The Devil’s Brew

Most beers in Thailand don’t taste very good to me, and some of the stronger ones can pack quite a punch with monumental hangovers as a result. During one of my many stays on the island called Koh Chang, an old friend from the UK, who runs a bar, showed me a shocking trick with a bottle of Thai beer. Using a glass bowl, three-quarters filled with water, he removed the cap from one of Thailand’s most popular beers and placed his thumb over the top. He then held the bottle upside down in the water before removing his thumb. What happened next was astonishing. I could see the chemical preservatives being withdrawn from the beer, and after a couple of minutes the process was complete. After removing the bottle, he compared it next to an unopened one to show me the extent of removal which was around 15 percent. So for every large bottle of beer I drank, there was about a cup of preservative in it. No wonder the beers taste so bitter and cause such brutal hangovers.

Thai beers tend to be strong; the Thai favourite Singha being a relatively strong beer at around 6% ABV. The strongest is Chang beer which would beat Stella Artois in a bar fight any night of the week. For many years, I drank Leo, a good all-rounder, but after seeing the amount of preservatives used in Thai beer, I moved on Heineken; however I was still dubious to how it was made. The problem is that in hot countries storing beer is not always easy, and often arrives on the back of a pick-up truck exposed to the sun and heat of the day. Once it is delivered it probably doesn’t always go straight into a fridge, so preserving the beer is difficult.

I have been told by several people, often with much glee, that the beer in Vietnam is very cheap, but what the hell are they putting in it? During the Vietnam War, US soldiers used to drink 4% ABV beer on military bases, which used to arrive on huge pallets labelled: ‘This beer contains Formaldehyde,’ a well-known preservative. In my efforts to find more information about the types of chemicals used in Thai beer, I discovered, depending on who you talk to, it is either Glycerol or cancer causing Formalin, a derivative from Formaldehyde, utilised in the preservation of corpses.

Glycerol is widely believed to be harmless and is shockingly used in a variety of foods in the West for its preservative qualities. I have always been a firm believer that it doesn’t matter what the so called ‘experts’ say, no one should be putting any chemicals into their bodies, especially the amounts that are in just one bottle of beer. Just because something doesn’t give you cancer right away doesn’t mean it won’t cause sickness in later in life. Glycerol is used by the food industry for many things: as a preservative, a thickener and as a sweetener. It has been known to cause headaches, dizziness, bloating, nausea, vomiting, thirst and diarrhoea, which of course sounds like the effects of too much alcohol anyway, but these chemicals are not doing anyone any favours and simply cannot be good for sustaining long-term health. The more I delved into this subject, the more I discovered it is not exclusive to Thailand but all over Southeast Asia. The climate of many Asian countries is not ideal for beer storage and many chemicals are used to prevent sediment from forming in the bottles.

Perhaps a more immediate worry is the potential use of Formalin, which has been well documented in the past as a preservative in Asian beer. After chatting to a retired American ex-serviceman, in Melaka, one afternoon (over a beer), who told me that he knew a few guys that had died from leukaemia (which is associated with the consumption of Formaldehyde). He confirmed that crates did indeed arrive labelled, “Contains beer with formaldehyde,” which led me to believe this may have been where the use of nasty chemicals may have started, at least in Vietnam. Chinese beer is also notorious for Formaldehyde. It has been suggested their breweries add small amounts to the mash, to act as a clarifying agent, and although many companies deny it, it is my opinion, that many still permit Formaldehyde in their mashing process. Which is why the beer I was drinking at the hostel in Guangzhou was only 40 yuan (40p) a bottle. There is no doubt, in my mind, that chemical preservatives are being used in Asian beers because I performed the experiment myself and, once I had removed the chemicals, the beer tasted so much crisper, and I hardly felt any ill effects the morning after.

This article is taken from the book, A Learning Curve, by Paul Raftery.


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