Many people might be a little worried that drinking homebrew can make them sick since it hasn’t been produced in a commercial facility. I personally had a few doubts when I got into homebrewing so I thought it would be a great opportunity to discuss why homebrew is generally very safe along with some possible issues that could come up if you aren’t careful.
So, can homebrew make you sick? Because homebrewed beer has a moderate alcohol content and is acidic (low pH) it will kill any normal pathogens. In fact, beer was considered safer to drink than water at some points throughout history because of its ability to kill germs.
Given today’s modern technology, it’s pretty crazy to think that for much of history it was actually safer to drink beer, wine, or other alcoholic beverages than water. If it wasn’t though, beer brewing never would have made it out of those ancient times because those brewers wouldn’t have lasted very long! Let’s take a deeper look at why homebrew beer is generally considered very safe to drink while also acknowledging that you might not want to drink it in some circumstances.
Homebrew beer will not make you sick
Yes, if you drink a dozen bottles of homebrew then you probably will get sick – but that’s true of any beer because it has alcohol in it. If you drink enough of any alcoholic beverage, you’ll be throwing up and probably suffering a big hangover the next day.
That’s not what we are talking about here though.
What you are probably asking is whether or not there is any reason that homebrew brew could actually make you ill – as in sick with a virus, bacteria, or whatever.
Luckily for homebrew lovers both today and in ancient times, the answer is no. Properly handled homebrew beer cannot make you ill because it has enough alcohol content and a low enough pH to kill pretty much any pathogenic bacteria that you could think of finding in it.
While the idea that everyone back in the day survived by drinking beer is mostly a myth, ancient humans were definitely drinking some form of beer. In fact, scientists have confirmed that people were making beer in what is now the country of Iran as far back as the 5th millennium BC.
That’s a long time ago.
Now that we’re done with the history lesson, let’s get on to more of the germ-specific stuff.
Why can’t germs survive in beer?
So, how exactly does beer kill or at least reduce the number of germs inside of it enough to prevent you from getting sick?
Well, there are at least five ways:
The long boil
Everyone knows that boiling water is one of the first and best steps you can take to kill bacteria and make it safer to drink. In fact, the New York Department of Health points out that the pasteurization process actually starts as low as 131 °F for some types of bacteria and 99.999% of all water-borne microorganisms will be killed with five minutes of exposure to 149 °F of heat.
Luckily for us, the first major step of the homebrewing process is the boil.
Water has to reach at least 212 degrees to boil and you’ll keep it that hot for quite a long time while you make additions to the kettle and otherwise execute your recipe. This means we will more than satisfy the water boiling temperature requirements to kill things like protozoan cysts, cryptosporidium, Salmonella, E. coli, and more.
This means that once your boil is over, you will have some pretty well-sanitized wort to start your fermentation process with.
The yeast takes over
Once the boil is done and you have cooled your wort down to room temperature, there is a problem.
At this point, you have a liquid full of sugar and other goodies at the perfect temperature for whatever trace amounts bacteria and other bad stuff to start multiplying. If we simply left the wort alone for a while, this is exactly what would happen.
Luckily for us, we are going to be adding yeast.
A lot of yeast.
The fact that we are adding a lot of yeast is important. Basically, we are making sure that our yeast is going to be the top dog inside that wort and it’s going to have the numbers to take over quickly. The yeast will immediately start munching on the sugars inside our homebrew and multiply to the point that nothing else will be able to compete.
But it doesn’t stop there!
The alcohol content
Next, those yeasties are going to be produced alcohol as a byproduct of their consumption of the sugar. While the alcohol content of your beer is never going to reach the same levels as what’s inside your hand sanitizer, there is still alcohol present and some germs (namely gram-negative pathogens like E. coli and Salmonella) are very sensitive to the presence of ethanol.
The presence of hops
In addition to being incredibly tasty, hops also have the additional benefit of being mildly antibacterial. That’s because they produce a lot of bioactive secondary metabolites that include alpha- and beta- acids. In testing, hops are often able to inactivate gram-positive bacteria such as S. aureus that the alcohol leaves behind by inhibiting their ability to replicate and colonize.
Essentially, this is just another hoop that germs will have to jump through.
The low pH (acidity)
Finally, we have the acidity of beer.
Most beers that you will brew or find commercially are going to have acidity in the neighborhood of pH 3.00-6.00. Anything below pH 7 is considered acidic and many germs have difficulty living and growing in environments with a pH of around 5.00 or less.
This means we have yet another way of ensuring that we are killing the bad germs inside our beer and leaving behind the wonderful, tasty beer stuff.
Can homebrew beer ever be dangerous?
We’ve covered a lot of ground when it comes to beer safety, but we do need to address the fact that it is possible for your beer to upset your stomach or generally not agree with you for a variety of reasons. So, in a sense, drinking homebrew could make you sick to your stomach in some cases.
Importantly, homebrew beer would almost never be considered actually dangerous to your health.
With that being said, something like an infected beer could definitely cause you problems.
How do you know if homebrew is bad or infected?
If your beer is infected, it won’t be hard to tell.
Even starting in the fermenter, you will likely be able to see signs that your beer has gotten an infection because the yeast will look strange or you might literally see something weird floating in your beer.
In most cases, you will see an oily sheen on the top of your beer that looks like thin, white ice sheets with jagged edges. Typical culprits are wild bacteria like lactobacillus or wild yeast such as Brettanomyces. If the infection has progressed pretty far, you will likely see a noticeable film called a ‘pellicle’ that could have stringy, ramen noodle-like strands or maybe thick bubbles attached to each other by webbing. Either way, that’s the bacteria trying to top off the liquid and protect itself from oxygen.
Even if you don’t see anything, you will almost always be able to taste an infection or other problem after the fermentation is complete. In fact, that’s one of the main reasons I always taste my homebrew before I bottle it. While a foul taste might make you gag or temporarily upset your stomach – it’s not going to hurt you.
In fact, many styles of beer actually embrace these infections or outright add the wild yeast into the recipe to get those funky flavors!
Can homemade beer make you blind?
I just want to answer this question quickly because people have asked it.
No, homemade beer cannot make you blind.
The whole idea that homemade alcohol can make you blind stems from the old days of moonshining and has to do with the difference between ethanol and methanol. While both of these things are chemically alcohols, ethanol is the stuff that we actually want to drink. Methanol, on the other hand, is extremely toxic to the body in larger doses and can cause blindness and death. During the process of distilling alcohol, it is possible to create this methanol instead of ethanol and get it to a concentration high enough to hurt someone.
Luckily, there is no way for your homebrew beer fermentation because yeast do not produce it at all.
So relax and have a homebrew!