Ethical Beer & Lager

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 70 beer and lager brands.

We look at vegan beers, sustainable brewing, compare the small brewers and the multinationals, how to choose a lower impact beer and give our recommended buys.

About 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.

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What to buy

What to look for when buying beer and lager:

  • Is it vegan? Surprisingly, most beer isn't vegan or even vegetarian! A substance called Isinglass is used to remove yeast from beer. Isinglass is made from fishes' swim bladders, so go for a vegan brand to avoid this.

  • Is it local? Going for beer from local breweries puts money back into the local economy and cuts down on the food miles and thereby carbon impacts. It also means that you are less likely to be funding problems associated with big multinationals, such as tax avoidance and the development of GMOs.

  • Is it home brewed? You can escape many of the dilemmas of emissions, packaging and genetic modification by joining the growing homebrew movement. Making your own beer is surprisingly easy and perhaps one of the most ethical options.

Subscribe to see which companies we recommend as Best Buys and why 

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying beer and larger:

  • Are the ingredients grown using pesticides? Synthetic pesticides and herbicides threaten insect populations, contaminate water sources and can have ecosystem-wide knock-on effects. Look for organic certification to avoid ingredients grown with these chemicals, and to support farming methods that are more in tune with nature.

  • Is it funding human rights abuses? Some of the companies involved in this guide have been linked to serious human rights abuses – from land grabs and water hoarding, to sexual assault and racist advertising.

Subscribe to see which companies to avoid and why

Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20) Ratings Categories Positive Scores

Our Analysis

Although alcohol consumption in the UK has declined during the pandemic, sales of branded bottles and cans of beer and lager from supermarkets have soared.

The market is dominated by six giant multinationals, many of which have displayed dubious ethics, as well as continuing to fall short when it comes to addressing their carbon emissions. Below we discuss their climate ratings.

Luckily, there are also more than 2,000 smaller local craft brewers out there to choose from, some of which are really innovating when it comes to ethical options.

We couldn't do ethical checks on them all, so we have picked a handful by way of example which are doing something particularly interesting such as using food waste in the brewing process, are certified organic or vegan, or are innovating around low-carbon solutions.

We may not have reviewed them, but the small craft brewer near you may often be your most ethical option.

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.

Pie chart of carbon footprint of beer

Choosing a more sustainable and ethical beer

Carbon footprint of beer

Drinking more at home often means more packaging and a higher carbon footprint.

  • 650g CO2e – locally brewed cask ale at a pub.
  • 780g CO2e – locally bottled beer from the shop.
  • 910g CO2e – long-distance beer at a pub.
  • 1,000g CO2e – long-distance bottled beer from the shop.

At the upper end, a pint’s emissions are equivalent to a generous bath heated by an efficient gas boiler, at the lower, the same as an 800g locally produced loaf of bread. The breakdown is shown in the pie chart.

Transport

Most beer drunk in the UK is also brewed in the UK. However, Mike Berners-Lee says, “Although a few hundred road miles are not usually a very significant factor for foods, beer is an exception because it’s so heavy. Hence it’s generally best to opt for local beer if you can.”

Counter intuitively, many of the high-profile Spanish or Czech beers we see may well have been brewed in the UK too. It is always worth reading the label.

Packaging – can or bottle? 

Packaging is a key contributor to the environmental impact. Draught in a pub is therefore often the most sustainable way to have a pint.

For home consumption,” Mike Berners-Lee says, “cans turn out to be better than bottles [with regards to carbon footprint], especially when you recycle them."

Aluminium cans made from recycled materials save around 92% of the energy compared to making from raw materials. Recycled glass bottles save about 30%. Both forms of packaging can also be infinitely recycled.

Happily,” Berners-Lee also points out, “I’m told, cans are also better for the quality of the beer, allowing in no light and always having a perfect seal.

Some beers unfortunately also have wasteful excess packaging that is damaging to the environment, in particular the plastic rings that sometimes hold together multipack cans. Not only do these use petrochemicals and add to microplastic pollution, but they also endanger animals, getting tangled around them.

More and more companies are moving away from these, along with ditching shrink wrap packaging. If you do find yourself purchasing beer with ring carriers, the companies TerraCycle and HiCone now offer a recycling service.

If you’re having a party after lockdown, you might want to consider bulk ordering to cut down on packaging by buying a mini keg. Check whether the brewery can reuse the keg once you’re done with it, otherwise it may not be a more sustainable option.

Turtle with plastic rings from packaging around its shell
This turtle’s shell has grown around the plastic rings wrapped around it. Credit: Missouri Department of Conservation

Water footprint of brewing

Every litre of beer produced requires many times that amount in water. The most up-to-date figures we found were from 2009 and stated that the water footprint per litre could range between 45 litres and 155 litres, largely depending on where it was brewed and where the ingredients were grown.

For beer brewed in the UK, water consumption may be less of an issue because we usually have plenty and our cooler climate means that the footprint for the crops required (if also locally sourced) is likely to be lower. However, it can be a real issue for communities fighting multinational breweries in countries facing water shortages.

Heineken, for example, has been linked to water conflicts in Chihuahua, Mexico. The company was widely criticised for opening its factory in a region that faces serious water stresses, where the capital has been warned that it may only have 10 years of water left due to overexploitation, and where some households face rising prices for water use.

Carbon management and reporting of the brewers

As always, we rated all companies on what they’re doing to report and tackle their emissions. We expect companies to be taking meaningful steps to address their key emissions; to be reporting on emissions including those within their supply chains; and to be committing to targets in line with international emission goals. For beer and lager, this means that companies should be discussing their emissions from agriculture and ingredient sourcing, as well as from their breweries, packaging and transportation.

Only a handful of companies were considered to be taking adequate steps in terms of reporting and managing their carbon, and half of these were small companies, which don’t have to meet such robust criteria by virtue of their size.

Of the larger beer companies, just 20% received our best rating.

Best: Carlsberg, Diageo (Guinness), Hepworth, Kirin, Stroud, Toast.
Middle: BrewDog, Black Isle, AB InBev, Mahou.
Worst: Little Valley, Samuel Smith, Marston’s, Fuller Smith & Turner, Molson Coors, Heineken, Asahi, Greene King, Freedom, Copper Tun (Nirvana), Brooklyn, Empress Ale (distributes CELIA).

We think some readers will be surprised not to see BrewDog in the ‘best’ category. The company has been celebrated over the claim that it “takes twice as much carbon out of the air as we emit.” However, this strategy is based on offsetting – an approach that Ethical Consumer doesn’t rate as highly as emissions reduction plans. The company has purchased 2,050 acres of land in the Scottish Highlands with the aim of creating 1,500 acres of broadleaf native woodlands and dedicating 550 acres to peatland restoration. As far as offsetting goes, the project looks like it has all the right partners and has been developed with Professor Mike Berners-Lee – respected climate scientist and the source for many of our emissions figures in this guide.

Our problem with the approach is that, while the steps taken may be positive, all sectors need to decarbonise and we can’t all offset our emissions like this – there isn’t enough land. There is also no guarantee that they’ll be permanent. The carbon capture and storage will only last as long as the woodlands and peatlands are protected. It’s therefore much better to avoid the emissions in the first place. Because BrewDog already counts its emissions as compensated, it doesn’t have adequate targets in line with international agreements in place.

BrewDog looks impressive though when compared to some of the biggest companies. Heineken and Asahi failed to report absolute emissions. Molson Coors failed to convince on the steps it was taking to address its climate impacts. These three companies are amongst the largest brewers in the world.

In fact, many rich conglomerates have been shown up by Hepworth brewery, which, despite having a turnover under £10.2 million, was taking significant steps towards reducing emissions and has one of the most ambitious net zero targets we saw in researching this guide.

Genetic modification

In theory, beer is manufactured using very few ingredients: water, yeast, hops and a starch source such as barley malt. The biggest risk for GM, however, comes from sugar or corn syrup. Genetically modified varieties of these products are sometimes grown, and while these ingredients aren’t used in ‘proper’ beer, they may be used by larger, commercial brands.

In the UK, GM ingredients have to be labelled. However, GM corn syrup and sugar are much more common in countries like the US, where there is less regulation around GM use.

GM yeast has also been developed in recent years, although we couldn’t find any suggestion that it had been approved for use in the EU/UK. Liz O’Neil from campaign group GM Freeze explained, “The yeast is more complicated as I’m not sure it is covered by the same regulations [in the UK] due to being a microorganism rather than a plant or an animal.”

If you’re concerned about the potential impact of GM on our ecosystems, you may want to steer clear of a company that is using GM anywhere in the world. Asahi, Heineken, Kirin, Mahou and Molson Coors all lost half a mark under Controversial Technologies for likely use of GM ingredients. AB InBev is directly involved with developing genome editing of barley and therefore lost a full mark.

Drawing of a fish in a bottle of beer with isinglass label

Is beer vegan?

The short answer is, no, beer is not always vegan. Brewers sometimes use a substance called isinglass. It is derived from certain tropical and subtropical fish and used in a process called ‘fining’, which is essentially clarifying the beer. 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.

The good news is that most beers and lagers in our scoretable are now vegan, particularly in bottled and canned form. More and more pubs are now also labelling their vegan options.

Isinglass is more likely to be used for cask ales (and occasionally for craft ales) – 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.

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. Luckily, more and more breweries are also seeing this process as unnecessary: after all, people did for many years just drink slightly cloudy beer.

Dairy and other animal products in beer

Some beers may also contain lactose, a milk sugar added for sweetness, or honey. 

On our score table, breweries 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. We have marked all the vegan brands on the score table above with a [A].

Vegan beers and lagers

Here is a list of beers that are certified or marketed as vegan in the UK:

Amstel Dark Star Hophead (bottled) Mahou
Asahi Desperados McEwan’s
Beerlao Fourpure Meantime
Beck’s Freedom Miller Genuine Draft
Birra Moretti Goose Island Murphy’s
Black Isle (bottled) Grolsch Nirvana
BrewDog (not Jet Black Heart or Punk and Lost AF cans) Guinness Peroni Nastro Azzuro
Brooklyn Heineken Pilsner Urquell
Budweiser Hepworth Samuel Smith’s (all bottles except Yorkshire Stingo)
Camden Town Hoegaarden San Miguel
Carlsberg Holsten Pils Staropramen
Carlsberg Export Kirin Ichiban Stella Artois
Carlsberg Special Brew (bottled) Leffe Stroud Brewery (all bottles, cans & kegs)
CELIA Little Creatures Toast
Cobra Little Valley Tuborg
Corona London Pride & Fuller’s bottles Wainwright vegan and gluten free (normal Wainwright not vegan)

If your favourite beer isn’t on our list, Barnivore is a great site for crowdsourced information on which beers (and other alcoholic drinks) are vegan.

The giant multinational brewers

Many of the most well-recognised brands are brewed by just six giant companies, which have been linked to multiple abuses.

AB InBev is the largest beer company in the world, with sales of over $52 billion. Its brands include Corona which has, strangely, seen growing sales during the pandemic.

The company has received several criticisms in recent years for its violation of workers' rights, in particular for violation of union rights. In 2018, in Peru, it was accused of unilaterally discarding parts of a collective bargaining agreement with the workers’ union for its brewery, and in 2019, in India, it was accused of harassing, intimidating and sacking union members. In 2020, a subsidiary of the company was also accused of funding paramilitary groups in Colombia – a claim which it denies.

Heineken is the second largest beer company in the world with sales of $26 billion. It has been repeatedly accused of discrimination. See the company profile below for more details.

Polish and Myanmar boycotts

Asahi is next largest ($19.2 billion) and faces a social media boycott of its Tyskie brand in Poland after its subsidiary Kompania Piwowarska sponsored an event by Poland’s right-wing magazine Gazeta Polska in 2020. The magazine is known for its homophobic views: in 2019, it was prevented by Polish courts from handing out ‘LGBTQ-Free Zone’ stickers, instead distributing ones that read ‘LGBTQ Ideology-Free Zone’.

Its event awarded ‘man of the year’ to Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, under which Poland is the least LBGTQ-friendly country in the EU. Kaczyński is known for his Islamophobic and homophobic views.

Kirin is next ($17.8 billion) and has recently ended ties to the Burmese military, following a military coup in the country in February 2021, and after a boycott call was made against the company in August 2020.

Kirin previously ran a joint venture with the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (MEH), a company controlled by the Burmese military. In September 2020, Amnesty International published a report which found that around £12 billion in dividend payments had been transferred from MEH to military units over the 20 years since it was founded.

Shareholders in the company included Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief who has been instated as leader following the coup, and military battalions that Amnesty has linked to crimes against humanity against Rohingya populations, as well as war crimes in Kachin and northern Shan state. In early February 2021, Kirin announced that it would sever ties with MEH.

Kirin also previously admitted that its subsidiary made three donations to the military and authorities in 2017, while they were involved in the ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya. The donations totalled USD$30,000, and Min Aung Hlaing received the first in person, stating that it would in part fund “security personnel and state service personnel”.

Political donations

For some reason, the big brewers also are often big donors to political parties. For example, Molson Coors Brewing Company was listed as being linked to donations of $330,000 to the Republicans and $106,000 to the Democrats in the 2020 US election cycle. AB InBev was said to be linked to donations totalling $857,000 to Republican Party candidates and $504,000 to Democratic Party candidates.

Who owns the main UK beer brands?

The table below shows the dominance of these companies over the UK market. Brands are often owned by one company but either distributed or licensed out to and brewed by another.

Sometimes a brand is even owned by one company but brewed by a partnership of others, as is the case with Carlsberg Marston’s Brewing Company.

We’ve ranked the beer based 50% on the brand owner and 50% on the licensed distributor or brewer(s) in these cases.

The Big Multinationals Brands
AB InBev Beck’s, Budweiser, Camden Town, Corona, Goose Island, Hoegaarden, Leffe, Stella Artois
Asahi Group Holdings Asahi, Dark Star, Grolsch, Meantime, Peroni Nastro Azzuro, Pilsner Urquell, Fuller’s (50%, brand owned by Fuller, Smith and Turner)
Carlsberg Marston’s Brewing Company 61 Deep, Carlsberg, Holsten Pils, Hobgoblin, Owd Roger, Pearl Jet, Pedigree, Resolution, Special Brew, Tetley’s, Tuborg, Wainwright, Brooklyn (50%, brand owned by Brooklyn Brewery), Kirin Ichiban (50%, brand owned by Kirin), Mahou (50%, brand owned by Mahou), San Miguel (50%, brand owned by Mahou)
Carlsberg A/S Beerlao, CELIA (50%, distributed by Empress Ale)
Heineken Amstel, Birra Moretti, Desperados, Foster’s, Heineken, John Smith’s, Kronenbourg 1664, Murphy’s
Kirin Fourpure, Little Creatures, Kirin Ichiban (50%, brewed by Carlsberg Marston’s)
Molson Coors

Carling, Coors, Miller, Sharp’s, Staropramen, Cobra (50%, 50% owned by Balimoria Holdings)

The larger UK Brewers Brands
Marston’s McEwan’s, Thwaites
Fuller, Smith and Turner Fuller’s (50%, brewed by Asahi), London Pride (50%, brewed by Asahi)
CK Asset Holdings Abbot Ale, Greene King, Old Speckled Hen

Smaller ethical breweries

Luckily, ethical, local breweries have popped up all over the UK during recent years, making it easier than ever to minimise the impact of your pint.

Organic and Fairtrade breweries

Organic beer is pretty easy to get hold of, with many of the smaller breweries on our table either doing all or some organic beers. Organic products are labelled [O] on the table and receive a positive Product Sustainability mark. You can look up Soil Association-certified Organic companies on their website.

We only found one Fairtrade beer – Little Valley Brewery’s Radical Roots pale ale. The beer is also vegan and organic, and scores an impressive 17 on our table.

Other standout companies

One company in our guide is showing the role that the brewing industry could play in reducing food waste and moving towards a circular economy.

Toast uses surplus bread in its beer to replace some of the barley, using less land, water and energy and reducing carbon emissions. We also spoke to Feedback, an organisation working to change food systems around the world, to hear what else brewers could do. Brewing produces lots of food waste, primarily in the form of ‘brewers spent grain’(or BSG), usually a mixture of barley, wheat and oats that is boiled up to make ‘wort’ and then discarded. Spent grain accounts for 85% of total by-products generated during production.

Lots of the brewers we looked at for this guide were already using spent grain as feed for local livestock, usually cattle. But Feedback says: “as there is a significant nutritional benefit to using BSG, even in relatively small quantities, the better outcome would surely be to introduce it into the food chain directly.”

It has piloted a spent grain granola “that used the peel from surplus citrus fruit, pumpkins that we roasted and made a caramel with and the seeds that we dried for additional texture,” and is looking at using it in flour. We hope any home (or commercial) brewers reading this might be inspired to do something creative! Read our full interview with Feedback for more on this topic.

As well as brewing using surplus bread, Toast donates all profits to charities changing the food system, with the majority going to Feedback. Feedback campaigns on areas including food waste, industrial agriculture, and food citizenship. It runs a gleaning network across the UK, rescuing fresh, surplus fruit and veg from farms where it would otherwise be wasted. Toast is also a certified B-Corp.

World's first beer-source heat pump

Hepworth Brewery is a really impressive example of a small company taking significant steps towards sustainable production. It is a vegan, organic company, using solar panels and, it claims, the world’s first beer-source heat pump at its brewery! It has created reed beds to deal with its least harmful liquid waste naturally, and is hoping soon to install a system that would recapture the CO2 that escapes during fermentation to use to keep oxygen away from its beer (rather than having to buy it in liquid form). Hepworth is hoping to get its site to carbon neutral within just five years.

Transparency and smaller companies

When we last updated this guide in 2017, we found that transparency wasn’t strong amongst the small breweries we reviewed. Since then, there has been some improvement, with several releasing Impact Reports and publishing some information about sustainable brewing or their suppliers on their websites. Even where transparency was weak, most were spared a worst rating for Environmental Reporting and Supply Chain Management 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), as well as brewing and/or sourcing in the UK.

The majority of the small breweries on our table also received positive Company Ethos marks for having entirely vegan or organic ranges, as well as Product Sustainability marks for vegan and organic products.

Co-operative brewing

There are also a handful of cooperative breweries in the UK: breweries owned by and brewing for the local community.

What to ask when buying local

Although they may not appear on our score table, buying from your local brewery can be a way to cut your carbon footprint, avoid the problems that giant multinationals might bring with them, and to support local enterprise.

Here are a few questions you might want to ask them:

  • Where do you source your ingredients from? Look for ingredients that are organic and/or local. It’s a good sign if a brewery can tell you about the farms that they work with.
  • Is it vegan? Many brewers suspect that isinglass impacts beer taste, so local craft breweries may in fact be likely to sell vegan beer.
  • Do you have any approaches for sustainable manufacture? Some UK breweries use solar panels or renewable energy for manufacture. One, Hepworth Brewery, even uses a ‘beer-source heat pump’ for its building – which it claims is the first in the world.

DIY alternatives

Home brewing

Home brewing is easier than you might think. A basic setup costs around £35 for equipment. Another £25 or less will get you a recipe box with all the ingredients and instructions. Around 3 hours of brewing and 3-5 weeks of waiting, and you’ll have 40 pints to drink.

As well as cost (once you have the equipment, it’s just over 50p per pint), there are a few potential ethical benefits to home brewing. The first is that it cuts down emissions from transportation: a recipe box is much smaller and lighter than 40 bottled pints. The second is that it cuts down on packaging, as glass bottles can simply be collected, rinsed out and reused each time.

If you brew the more advanced way – choosing your own hops, grains and yeast – you can also be selective about your ingredients. Beer company Toast has even published a recipe using surplus bread. They say that the home brewers who have used the recipe have saved 675,000 slices to date. You can access it by signing up to their mailing list.

Find out more about home brewing: We spoke to reader Gerarde

“Like many people I tried out a homebrewing kit for a bit of fun. Then I got interested in just how you could ‘design’ your own beers, rather like a cake recipe, and started to experiment.

“Hops can come from all over the world, so ‘food miles’ are a consideration for me. There are British grown hops available, so I try and balance supporting UK growers alongside playing with experimental hops. You can also grow hops in gardens or pots. They are rather nice to look at too, although I’m yet to find a spot my rescue Greyhounds wouldn’t dig them up.

“I also have a few secret places where you can find wild hops often hiding in plain sight. What could be better than wild and free hops!

“At the moment, I am learning how to ‘wash’ and reuse yeast to cut down on buying lots more packets. This means you can reuse yeast several times but still get great results in your glass. There are some really cool yeasts out there, like Kveik, a fast-fermenting Norwegian farmhouse yeast, so you are not limited.

“Moving from kits to all-grain brewing [brewing directly from grains rather than extracts included in kits] means I can use the spent grain for dog treats or give away as chicken feed.

“Also, homebrewing clubs – virtual or in real life – are great for sharing, helping or even bottle swaps."

Company behind the brand

Heineken is the second largest beer company in the world with sales of $26 billion. Some of its biggest beer and lager brands include: Amstel, Foster’s, Heineken, John Smith’s, Kronenbourg 1664, and Murphy’s.

It has been repeatedly accused of discrimination.

In 2018, the company was forced to pull a racist advert after widespread outrage.

In 2019, the company was also accused of ongoing exploitation of ‘beer girls’ in Nigeria and nine other countries in Africa. The company hired young women to promote its beer at events, who were frequently sexually assaulted. “Our employer thinks: if you do not want to be groped, you have to look for another job." Some stated that they had been pressured into having intercourse with managers in order to keep their jobs. A former HR Manager for the company claims that Heineken knew about the abuses for years but chose not to address them because the PR would damage the company’s global reputation at a time when it was celebrated for its work around HIV. “Better to frame that [the exploitation of beer girls] as a local custom: ‘That’s how they do things over there.’”

In 2019, workers in South Africa also protested against a ‘sex for shifts’ system at a Heineken brewery, where women were forced to have intercourse with supervisors in return for work, by the company’s service provider, Imperial. The company denies having turned a blind eye to sexual harassment claims.

It is also said to be involved in land grabs.

Want more information?

If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. 

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