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The F Word of Brewing is Methanol

Recent incidents with methanol poisoning have hit a nerve with journalists and the result has been a heightened public concern about the danger of brewing alcohol. And there has been a particular focus on that social skulduggery called home brewing. We’re the pirates of the modern suburbs.

Therefore, it seems necessary to post some information on this web page and then direct people here rather than endlessly banter about it in social situations. Because most people we talk to have no idea about methanol – it’s invisible, relatively tasteless and lethal in small(ish) doses. Like white pointer sharks at the local beach. Even though these people probably consume methanol regularly at acceptable levels.

The ABC National radio episodes A drink to die for? Avoiding methanol poisoning and Methanol poisoning: the dangers of distilling spirits at home have enough information for the average drinker (or home brewer). Yes, methanol is something to be aware of when fermenting but the real danger is improper distillation.

If you’re making alcohol below 12% ABV the dangers are low.

That’s to say, methanol and ethanol are produced when fermenting mead. But methanol is also present in the fruit juice in your refrigerator. The real danger is when you push fermented booze through a still to concentrate the alcohol (both methanol and ethanol). Methanol, being lighter, comes through first and should be discarded. In Australia the methanol quantity is heavily regulated in spirits before bottling. Overseas, in places like Bali, can be a different case.

The vast majority of the cases reaching the news have come from outside Australia (the only exception being the three men from Queensland who recently died from drinking grappa). The main culprit lately seems to be locally produced liquor sold in tourist bars in Bali. So beware drinking cocktails in Bali. There’s also the recent case in Cuba where 11 died, but this was from intentional bottling of methanol to be sold as traditional rum. Certainly not a brewing accident.

The Tasmanian case where two men at St Helens died several days apart was widely reported as suspected methanol poisoning. But it was proven false. Both men were sober. However, once a falsehood is reported there is no putting the fact back into the bag. The perception that home brewed alcohol is a death trap perpetuates. Googling the St Helens incident shows that the falsehood reports of methanol poisoning are more widely available, but it’s more difficult to locate the story that revealed both men died of unrelated natural causes. At this point it stopped being news.

One thing to add is that drinkers (and brewers) should be aware of the threat of methanol. But consider how many home and professional brewers there are in the World and how few cases of methanol poisoning occur. It’s only when people don’t research how to use their distilling equipment – or otherwise concentrate alcohol as apple jack cider or honey jack mead – that real danger unfolds.

Jacking is the process of freezing the water content off cider or mead and saving the concentrated alcohol. It can be an awesome drink; but the methanol concentrates along with the ethanol. That’s sailing close to the methanol poisoning wind.

And, if you’re still curious, that’s why honey jacking mead is illegal.

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About the Author

Steven Clark Steven Clark - the stand up guy on this site

My name is Steven Clark (aka nortypig) and I live in Southern Tasmania. I have an MBA (Specialisation) and a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Tasmania. I'm a photographer making pictures with film. A web developer for money. A business consultant for fun. A journalist on paper. Dreams of owning the World. Idea champion. Paradox. Life partner to Megan.

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