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.

It may feel like the mainstream brewers have us over a barrel but the smaller independents are on the rise. Joanna Long explains how to find 


This report includes:

  • Ethical and environmental ratings for 44 bottled and canned beers and lagers
  • Best Buy recommendations
  • Fairtrade and vegan beer
  • making your own beer

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Our ratings are live updated scores from our primary research database. They are based on primary and secondary research across 23 categories - 17 negative categories and 6 positive ones (Company Ethos and Product Sustainability). Find out more about our ethical ratings


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Best Buys

as of October 2017

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


Best buys are the smaller, vegan brewers which received our best rating for Supply Chain Management: Little Valley, Pitfield’s, Atlantic, Liverpool Organic.


We also recommend the other brands in our vegan beers table: Samuel Smith, Batemans, Marble Brewery, Stroud Brewery.


Of the mainstream brands BrewDog is our recommended buy.


to buy


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Last updated: October 2017 






Ethical Guide to Beer


The big issues weighing on your pint are water consumption, isinglass and GM.

Fortunately, with the rise of small co-operative and community breweries, it has never been easier to find a pint with a clear conscience. 


Image: Beer 



Environmental Impact of Beer Production



Water Footprint


The basic components of beer are barley, yeast and water. Factoring the water footprint of barley (1,420 litres/kg) plus the water used in brewing, we find that it takes around 298 litres of water to make one litre of beer, roughly 169 litres per pint. This is an optimistic figure as it excludes the water footprint of other ingredients involved in manufacturing beer, including hops.

Water consumption, and how to reduce it, is on the agenda for most of the big brewers, some of which have set ambitious targets for reducing the hectolitres of water used to manufacture each hectolitre of beer (hl/hl):

  • AB InBev: 3.2 hl/hl by 2017
  • Heineken: 3.5 hl/hl by 2020
  • Molson Coors: 2.8 hl/hl by 2025
  • Carlsberg: 1.7hl/hl by 2030


Carbon Footprint


Transporting all of these hectolitres raises the question of beer’s carbon footprint. Marston’s website states that its distribution fleet covered 6.4 million miles in 2016 (“the equivalent of travelling around the earth over 300 times”), generating 9,487 tonnes of CO2 emissions in the process. Molson Coors, which brews and distributes over a third of the UK’s beer,[1] produced direct emissions of 39,197 metric tonnes from its UK operations. That would almost get you to Venus!

The Society of Independent Brewers puts the impact of the UK’s alcohol production and consumption (which is mostly beer) at around 1.5% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions and efforts by the big brewers to address this environmental impact are limited. Only AB InBev, Molson Coors and Heineken had at least two future quantified targets regarding environmental performance. The others had just one or, more often, none at all.

The growing popularity of American craft beer isn’t helping the situation. According to figures released earlier this year by the Brewers Association, the UK imported over 460,000 barrels of US craft beer in 2016. That was over 10% of all US craft beer exports, second only to Canada (54.8%).



One of the most comprehensive studies into the carbon footprint of beer, carried out in 2008 by Climate Conservancy, found that glass accounted for a fifth (21%) of the lifecycle carbon emissions of a 6-pack of ale, well ahead of distribution (8.4%). In his 2010 book How Bad Are Bananas?, Mike Berners-Lee estimated that the footprint of a pint of locally brewed cask ale was 300g CO2e, with 3% of that consumed by packaging, contrasted with 900g CO2e for a mainstream bottled beer.

Berners-Lee didn’t give a breakdown of the mainstream beer’s carbon footprint and, of course, any figures vary between breweries, but the question of packaging remains.

Aluminium is lighter than glass, which reduces transportation costs, and recycling it consumes only 8% of the energy that would have been used to make a new can. On the other hand, the original manufacture of aluminium involves mining bauxite and also the rates of recycling aluminium the UK are only 41%. Although heavier, glass can be endlessly recycled with no degradation of quality and UK rates of recycling are high: over 67%. Glass can also be reused without leaching chemicals.

If you’re having a party, you might want to consider ordering a polypin from your local brewery. These are plastic versions of the normal 20 litre ‘pin’ cask and are available in various, more portable, sizes. Although unlikely to be recyclable, polypins are re-usable.





Why isn't all beer vegan?


You may have assumed, not unreasonably, that a drink made of hops, yeast and water was already vegan, but the issue lies in the process of removing the yeast haze from beer after fermentation. 

This process is called ‘fining’ and often employs isinglass, a substance derived from the dried swim bladders of fish. Isinglass is rich in collagen, which binds to yeast cells in the beer and settles at the bottom of the cask. This settling process happens without isinglass, just more slowly: it can take 48-72 hours for an unfined beer to settle, compared with less than 24 for fined beer. 


Why is vegan draught beer less common?

These vastly different rates of settling tend to be the reason why vegan draught beer is less common than bottled beer (the exception being Guinness, which has gone vegan in draught form first). Because unfined casks need longer to settle, a pub would need a lot of storage space to keep the taps flowing with vegan beer as each barrel needs to be in situ for longer before serving.


So, am I drinking fish guts?

Very little isinglass remains in the beer that is eventually drunk, but many find the use of the substance at all in the production process unacceptable. People could just drink slightly cloudy beer. This was the general way of things in ‘ye olde’ times, when beer was drunk from a shared, earthenware bowl. But with the advent of the glass (and basic hygiene) came the question ‘what’s that floating in my beer?’ The growth of the craft beer and home brew movements have brought with them a greater market for unadulterated ales and a greater tolerance of cloudy beer, all of which could be good news for vegetarians and vegans.

On our score table, breweries certified by the Vegan Society as producing only vegan beer received a positive Company Ethos mark. Those with some certified vegan products received a full product sustainability mark, while those marketing their products as vegan but not officially certified received half a product sustainability mark.

Of the major bigger brands, only BrewDog and Guinness (draught) are suitable for vegans. These are labelled [V] on the table.




Genetic modification

Although the EU prohibits the use of GM ingredients in products sold in Europe, genetic modification remains an issue among mainstream brewers who operate in markets around the world. Researchers from Carlsberg’s in-house laboratory have been involved in the sequencing of the barley genome. Similarly, AB InBev’s Global Barley Research Team develops “new malt barley varieties that increase growers’ productivity” in the name of water efficiency, pest resistance and “climate resilience.” These two companies therefore lost a whole mark on the table under Controversial Technologies.

Even those not directly involved in genetic engineering may have GM ingredients in their supply chains. Molson Coors’ GM policy, for example, states that in areas of the world where GMO food products are approved for use and widely available, such as North America, Molson Coors’ suppliers “cannot guarantee that the corn (maize) products that we also use in brewing are GMO free.” Molson Coors and others with no company-wide GM-free policy lost half a mark under Controversial Technologies.




Table highlights


Of the mainstream companies, BrewDog, Molson Coors and Asahi Group were the only companies to achieve an Ethical Consumer score of 10 or more. Their position at the top of the table has less to do with virtuous behaviour on their part and more to do with the political activities and disrespect for human rights shown by other companies. Carlsberg, Heineken, AB InBev and Diageo, for example, each had eight or more subsidiaries in oppressive regimes and therefore lost whole marks under Human Rights. Carlsberg was in last place, with operations in ten oppressive regimes: Belarus, China, India, Kazakhstan, Laos, Myanmar, Russia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam.

In 2016, AB InBev spent the most on gaining political influence in the United States with a total of $620,084, going to both Republican and Democratic parties, and $3.8 million spent lobbying on bills relating to the brewing sector.

Along with Carlsberg and Heineken, AB InBev was also a member of the World Economic Forum, an international corporate lobby group which exerts undue corporate influence on policy-makers in favour of market solutions that are potentially detrimental to the environment and human rights.

Heineken and Diageo were also members of several other corporate lobby groups, including the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the European Roundtable of Industrialists and the American Chamber of Commerce. All of these companies lost a mark under Political Activities. 


Image: Who Makes What


On the bright side, AB InBev received our best rating for environmental reporting. It was the only major brewer to do so though.

Marston’s, Fuller, Smith and Turner, and Greene King all run pubs around the UK that serve food and were rated under our Animal Rights category for serving meat not labelled as organic or free range, and under our Palm Oil category as this ingredient is prevalent in the catering industry.

With a few exceptions, all the companies in our guide have more brands than we can comfortably fit on our table (see above). 




The smaller breweries

The explosion of small breweries in recent years has made it impossible to include them all. So we decided to focus on breweries producing vegan and/or organic beer. We’ve also tried to have a spread of companies from across the UK so that you can buy locally as much as possible, although many of the beers are also available online. 




Transparency isn’t the strong suit of these small breweries – none had environmental reports or supply chain policies – but most were spared a worst rating by virtue of being small (turnover below £10.2 million) and having their entire product range certified organic (which contains some protections for workers’ rights). On the other hand, the majority of the small breweries received positive Company Ethos marks for having entirely vegan or organic ranges, as well as sustainability marks for vegan and organic products.


Organic and Fairtrade

Organic ale is relatively easy to get hold of from the smaller breweries, while the big players have been slower to cotton on. Organic products are labelled [O] on the table. Breweries that are certified as wholly organic by the Soil Association




DIY alternatives


As ever, you can escape many of the dilemmas of emissions, packaging and genetic modification by joining the growing homebrew movement. Our homebrewer-in-residence, Richard Livings of the Fair Tax Mark, recommends that absolute beginners visit their local homebrew supplies shop for some friendly, face-to-face advice. There are also lots of online forums, shops and recipes, here are some starters:


Community brewing

If you like beer and gardening but don’t want to brew your own, there is a growing trend for community brewing.

Crystal Palace Transition Town runs an initiative called The Palace Pint where locals grow hops in their gardens and then in autumn hand them all in for brewing by a micro-brewery in neighbouring Penge. The hops are a dwarf variety (Prima Donna), which grow to just 7-8ft and so are suitable for most gardens or patios. Growers can exchange tips and advice throughout the year on the Palace Pint Facebook page and then get together for ‘a bit of a do’ once the beer is brewed!


The New Lion in Totnes 

New Lion Brewery is currently building its own network of local hop growers and also creates ‘collaborative’ brews in partnership with local organisations. Its ‘Circular Stout’, for instance, was infused with oyster mushrooms grown by sustainable mushroom farmers, GroCycle, on coffee grounds, spent hops and grains. A 2014 Sweet Chestnut Ale was created using ingredients from the Agroforestry Research Trust. These creations don’t always make it as far as a bottle, so if you’re interested in a sip then you need to join.

Stroud Brewery, featured on our small breweries table, has an ale made using locally-grown hops: Brewers Garden. It started after the brewery’s founder, Greg Pilley, brewed an ale using green hops grown next to the brewery. The result was so popular that customers offered to grow hops in their gardens and allotments to brew it again the following year. The brewery now has a community of 40-50 local growers.


Stroud Brewery

Delivery of hops for Stroud Brewery’s 2016 batch of Brewers Garden



Every year, in the second week in September, growers cut the plant whole and bring it to the brewery where they collectively pick the hops. The ale is usually brewed the same day, fermented for a week and then cask conditioned for a further week before being ready to drink. Growers get a complimentary 9-pint polypin, while the rest is bottled or distributed to pubs. The brew will probably be gone by the time you are reading this but if you’re in the Stroud area and want to become part of the growing network, simply email and they’ll send you a plant.

You can also find or start a community brewing initiative near you via



Co-operative brewing


There are an increasing number of co-operative breweries around the UK. With the ongoing decline of local pubs and village breweries, communities have been coming together to save their favourite brews and beer houses. The poster-child of this movement is the Hesket Newmarket Brewery Co-operative in Cumbria, which was set up in 1999 to take over the local pub and brewery after the couple who were running them announced their plans to retire.

Jim and Liz Fearnley ran the Old Crown pub in Hesket Newmarket and, in 1988, started a brewery in a converted barn out the back. The beers they brewed were exclusively for the Old Crown, which soon became a place of pilgrimage for real ale enthusiasts. Gradually, as the brewery’s reputation spread, other pubs across Cumbria expressed interest in the beers and a small network of outlets was established. The Fearnleys sold the pub in 1995 to concentrate on the brewery and a few years later were looking to retire entirely.

The news of the village brewery’s potential closure brought together a group of enthusiasts to work out how best to ensure its survival. And, lo, the Hesket Newmarket Brewery Co-operative was born.

The co-op is a community enterprise through which real ale enthusiasts, who either live locally or have local connections, own equal shares in the brewery. Over the years, the number of shareholders has grown to around 100, with more on the waiting list.

The brewery still operates from its barn setting, although the original modified dairy tanks have been replaced by a new brewing plant capable of producing 50 barrels (nearly 15,000 pints) a week. A new temperature-controlled storage facility was later built alongside and opened in 2004 by none other than Prince Charles, who popped back a couple of years later to investigate some new bottling facilities.

The brewery maintains close ties with the Old Crown, which has also become a co-operative, each owning a share in the other.

If you’re in Cumbria you can enjoy a pint of Hesket Newmarket at the Old Crown, of course, but also at a number of other pubs listed on the brewery’s website.


Image: Coop Breweries






1.  Beer – UK – December 2016, Mintel




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