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.
Environmental Impact of Beer Production
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
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, 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 [A] on the table.
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.
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.
Who makes what?
|AB InBev||Budweiser, Bass, Boddingtons, Brahma|
|AB InBev / Molson Coors||Beck's, Corona Extra, Hoegaarden, Leffe, Pilsner Urquell, Stella Artois|
|Carlsberg||Carlsberg, Holsten Pils, San Miguel, Special Brew, Tetley's, Brooklyn, Beerlao, Tuborg, Warsteiner|
|Diageo||Guiness, Harp, Tusker|
|Greene King||Greene King IPA, Old Speckled Hen, Abbot Ale, Belhaven|
|Heineken||Heineken, Amstel, Foster's, John Smith's, Murphy's Stout, Kronenbourg 1664 (brewing)|
|Marston's||Marston's, Lancaster Bomber, Thwaites, Wainwright|
|Molson Coors||Carling, Coors, Cobra, Staropramen, Miller|
|Molson Coors / Asahi Group||Grolsch, Peroni, Nastro Azzuro|
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.