over £60,000.

And minimum pricing, warned the IFS, would hand millions to retailers while reducing tax revenue. The ‘social cost’ of alcohol in the UK, in ill health, crime, and social problems has been estimated at £20bn annually – while alcohol taxes provided £13.26bn.(13)

With alcohol consumption as old as civilisation itself we clearly can’t lay all of its associated harms at the door of industry. But nevertheless, society as a whole is arguably subsidising the harm associated with a highly profitable industry.





Beers and Lagers


While four giant brewing multinationals now dominate global sales, there is a flourishing of micro-breweries in the UK and USA. Bryony Moore and Rob Harrison explore the options for the ethical beer drinker.

When Stella-brewer InBev bought Anheuser-Busch for $52 billion in 2008, it gave the new company about 25% of the world’s beer sales. And it became the fifth biggest consumer company in the world. This was just the latest in a round of mergers which has seen four giant global brewers emerge – the others being SABMiller, Carlsberg and Heineken. The beer sector (along with wines and spirits) is particularly complicated as far as brand ownership goes, with the global giants operating joint ventures with each other, and buying out the namesake brands of their rivals.

Despite, or perhaps because of, this dominance of multinationals there are now hundreds of local brewers operating in the UK and a growing presence of organic brands.

To reflect this, our score table only rates the biggest ten brewers in the UK and an extended ‘Alternatives’ section below looks at how to search out the best options amongst the smaller players.



Carbon footprints


It does not take a rocket scientist to work out that a locally-brewed glass of draught beer will have a lower environmental impact than a can of lager from thousands of miles away. Recent research has, however, begun to put real figures on these differences. The indefatigable Mike Berners-Lee, author of ‘How bad are bananas?’, compares the carbon footprint of beers thus:(4)

One pint of locally-brewed draught beer in a pub = 300g CO2e
Local bottled beer from a shop or one pint of foreign beer in a pub = 500g CO2e
Bottled beer from a shop – extensively transported = 900g CO2e

Current thinking suggests that a sustainable lifestyle might be achievable at say 3 tonnes of CO2e per person per year.(4) This is 57kg per week or 8kg per day. If a quarter of this was allocated to food and drink, two bottles of local beer – not an excessive amount – would be an impractical half of the total daily carbon allowance. Some are suggesting that a properly sustainable lifestyle may require even lower emissions than this.

A separate US study, which gives a locally bottled beer a footprint of 531g of CO2e, confirms these results.(5) In this US research, nearly 30% of the emissions were from electricity used for fridges in the shops, and 20% from glass for the bottles.



Water footprint

Global pressure on fresh water resources is increasing, mainly through changes in global population and income levels, which have led to an increase in demand for water intensive products such as meat, sugar and cotton. Our consumption in the UK depends on water resources from all over the world to produce the goods we import: it is estimated that two-thirds of all UK water needs are ‘virtual’ i.e. used in the production of imported products.

A product’s ‘water footprint’ is the total volume of fresh water consumed, directly and indirectly, to produce a product. Beer is a very water intensive product. According to the Water Footprint Network, the global average water footprint for one glass (250ml) of beer is 75 litres. Most of this is water used in the production of barley.(8)

Companies discussing water use in their environmental reports is nothing new, but water footprinting has only relatively recently found its way onto the corporate sustainability agenda. Some beer multinationals are thankfully awakening, albeit slowly, to this enormous environmental issue.

WWF and SABMiller (both members of the Water Footprint Network) together published a report in 2010 which highlighted the immediate water risks impacting both SABMiller’s operations and river habitats in a number of countries as well as the necessary actions to manage the long term problems. The report concluded that 90% of the water footprint of beer occurred during the farming phase of its life cycle, so, perhaps you could say conveniently for SABMiller, the brewery was found to have a relatively low impact on water usage. According to SABMiller’s estimates, there will be a 40% gap between water supply and demand by 2030.

As well as SABMiller, Heineken is also a ‘regular partner’ of the Water Footprint Network. Although being a partner does not require any reporting or auditing.

In its own words, the UN’s CEO Water Mandate, launched in July 2007, is “a unique public-private initiative designed to assist companies in the development, implementation and disclosure of water sustainability policies and practices”. Participation in the CEO Water Mandate is restricted to existing corporate endorsers of the Global Compact, the UN’s corporate social responsibility initiative. Endorsing companies are required to report annually on their implementation progress.(9) Companies in this product guide who are signatories to the Water Mandate are Carlsberg Group, Heineken, Diageo, Molson Coors and SABMiller.

However, the Water Mandate has come under fire for allowing multinationals to reap the PR benefits of associating with the initiative, without making significant changes to their business practices. In March 2008, an international coalition of grassroots groups working on water issues wrote to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon raising the concern that all the companies participating in the Mandate have a vested interest in securing control over water sources and services in times of increasing water scarcity. The letter prompted the UN to develop a ‘Transparency Framework,’ which CEO Water Mandate critics found less than reassuring.(10)




Two pints of lager and some genetic modification please


According to campaign group GMO Compass, transgenic barley lines with immunity to a virus, resistance to fungal root rot, and improved brewing properties have been developed over the past several years. In particular, some brewers are keen to see development of a GM barley with heat-resistant enzymes. Currently, most beer makers purchase enzyme supplements to optimise brewing, but GM barley would make this unnecessary.

Field trials for GM barley were reportedly underway in Germany in 2006(9) and 2007: the latter being destroyed a few months after planting.(12) Another GM barley crop was sabotaged by activists in Iceland in 2009.(13)

Yeast, another crucial ingredient for brewers, has also been explored by scientists for potential GM ‘improvements’.




Alternatives to the mainstream beers




That there is a thriving alternative market of smaller local brewers in the UK is to some degree down to the success of organised consumer campaigning. The Campaign for Real Ale was founded in 1971 and it has grown to become, with its 115,000 members, one of the most successful consumer campaign groups in the country. Its lobbying for lower taxes for smaller brewers and against key restrictions within brewer-owned pubs has done much to keep a wide variety of manufacturers trading in a highly competitive market with some very large dominant players.

A key element to its approach is its Good Beer Guide. The Guide contains complete entries for over 4,500 pubs, giving details of food, opening hours, beer gardens, accommodation, transport links, pub history, disabled access and facilities for families.


Save Our Pubs

With a very high rate of pub closures – more than 30 per week currently taking place within the UK – one of CAMRA’s main campaigns this year is ‘Save Our Pubs’. Its website contains a list of resources on how to mount local campaigns and strategies.




There is a thriving market of micro-brewing operations in the UK offering an aternative to the multinational giants. Not least because of the carbon footprint issues discussed above, a brewery local to you will almost always be a better ethical option than offerings from the big brewers covered on the above table. We won’t list all 700 here when CAMRA’s ubiquitous Good Beer Guide does the job for us. For the technologically cutting-edge, CAMRA also provides this information by way of an iPhone app.
Within these smaller local brewers are a subset trying to address additional ethical issues which we look at below.




According to campaign group Sustain, the average hop farmer is estimated to spray the crop up to fourteen times a year with often fifteen different pesticides.(6) The Ecologist adds that 23 organofluorine pesticides were approved for use on malting barley. And in 2004 the government found 30 different pesticide residues in beer samples it looked at.(7)

The number of brewers choosing to brew organic beer has increased substantially in the last few years. The Soil Association’s hard-to-find online organic marketplace now lists more than 90 local organic brewers by region. It can be found by doing a web search for “soil association source marketplace” – use the map and links on the right to select your local area.

We have compiled our own somewhat shorter Directory of Organic Beers which all have national distribution through one of four specialist organic delivery companies.


Organic Beer Directory

Made in
Atlantic Brewery
Angel Lager
Black Isle
Duchy Originals
Golden Promise
Freeminer Premium
Fuller's Honey Dew
Little Valley
Hepworth Blonde
Pinkus/Mullers lagerbier
Bildenburger Weisse
Pitfield (eco-warrior etc)
Ridgeway Rob
Sam Smiths
Stinger (Badger)
St Peter's
West Yorkshire
Vintage Roots
Whitstable Bay Ale






There are now ten Fairtrade Foundation-labelled beers from six companies:
• Freeminer - Organic Honey Dipper
• Little Valley Brewery - Ginger Pale Ale
• Mongozo - Banana Beer, Mango Beer, Coconut Beer, Quinoa Beer
• Co-op - Bumble Bee Ale and Fairtrade Organic Ale
• Westerham Brewery Co - Freedom Ale
• Wychwood - Bee Wyched Honey’d Ale

The Fairtrade label often applies to an unusual element like honey, ginger or indeed bananas. Freeminer also appears in the Organic Directory.





Vegan and vegetarian campaigners have put together some sophisticated tools to help identify acceptable beers. The most comprehensive guide is online at: which lists over 1000 vegan-friendly beers, wines and spirits. Perhaps unsurprisingly by now, it also has a version for the iPhone too.
For lovers of print, The Vegan Society (tel. 0121 523 1730 ) produces the Animal Free Shopper which lists around 500 beers.




Making your own beer and wine


Making your own wine and beer is a good way to use up surplus gluts if you grow your own fruit, or to utilise the many wild plants that surround us, even in cities. And you don’t have to use the more obvious ingredients – beer can be made from camomile, lettuce and nettles, while wine has been made from Earl Grey tea, tomatoes and mushrooms (not all at once!). The fruit doesn’t even have to be ripe; umeshu is a liqueur made from steeping green plums with alcohol and sugar, and a great way of using up unripe fruit.

Image: crate of beers in ethical shopping guide


The Urban Wine Company in South London grew from just such beginnings. In 2007 a group of friends in Tooting, South London pooled their grape crops and pressed 20 bottles of ‘Chateau Tooting - Furzedown Blush’. It now acts as a collective for grape growers all over London and the South East, collecting their crop and delivering it back as wine. The 2009 harvest yielded over 1.5 tonnes of grapes and a thousand bottles of wine. The Urban Wine Company describes itself as being “on a mission to reach more urban grape growers and plant vines across the capital.”

While it may be harder to grow grapes further north, other crops can be collected communally and turned into delicious drinks – the most obvious example being apple cider. You can check the website of your local Abundance group for information about finding local free fruit. There are at least ten Abundance groups nationally, too many to list here, but you can find links to their sites at

Making your own has a lower carbon footprint than buying booze. The ingredients are local and full bottles are not being moved around the globe. Plus, if it’s your own fruit, you can grow it using organic methods. But it does have its own environmental footprint, especially the use of boiling water and sterilising solutions for sterilising bottles. So if possible do your sterilising in batches. Chemipro Oxy is being marketed as an environmentally friendly steriliser that uses active oxygen rather than the more usual chlorine or sulphur dioxide sterilising agents.

Bear in mind that different drinks take significantly different lengths of time to prepare. Nettle beer only takes a couple of weeks, whilst people recommend leaving elderberry wine for a couple of years to do it justice.

There is a veritable cornucopia of books for the home tipple producer, including Winemaking the Natural Way (by Ian Ball, ISBN 0716020998) and Self-sufficiency Home Brewing by John Parkes (ISBN 184773460X).



Online resources include:

  • Search ‘How to turn your excess fruit and veg into wine’ for recipes.
  • ‘Andy Hamilton’s Home Brewing’ on YouTube for a demonstration of camomile beer
  • for recipes for the unexpected wines mentioned above (apparently the mushroom wine tastes almost like a conventional white wine).




Company profiles


Any companies in this buyers’ guide which made no mention of water use in their environmental reports could not receive a best rating in our environmental reporting category. Fuller and Smith & Turner made no mention of water at all.

In their latest environmental reports Diageo and SABMiller both mention water use throughout their supply chains (SABMiller’s joint report with WWF reveals the water footprint of its products in the different countries of manufacture), but both have only set targets for their own direct operations.

Heineken, Diageo, Molson Coors and SABMiller all receive marks in the Political Activities column on the table. A Heineken executive sits on the European Round Table of Industrialists, a corporate lobby group and in 2005 Scottish & Newcastle, which was recently taken over by Heineken, was one of a number of companies which had been involved in seconding staff to and from the Scottish Executive. Diageo is a member of the International Chamber of Commerce lobby group, made political donations in 2007 totalling $2.2m and received a lower-middle rating in a SustainAbility/WWF report. Molson Coors had made donations to the US Republican and Democratic parties in 2006. SABMiller receives a negative mark in this column because it is a member of the World Economic Forum.

SABMiller also picks up a full mark for Irresponsible Marketing due to Altria’s substantial shareholding in the company (27%). Altria (formerly Philip Morris) has been criticised for tobacco marketing.

Carlsberg stated on their website that it was “normal practice to apply genetic engineering in basic research projects carried out at the Carlsberg Research Centre”.






1 Alcohol strategy and the drinks industry: a partnership for preventions? Rob Baggott, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, December 2006. 

2 How Can We Reduce The Burden? Michael Marmot, Presentation at the Royal College of Physicians, 13 November 2007. 

3 The Institute of Alcohol Studies study 2008; revenue figures for 2004.

4 Mike Berners-Lee. How bad are bananas? Profile Books 2010 

5 The Carbon Footprint of Fat Tire Amber Ale: The Climate Conservancy 2008 

6 Bitter Harvest: Bitter Beer viewed 23/9/10 

7 Ecologist August 2008 To your health - Organic Beer! 


9. › Issue








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