Wait, What the Hell Is in My Beer? - Selling Out Week


By Zach Schepis

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

If the headline of this article grabbed your attention it’s probably because you fall into the camp of “current drinkers” that constitutes much of the nation. To put the matter into a less hazy perspective, the figure amounts to 52.1 percent of all individuals aged 12 or older as of 2012.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) estimates this to be an equivalent of 135.5 million Americans as of 2012.

Don’t worry–this isn’t another article hell-bent on combating alcoholism, or disclosing the dangers of underage drinking. Those are stories we’ve heard a million times before and we know them well by now. But knowing those facts doesn’t change a fundamental reality present here in America:

We sure love our beer.

Shouldn’t it then naturally follow that, to some degree, consumers in the US are making informed decisions about what they choose to drink? I mean, doesn’t it only make sense that we would possess some sort of understanding about the brewing process that makes our favorite (alcoholic) refreshment possible?

Unfortunately, the glaring fact is that most of us don’t have a clue what we’re pouring into our bodies, and would rather continue to perpetuate the blind consumption so long as we can stay happy and drunk.

According to Chemicals Additives in Beer by the Center of Science and Public Interest, beers sold in the country are legally allowed to contain any of the following ingredients: monosodium glutamate (MSG), high fructose corn syrup, genetically modified (GMO) sugars, caramel coloring 4-meI (recently found to be carcinogenic), insect-based dyes, and arsenic (limited to 10 micrograms per liter, but in some German beers revealed to be higher).


In an attempt to better clarify which companies are currently utilizing some of these not-so-savory ingredients in their brewing process, I reached out to a handful of the nation’s largest names in beer. The following are my findings:

Budweiser (Anheuser-Busch) – declined to comment.

MillerCoors Brewing Company – declined to comment.

Amstel Brouwerij – declined to comment.

What we have here is a failure to communicate. Or perhaps unwillingness would be a better word for it. Believe it or not, the United States does not require alcoholic beverages to list ingredients on their labels.

At the end of prohibition, the period from 1920-1933 when alcohol could not be manufactured or sold in the United States, Congress passed the Federal Alcohol Administration Act of 1935, which still stands in effect today. Rather than delegating the oversight of alcohol to the Food & Drug Administration, which regulates consumer food and beverages and subsequently demands nutrition labeling, Congress shifted the responsibility over to the Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). Congress recognized the potential profit in taxing alcohol and, as a result, the labeling of these beverages has gone by the wayside.

There has been a considerable amount of hype surrounding these mystery ingredients. Several prominent food blogs have been surfacing with warnings concerning these undeclared ingredients, turning up the intensity on heated forum debates as consumers try to make sense of what they have been enjoying carelessly for years.

It’s necessary that we ask the important questions, but if the beer companies won’t help us find answers, then who are we to turn to?

Enter the beer connoisseur, Matt Simpson, known as The Beer Sommelier.

You might ask yourself: how is it that someone can be qualified in beer? If you doubt this man’s credibility or veracity for the drink, consider just a small excerpt of his resume.

Simpson teaches Beer Education at Emory University. He’s also a BJCP Certified Judge, former President of Ale Atlanta (one of the largest organizations of craft beer specialists in the country), an Administrator for RateBeer.com (considered the largest beer website in the world), and both co-founder and Managing Editor of TheBeerCellar.com. He writes the “Ask Beer” column for BEER magazine, which has a national circulation of over 50,000.

Additionally, he is an award-winning homebrewer and boasts one of the largest beer cellars in the world.
Simpson recently spoke to BTR in order to shed some light on these issues and dispel any myths or false notions we might hold regarding breweries in America.

“It’s true that these huge corporate entities are using some of these ‘questionable’ ingredients,” Simpson explains. “I’ve walked through many of these large breweries and I’ve seen gigantic buckets of high fructose corn syrup. It’s not exactly a well-kept secret.”

The Beer Sommelier is quick to note that whether it’s beer or food, GMOs are becoming harder and harder to avoid. For beer companies who no longer care about upholding the traditional standards of the brewing process, high-fructose corn syrup allows their product to ferment quicker while simultaneously brightening the color.

But this doesn’t necessarily have to be something we are afraid of; just conscious of.

“We’ve been eating and drinking GMOs for decades,” he says, “utilizing variants of cross pollination that are thousands of years old. There has been cross-breeding of plants for generations. I would need to see some credible evidence proving that these methods are bad for you.”

Another recent controversy involved Guinness using “fish bladder” to brew their beer. Isinglass, a form of collagen produced from dried swim bladder, is used to produce a favorable buoyancy rate in water. It’s helpful in removing degenerated yeast cells and other leftovers in the fining process of brewing.

However, isinglass has aroused a stir in the vegan community, who are wary of a product that could contain traces of an animal.

Simpson doesn’t believe that isinglass should arouse any cause for concern.

“It may be fish bladder,” he explains, “but it’s only an adjunct in the flocculation process, which illuminates yeast in suspension. But there is insufficient in-suspension for any kind of marked noticeability. It’s such a trace amount that it doesn’t really even qualify as an ingredient.”

There is one way to stay happy if you’re concerned about quality of ingredients. According to Simpson, if you’re one of these people, then you should be drinking craft beers. Independent breweries don’t care about lightening their product with modifiers and choose to employ as few adjuncts as possible in their recipes.

For craft breweries everywhere, integrity, quality, and the art of brewing are the only concerns. Simpson points out that we’ve seen a serious boom in craft beer breweries over the past few years, though it’s unsurprising because “people realize that it tastes better.”

Plus, drinkers of craft beer actually know what the hell it is they’re consuming.