Is Homebrew Dangerous? (With 4 Special Watch Outs!)

If you’ve brewed your own beer before and are familiar with the process, you may not be concerned about the safety of drinking it, but how do you convince your family and friends to try your homebrew. Could homebrew actually be dangerous?

It is very unlikely that homebrew beer will make you sick. In the case of poor sanitation, a brew may become infected with unpleasant flavors or aromas. Still, any potentially dangerous pathogens will not survive in the final fermentation due to the alcohol content. Fermented barley produces ethanol, not the much more dangerous methanol.

Keep reading to find out whether or not you can actually get sick from drinking homebrew beer and how to tell if your brew has gone off.

Can you die or get sick from drinking homebrew beer?

What exactly is your risk of getting sick from drinking homebrew beer?

There are few studies on how many people die from consuming homemade beer every year, as the numbers seem relatively low.

In the unlikely event that your homebrew does become unpalatable to the point of making you sick, poor sanitation is the likely culprit.

Even low ABV beer has enough alcohol in it to kill any truly harmful bacteria. On the flipside, fermenting hops produce ethanol, not the significantly more dangerous methanol.

While there have been some examples of people dying after consuming their homebrew, those cases are usually caused by adding after high-proof alcohol – 97% in some cases – to the beer and drinking it without regard for the now elevated ABV. You should be okay as long as you are following the beer recipe and not adding alcohol into your final brew.

Can infected homebrew make you sick?

Any of the ingredients in homebrew beer, be it yeast, wheat, hops, sugar, etc., are susceptible to being “infected” by one thing or another. But can the brew itself be infected?

The homebrewing process, though it can vary, is generally designed at its core to minimize infection. 

Sanitizing equipment, boiling temperatures, and minimizing the amount of time the brew is exposed to open air contribute to infection control. These processes, if done correctly, should minimize the risk of infection. It is when they are done incorrectly that the brew becomes at risk. 

Should you suspect that your homebrew is infected, you should notice right away without having to do extensive testing. It will smell and taste terrible. That being said, even infected beer is unlikely to do more than upset your stomach, as even low amounts of alcohol in the beer will kill any very harmless bacteria the brew may have picked up.

Is there methanol (wood alcohol) in homebrew beer?

Methanol can lead to toxicity, leading to death, but how can you be sure that you’re not accidentally producing it in your homebrew? 

Methanol should not be confused with ethanol. Ethanol is produced when yeast ferments malted barley (aka the typical process for brewing beer). In contrast, methanol can be produced by fermenting fruits and vegetables (which is more akin to distilling liquor).

It is doubtful that homebrews will contain any ingredients that could produce methanol.

How do you test homebrew for methanol?

Generally speaking, you will not accidentally create enough methanol in the homebrew process to be a danger. But, if you’d rather be safe than sorry, you can test for it. 

There are several ways to test your homebrew (or any alcohol) for methanol:

  1. Smell it! Methanol will have a chemical smell, and will not be pleasant. This odor is not always detectable, however. 
  2. Burn it. Burn a sample of the alcohol. If the flame is blue, it is safe. If the flame is yellow, it is not. Keep in mind that this will only work if there is a large amount of alcohol in your brew, so it’s not a failsafe test.
  3. Apply a sodium dichromate sample to a sample of the alcohol. Mix two parts sodium dichromate solution with one part sulfuric acid. Add a few drops of the alcohol into the solution, and swirl. Using your hand or a fan, waft the scent coming from the top of the container to your nose. If it is fruity, the beverage is safe. If it is overly pungent, it contains too much methanol. 
  4. Sweden is working on a device that will tell you the methanol content in alcohol.

Can ethanol turn into methanol?

This would be incredibly hard to do organically and accidentally, and I would be surprised if you had somehow managed to do so in your homebrewing process.

The process to convert ethanol into methanol is chemically complex and will not happen accidentally.

Scientifically speaking, the ethanol would (usually) need to be converted to acetic acid first. This happens when the ethanol is oxidized. Following this step, you would need to treat the oxygenated ethanol with ammonia, which will create ethanamide. Treating an amide with a bromide (Hoffman bromamide reaction) will leave you with methanol. 

How to tell if homebrew beer is safe to drink

How can you keep yourself and others safe from the previously discussed nasty side effects of bad brew?

To check your beer for potential infection:

  • Conduct a sniff test
  • Do a visual check
  • Give is a taste

Make sure the homebrew passes the sniff test

Just like testing for methanol, make sure that the beer doesn’t give off any funky malodors.

If you’re concerned that your homebrew may have been compromised, give it a sniff. Your beer should smell yeasty and, well, like beer. If it smells like something other than the ingredients you used, it’s probably because something unwelcome snuck in.

If the brew smells like a band-aid, it could be due to a bacterial infection caused by poor sanitation and can make you sick. 

A rancid cheese smell would also indicate a bacterial infection. Once again, steer clear of malodors. 

Check for signs of infection before bottling homebrew

You don’t always have to stick your nose into the glass or the bottle to determine whether you’ve got a bad brew. You can also see if it’s infected.

An oily sheen at the surface of the brew may be indicative of an infection caused by wild yeast called Brettanomyces. You will also be able to see if your beer is infected with mold, which will be fuzzy and discolored and sit atop the beer.

The good news is that unless your brew has been sitting for too long, it shouldn’t grow mold. Also, the mold cannot usually withstand the alcohol in the beer, so it will just sit on the surface and can be scraped off. 

Flavors can warn of infection

Okay, if you completely ignored both the visual test and the sniff test and went straight for the taste test, you will likely be able to tell if there is an infection in the brew based on the off-flavors.

The unexpected flavors will be unpleasant most of the time, and you won’t want to drink the rest of the brew. However, there are favorable flavors that can indicate something is not quite right with the brews. 

For example, when the yeast doesn’t finish its job in the fermentation process, the result can be too-high levels of diacetyl which can sometimes be dangerous. Though there are debates over the “safe” levels of diacetyl are, they can be detected by a buttery or butterscotch flavor in the brew.

Your chances of dying from drinking homebrew are extremely low

Unless you over-consume, as long as the brewer is performing proper sanitization techniques, you should not be at risk of falling ill or dying due to drinking homebrew beer.

That being said, if you are still concerned, you are well armed with plenty of insider tips to test the brew and make sure that it is safe for you to consume!

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