It’s 2022, and lactose is a brewer’s best friend. The natural sugar in milk adds sweetness and body to certain beers, creating a creamy mouthfeel that’s more akin to dessert than day drinking. Unfortunately, 68% of the world’s population is unable to digest lactose. For those sad souls, beer with lactose can brew up a squall in the ol’ large intestine. If that’s you, you might be wondering: Can I drink lactose in beer if I’m lactose intolerant?
First, let’s consider the chemical nature of lactose. At the end of the day, lactose is a sugar. (That’s why you’ll see some brewers labeling their cans as containing “milk sugar.” Same thing!) But lactose is a unique sugar: As VinePair’s Adam Teeter points out, while most sugar is converted to alcohol during brewing, lactose is not. “As an unfermentable sugar, lactose will remain in the finished beer, and depending on how severe your allergy is, it may not make you feel that great,” Teeter writes in a 2021 article.
Long story short: If you’re lactose intolerant, beers that contain lactose may provoke a digestive reaction. With that in mind, look out for these frequently milky beer styles:
Andrew Zach, Director of Brewery Operations for Resurgence Brewing Co., explains that lactose frequently pops up in the ever-popular fruited sour (not to be confused with the mysterious smoothie beer.) “We use lactose in fruited sours for a variety of reasons, but the main is to help balance that tartness of the sour with a touch of sweetness and creaminess,” Zach tells me over email. “It is also more acceptable from an industry standard to add lactose to these beers. People generally think of fruit as being sweet, but we do not always receive product that way.”
Think of the difference between two blueberries from the same container. One could be sweet, one could be tart; lactose brings out the sweetness and creates balance.
If a beer reminds you of an old-fashioned soda shop, it probably contains lactose. Milkshake beers, creamsicle beers, and every dessert-inspired beer in between are often packing hefty amounts of vanilla bean and lactose to achieve their signature creaminess. How hefty? This homebrewing website recommends a full pound of lactose per five gallons of beer. That’s hefty.
Zach tells me that lactose intolerant folks are generally safe drinking “hazy” beers—full-flavored beers with a cloudy, almost milky appearance. “Honestly, most hazy IPAs do not contain lactose,” he says. “We do not put lactose in any of our hazy/New England-style IPAs. The whole reason that brewers use lactose in IPA is to build body, create a creaminess to the beer, and add a little sweetness. But we do that with other ingredients—dextrin malt, oats, and dextrin sugar.”
Jimmy Mauric, the head brewmaster for Shiner Beer, agrees. “One of the great things about the hazy IPA style is that there are almost endless ways to build a recipe,” Mauric tells me. “Many breweries will use lactose to give the beer a fuller body, but there are several other ways to achieve this. Shiner never uses lactose and instead opts for ingredients like oats, wheat, and specialty yeast to deliver a full-bodied, hazy IPA.”
The good news: Even if you’re severely lactose intolerant, there are still plenty of full-flavored, lactose-free beers available to you. And if you simply must sample that milkshake IPA, there’s always Lactaid.