Can you die of methanol poisoning from homemade beer?

Friday, September 18, 2020

Can you accidentally make methanol when home brewing beer and go blind or die?

The short answer is no. 

Read on for why it's impossible to produce lethal levels of methanol when brewing beer. 

From time to time newbie brewers ask if they might accidentally distil methanol when getting into beer production.

This is because methanol is quite a dangerous alcohol and has a reputation of making those exposed to too much of it go blind. It is indeed quite toxic to the human body and it will cause some very nasty side effects - ranging from total blindness to the worst of which is death by poisoning.

Everyone has heard the stories of some hard Russian sailors on a fishing boat going blind from drinking homemade spirits right but is it really a common thing?

The answer to the question is that the ordinary beer home brewing process makes the alcohol called ethanol - not methanol. So you can't get methanol poisoning, no matter how much extra sugar you add when trying to make a high AVB batch.

Some methanol can be produced but this is at such minor levels that have no effect on the beer or effect on the body when consumed.

Fruit beers that contain pectin could have slightly higher levels of the spirit but the effect is still negligible.

The reality then is there no risk of making a beer batch of methanol and going blind. It's more likely that you will just get 'blind drunk' and have a wicked hangover on Sunday morning. 

There are however some genuine risks if one is distilling alcohol i.e. making spirits - backyard operations can indeed produce batches where the methanol content can be lethal (or more sinisterly methanol is added deliberately and sold on the bootleg market). 

It's for this reason, most countries in the world have made the distillation of spirits illegal - plenty of stills can be bought on Amazon though!

It is allowed in New Zealand but only for personal consumption, you can't sell it or share it with mates. 

The science of distillation is quite complicated and there appears to be a myth around methanol production. The key point to understand that if you are homebrew brewing beer, there's no risk of making a killer brew.

Distillation on the other hand... stay away from that unless you've been properly trained or are making a batch under the watchful eye of an experienced distiller. 

What is the treatment method for methanol poisoning?

Methanol toxicity is the result of consuming methanol...

The horrific symptoms may include a decreased level of consciousness, poor coordination, vomiting, abdominal pain, and a specific smell on the breath. The famous effect of decreased vision or blindness may start as early as twelve hours after exposure to the liquid.

The blindness is caused by the methanol being broken down by the body into formic acid when then has a debilitating and damaging effect on the eye's optic nerve.

There is a cure that is time-sensitive. The sooner the antidote, fomepizole, is taken, the increased likelihood of a good outcome for the victim.

Other treatment options include dialysis and consumption of sodium bicarbonate, folate, and thiamine.

This is of course, not medical advice. If you have a consumption incident, seek medical services assistance immediately. 

And stay away from dodgey Russian sailors...
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