Is there formaldehyde in beer?

formaldehyde-beer-smThis question was recently submitted by a reader, and to tell you the truth I did not know much about the formaldehyde in beer issue.  My initial reaction was “of course there is not formaldehyde in beer”, but as I dug deeper into the research I began to grow concerned.

Now when I hear “formaldehyde” I think of preserving corpses… not exactly getting me in the mood for a cold one.  So to start off I figured a definition of formaldehyde was in order:

Formaldehyde: a chemical used in manufacturing and chemical industries, and as a preservative by anatomists, embalmers, and pathologists. Being exposed to formaldehyde may increase the risk of developing leukemia and brain cancer.

So not only do I now think of corpses, but now I have brain cancer on the brain…. I am really hoping this does not turn out to be true at this point.

As I began my research into this question, a few things became clear:

  • There appears to be some truth to the rumor in Chinese beers,
  • There does not seem to be strong evidence of this rumor outside of China
  • There does not seem to be a definitive answer on the subject

China appears to use formaldehyde

First of all, why on earth would breweries knowingly use formaldehyde?  As it turns out it is a very inexpensive clarifying agent that lightens the color of the beer and extends its shelf life.  Although some Chinese breweries claim that they have discontinued the practice, there are a number of beers sold in China that are very cheap and low quality (intended to be affordable to the masses), and it has been stated that these lower quality brews still use formaldehyde to keep costs down.

So how widespread is the use of formaldehyde in Chinese beer? I found a few articles dating back to 2005, where a representative of the China Alcoholic Drinks Industry Association (CADIA) is quoted as saying that 95% of the domestic beer in China has formaldehyde.  What was that?  Did you say 95% of domestic beers in China have a known cancer causing agent in them?  Not really making me want to drink a Chinese beer.

Furthermore, an article in the “People’s Daily Online” reported in 2005 that:

Chinese brewery giant Tsingtao has confirmed the safety of its product, saying the per-liter formaldehyde content of its product is much lower than the standard set by the World Heath Organization (WHO). The Tsingtao Brewery Co., Ltd. made the remarks in a statement it issued Friday in response to earlier domestic media reports putting Tsingtao beer’s formaldehyde content under suspicion. China’s State Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (SAQSIQ) also said that Chinese beer, including big-name Tsingtao beer, is safe to drink.

However, I did find some more recent resources stating that this practice is dying off (no pun intended) and that only some breweries are still permitting formaldehyde in the brewing process today.  I was also not able to find any reference to formaldehyde in any beers that China imports to other countries, as it appears to only be used in their domestic versions.

Finally, I came across a research study done in 2006 which concluded that:

Formaldehyde was measured in 29 beers [out of 84 tested] (including 7 imported brands) using solid-phase microextraction with on-fiber derivatization. Formaldehyde levels were between 0.082–0.356 mg/L. None of the beer samples exceeded WHO drinking water criteria for benzene, trihalomethanes or formaldehyde.

No Evidence of Formaldehyde Use Outside of China

While I did come across a lot of discussion in online forums about formaldehyde in non-Chinese beers (especially beers from Southeast Asian countries), I was not able to find any evidence if this.  There is a great article I found that discusses this (specifically in reference to a Thai beer called Singha) located here:

No definitive answer

In all of the research I conducted online, I was not able to find a clear definitive answer on the subject (besides the info on China).  There was a ton of forum discussions full of opinion and conjecture, but not much in the way of evidence.

Many folks felt certain that some Asian countries used formaldehyde in the brewing process, while others questioned the assertion and compared it to the rumor about urine in Corona.  Some of the most interesting discussions were very scientific in nature, with quite a few folks claiming that trace amounts of formaldehyde were a natural byproduct in beer.  Since I am not very strong in the sciences I have not gone into an in depth discussion of these arguments.

However, I did want to point out one study that was mentioned in the research report listed above.  In it they mentioned another study that looked at European beers:

Donhauser and co-workers9 examined beers from Europe, using a HPLC method, and showed that 65% of them contained detectable formaldehyde, although in many the level was close to the detection limit of 0.2 mg/L. (Donhauser, S., Glas, K. and Walla, G., Detection of formaldehyde in beer. Monatsschrift für Brauwissenschaft, 1986, 39(10), 364–368.)

This would seem to give some credence to the trace amounts argument, but I would love to hear from some other readers that are more versed in the sciences than I….. anyone know a little more about this?

All in all, formaldehyde does not appear to be a major concern for beer drinkers.  However, I would still be a little weary drinking a beer in China (but I don’t plan on visiting anytime soon so I should be safe…..)

Please let us know what you think about this issue in the comments below.

What is a Steam Beer (or California Common)?

Steam Beer – History

The steam beer, or California Common, is an American original and was first produced in California during the gold rush (late 19th Century).  The style of beer is very much tied to the west coast and in particular San Francisco.

At its height, this style of beer was brewed by as many as 27 different breweries in California.  Today, “steam beer” is a trademarked term, and can only be brewed under that name by Anchor Steam Brewing Co. in San Francisco, CA.  Other brewers now use the name “California Common” for this style.

While no one is 100% certain on the origin of the name steam beer, it seems to have a few plausible explanations.  On one hand, it may have come from the “hissing” sound that this beer made during the heated fermentation process.  On the other hand, and more likely in my opinion, the warm conditioning created a highly carbonated brew and when a new barrel was tapped it caused a hiss or spray when opened.  Of further note, Anchor Brewing claims that the name “steam beer” came from the steam that emanated from the roof of their brewery.  Apparently they had no way to cool the hot wort during the brewing process, so they pumped it up to the roof and let the cool San Francisco air do the job of cooling.  Thus steam was often seen rising from the top of the brewery.

It is also interesting to note that there are references to steam beer in the literature of the 1890’s and early 1900’s, where it was clearly referred to as a lower quality and cheaper type of beer.  In Frank Norris’ 1899 novel “McTeague” there is a reference to the main character being made more “civilized” by his new wife:

“She broke him of the habit of eating with his knife, she caused him to substitute bottled beer in the place of steam beer, and she induced him to take off his hat to Miss Baker, to Heise’s wife, and to the other women of his acquaintance. ”

Brewing process for Steam Beer

Most historians claim that the brewing of steam beer was more a creature of necessity, than a well thought out “style”.  The first brewers that came to California lacked the supplies and tools to brew most types of beer, and hence had to improvise as best as they could. As lagers were very popular at the time, they wanted to brew them, but lacked the tools for cold fermentation (see Differences Between an Ale and a Lager).  Therefore, they created a brewing process that used a lager yeast (bottom fermentation), but fermented at ale (top fermentation) temperatures.

The fermentation is done in long shallow vessels called “calrifieres”, and is followed by a period of warm conditioning or “krausening”.  This warming, more like boiling, also helped to kill off any bacteria.  The beer was also highly hopped to prevent spoilage, much like the IPA (India Pale Ale).

Tasting Notes for Steam Beer

One of the first steps in tasting a beer, is to classify its style so you have some idea of what to expect.  This classification would begin with deciding if a beer is an ale or a lager (see Differences Between an Ale and a Lager).  The steam beer or California Common is very difficult to categorize as an ale or a lager as it is fermented warm (like an ale), but uses bottom-fermenting lager yeast.  This puts the beer in the Hybrid category of styles and thus difficult to compare to other beers.

The second you drink a steam beer you will notice a real toasty/malty essence, with a fairly aggressive hoppiness in flavor and aroma and a fair amount of carbonation.  They are generally clear and crisp like a lager, but also full-bodied like an ale.  It is this contrast in taste and style that makes the steam beer so unique and wonderful.

Examples of Steam Beer

Of course the most popular example of the steam beer is Anchor Steam.  I will admit that I am very biased when it comes to this beer as I spent over 5 years living in San Francisco and Anchor Steam was one of my stables while there.  It is difficult to know how true to the traditional steam beer that Anchor Steam is as most other brewers really stopped making this style at one time.  However, I will say that it remains one of my favorite beers today and is usually the example that other California Commons are compared..  It is crisp and clean like a lager, but has much more flavor and body like an ale.  A great choice if you don’t know which type of beer you really want.

Text from the Anchor Steam bottle:

San Francisco’s famous Anchor Steam®, the classic of American brewing tradition since 1896, is virtually handmade, with an exceptional respect for the ancient art of brewing. The deep amber color, thick creamy head, and rich flavor all testify to our traditional brewing methods.

Anchor Steam is unique, for our brewing process has evolved over many decades and is like no other in the world. Anchor Steam derives its unusual name from the 19th century when “steam” seems to have been a nickname for beer brewed on the West Coast of America under primitive conditions and without ice. The brewing methods of those days are a mystery and, although there are many theories, no one can say with certainty why the word “steam” came to be associated with beer.

For many decades Anchor alone has used this quaint name for its unique beer. In modern times, “Steam” has become a trademark of Anchor Brewing.

Tell us what you think about Steam Beer

Do you prefer to call it a California Common?  What do you think of the tasting notes?  Let us know in the comments below.

What is the Reinheitsgebot (“German Purity Law)

Well, the first step is to learn how to say Reinheitsgebot…. “Rine-Hites-gaBoat” is the best pronunciation I could find.  Of course some native German speaker will probably correct this, but its pretty darn close.  So now that we can pronounce the word, lets get into what its all about.

The Reinheitsgebot, or “German Purity Law” as many call it, literally translates to “purity law” or “cleanliness law”.  An early version of the law was proposed in 1487, but the version most speak of today originated in the Bavarian city of Ingolstadt on April 23, 1516.  Introduced by Duke Wilhelm IV, the original intent of the law was three fold:

  • Control pricing
  • Ensure the quality of beer
  • Reserve more valuable grains like rye and wheat for bread making, as these grains were often in very short supply

The law limited the allowed ingredients in beer to water, barley and hops.  However, this was only one sentence in a much longer text focused primarily on pricing rules and regulations (see original text below).  Unfortunately the pricing portion of the law did not last… the price was set as one Pfennig per Mass (now that sounds like a great price for a beer!).

Notice there is no yeast in the list of allowable ingredients.  Why you ask?  Well, they really did not know that yeast existed, or was necessary for fermentation, in the 16th century.  They would either use some of the sediment from a previous batch of beer (which included the yeast) or they would let the batch sit out until some wild yeast began the fermentation process. It was not until the 1800’s when Louis Pasteur discovered the role of yeast in fermentation that it was added to the list of acceptable ingredients.

So that is the basics of the original “German purity law”.  As we will discuss in a future FAQ, the law has been updated and adapted to keep up with modern times and has also become the source of some interesting controversies.  Look for the new article soon….

Text of Reinheitsgebot

The best English translation of the Reinheitsgebot that I could find was published in Zymurgy magazine by Karl J. Eden in 1993.

We hereby proclaim and decree, by Authority of our Province, that henceforth in the Duchy of Bavaria, in the country as well as in the cities and marketplaces, the following rules apply to the sale of beer:

From Michaelmas to Georgi, the price for one Mass [Bavarian Liter 1,069] or one Kopf [bowl-shaped container for fluids, not quite one Mass], is not to exceed one Pfennig Munich value, and

From Georgi to Michaelmas, the Mass shall not be sold for more than two Pfennig of the same value, the Kopf not more than three Heller [Heller usually one-half Pfennig].

If this not be adhered to, the punishment stated below shall be administered.

Should any person brew, or otherwise have, other beer than March beer, it is not to be sold any higher than one Pfennig per Mass.

Furthermore, we wish to emphasize that in future in all cities, markets and in the country, the only ingredients used for the brewing of beer must be Barley, Hops and Water. Whosoever knowingly disregards or transgresses upon this ordinance, shall be punished by the Court authorities’ confiscating such barrels of beer, without fail.

Should, however, an innkeeper in the country, city or markets buy two or three pails of beer (containing 60 Mass) and sell it again to the common peasantry, he alone shall be permitted to charge one Heller more for the Mass of the Kopf, than mentioned above. Furthermore, should there arise a scarcity and subsequent price increase of the barley (also considering that the times of harvest differ, due to location), WE, the Bavarian Duchy, shall have the right to order curtailments for the good of all concerned.

What does the “33” mean on the Rolling Rock Label?

This is one of those great beer conversations where everyone has an opinion and there doesn’t seem to be a clear provable conclusion.

There are several different versions of this legend which we have been able to discover.  We have listed these below in reverse order of likelihood (from least likely to most likely) according to our extensive research and our best guess (not quite throwing darts at a list of possibilities, but close).

Rolling Rock “33” Theories

There were exactly 33 steps from the brewmaster’s office to the brewing floor.

The reservoir that was used by the brewery for its main water source was fed by 33 streams.

The list of ingredients on the label – water, malt, rice, hops, corn, brewer’s yeast – totals 33 letters (not counting the commas or the apostrophe).

The brewery workers were members of the Local #33 union.

The highest level that can be attained by a Freemason is 33rd degree (maybe the Latrobe’s were Freemasons?).

Legend has it that the Rolling Rock brewery was started with money won at the horse track.  The winning bet was placed on #33, "Old Latrobe," and that is why there is a horse and the "33" on the bottle.

It was the 33rd version of the recipe that became what is now Rolling Rock.  This one may have come about because of the Jack Daniels label.  It states "Old Number 7" on the label in reference to the 7th attempt at its recipe.

The "33" represents the fabulous day that prohibition was repealed – December 5, 1933.  Now that’s a holiday worth celebrating… why don’t we get that day off work?

And the most popular and most likely version…Rolling Rock Label "33"

The "33" represents the number of words in the slogan on the bottle:

Rolling Rock – From the glass lined tanks of Old Latrobe, we tender this premium beer for your enjoyment as a tribute to your good taste. It comes from the mountain springs to you.

Now even this version has some controversy and multiple versions itself.  From what we have been able to gather, it may have happened like this….

Our main source here is Latrobe Brewing’s past CEO, James Tito.  Apparently Mr. Tito became very interested in this legend as well and began reviewing notes and speaking to members of the Latrobe family about it.  After all of his research, Mr. Tito has been quoted as believing the 33 was left on the label by accident during the printing process.

There was apparently some disagreement on what the label should look like and what it should say, including an argument on how long the slogan should be.  Eventually the family settled on the 33 word slogan that remains today (see above), and during the discussions of its length someone wrote "33" on the copy.

This label was then sent to the printer and was mistakenly thought to be part of the copy itself.  Before the error could be discovered, a very large number of bottles were printed.  Since this was the Depression (1939) and Rolling Rock paints their label directly on the bottles, it would have be extremely expensive to discard this batch of bottles and reprint them all.  It is also important to note that bottles back then were cleaned and reused multiple times, which may explain why future runs of the bottles kept the "33".


Many folks have come along and debunked all of the explanations detailed above, including the “words in the slogan” argument.  Many feel that it would be unlikely for a printer to make such a mistake given that the customer would have had to approve a proof and even if they did mistakenly approve the "33", it could have just been removed on future prints of the label.

While this may be true, we would like to offer another explanation.  Just maybe, once the "33" labels reached the public, it created a little bit of a stir.  Folks began debating and arguing over what the 33 meant.  What company wouldn’t want to create a little buzz and mystery around their product, and of course some free advertising.  Further proof of our point is that we are still discussing it today…..

Let us know what you think about the 33 and any other theories you may have heard in the comments below.