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.

http://www.scientificsocieties.org/jib/papers/2006/G-2006-1102-469.pdf

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: http://lewbryson.com/formaldehyde.htm.

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 are the main ingredients in beer?

** This question was asked by an individual looking to brew beer at home. Even though it is geared towards brewing, it is still a good description of the main ingredients of beer.

In its most simple form, beer is made of four basic ingredients:  Water, yeast, Malt and hops.

Water

As is the case with the human body, the most abundant ingredient in beer is water. Over 95% of your brew is made up of water. With such a large amount of your final product coming from a single ingredient, you can imagine how important it is to use good water. Amazon Image

When brewing at home, it’s best to use filtered, or better yet bottled water from the store (make sure that your bottled water is not just tap water in a bottle).  This is much easier than testing your tap water, finding out what the mineral and chemical make up of it is and then using additives to get the balance just right (this is a technique used by more advance brewers to try and match the exact water make up for certain beers.  An important point to mention here is to NOT use “distilled” water as your main source for brewing – the distilling process removes many of the natural elements that are beneficial to beer making.

Yeast

Yeast is the engine that makes the whole process go (without yeast, you would just have a sweet, brown, tea-like substance with no alcohol… I shudder at the thought).  Yeasts, part of the fungus family, are single-celled living organisms that eat sugars and convert them into alcohol and carbon dioxide through the wonderful and amazing process called fermentation.

In order to make a great beer you can’t just use any old yeast that happens to fly by (the fact is that yeasts are everywhere… hey there’s one right there.. watch out!).  Wild yeasts can all but ruin your beer if they get in during the brewing process (unless, of course, you are making a true Belgium Lambic).  The yeast we want is usually classified as “Beer Yeast” – yeasts that are specifically cultured for the purpose of brewing beer.  There are two main types of beer yeast, lager yeast and ale yeast, and both are discussed further in Ales v. Lagers.

Malt – Traditionally malted barley

Amazon ImageMalted barley is really nothing more than barley grains that have been soaked in water until they first begin to sprout.  When the barley begins to sprout it draws on its starch reserves, which are transformed into simple sugars. This is the food we will be feeding to the yeast later.  The barley is then dried and cured, creating a perfect source of sugar and soluble starches for the fermentation.

When it comes time to brew, the malted barley needs to be cracked and boiled in water in the process known as “mashing”.

As a side note, it is important to mention that not all beers use barley; it is just the most common grain used.  Many styles and brewmasters will use wheat, oats, rye, or other grains (called adjuncts) in the brewing process.  While many of the beers brewed with adjuncts are good quality beers that simply use the alternative grains to create new flavors or styles, many of the larger breweries, especially in the US, will use rice, corn, or other inexpensive grains to simply save on costs. The corn and rice are used primarily as cheaper sources of fermentable sugar. These larger breweries use these “add junks” (I mean adjuncts), sometimes as high as 40% of the grains used, to produce more beer at a lower cost. You can definitely taste the difference (and I don’t mean in a good way).

Hops

Amazon ImageHops, a distant cousin to cannabis, are the “conelike” flowers that come from this vining plant.  There are over 50 different recognized varieties of hops with names like Saaz and East Kent Goldings. Hops are used in beer much the same way spices are used in cooking – to enhance the flavor and smell of the final product.

During fermentation, not all of the sugars from the malt will be consumed – leaving the beer with a sweet smell and flavor. Hops, which adds a certain degree of bitterness, a spicy flavoring, and a distinctive aroma, are especially useful in balancing this sweetness.  However, this is not the only reasons that hops are used in brewing beer.  Hops are also known to act as a bacterial inhibitor and as a natural clarifying agent.

Other Ingredients

Beyond the four basic ingredients of beer mentioned above, there are a number of other flavorings and additives that can be added to beers to create different styles, flavors, and characters. While we suggest using a Beer Kit while starting out, the addition of these “extra” ingredients is not very difficult and adds to the interest and complexity that any good hobby must have to keep you interested over time.  Many of these adjuncts are explored in the more Advanced Brewing processes.Amazon Image