Germans in the 16th century had the right idea. Beer, they said, should not contain anything except water, barley and hops. That, at least, was the idea behind the German beer purity law of 1516. Contemporary beers, however, do sometimes contain additives that diverge a bit from the famed Reinheitsgebot, the German term for the beer purity law. But U.S. law forces brewers to disclose preservatives in only rare instances. It is possible, however, to deduce what might be in U.S. beer by examining disclosure practices of other countries and the history of beer making.
Beer brewed under the purity law does contain preservatives: alcohol and hops. Alcohol is a natural preservative that fights off bacteria. Brewers hope that fermentation and production of alcohol will occur rapidly enough to innoculate the brew. The addition of hops, which impart a bitter or citrus flavour to brew, also act as a preservative, according to the Oregon Hops Commission.
U.S. beer brewers are required to disclose only a handful of additives, according to the International Center on Alcohol Policy. In particular, brewers must disclose whether a beer contains sulphur dioxide in excess of 10 parts per million, and Yellow No. 5. Beer drinkers down under have a better understanding of preservatives in their beers. Australia and New Zealand produce a list of preservatives under a combined Food Standards Code. The law codifies important preservatives and lists common products that might contain them. Beer preservatives include sulphur dioxide, sorbic acid, Ethyl para-hydroxybenzoate, Propylparaben, Methyl para-hydroxybenzoate, among others. Fosters, for example, notes that its products contain a small amount of sulphur dioxide. Sulphur dioxide occurs naturally as part of the brewing process, but is also added. But remember that chemicals that appear on the Aussie list are not necessarily in every beer in Australia or any other country.
Formaldehyde is used by some breweries to preserve shelf life and improve clarity of the beer. Chinese researchers in a 2006 study noted that formaldehyde used to be a widespread processing aid but is falling out of favour in response to consumer expectations. The researchers reviewed academic literature and reported that in a 2005 European study, 65 per cent of European beers contained a detectable amount of formaldehyde. The report noted that formaldehyde can form naturally as a result of fermentation. In all cases, levels of formaldehyde found were below levels considered dangerous by the World Health Organization.
Beer without Preservatives
A handful of brewers have touted the absence of preservatives in their beer. Straub Beer, Coors, and beers brewed by Unibroue all note the absence of preservatives in their beer.
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- Oregon Hops Commission
- International Center on Alcohol Policy: Beverage Labeling Laws by Country
- Fosters Customer Help FAQ: Are there preservatives in beer?
- Australian Food Standards List of Preservatives
- Scientific Societies: Investigation into Benzene, Trihalomethan and Formaldehyde in Chinese Lager Beers