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The Worst Thing You Can Find in Your Beer is Invisible

Your typical beer drinker is a trusting one. Hand him a beer—-any beer. It might not be his favorite brand, but if he’s like most of us, if it’s a beer—-and it’s cold (and better yet, someone else is buying), it’s down the hatch without a second thought. Next time you twist a cap or pop a can, however, consider what might really be in that brew.

(WARNING: If you’re eating or drinking anything while reading any further, swallow hard, take a deep breath and then put your food or drink down).

An article in the Oregonian newspaper earlier this month reported on the possible consequences when you hand a warm beer to your drinking buddy.

David C. Shippentower, a 46-year old member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon, recently pleaded guilty in federal court to unintentionally killing his drinking buddy, Leonard D. Strong after a day of quality partying. It seems that Strong, a practical joker for sure, handed a can of beer filled with urine to Shippentower. The two of them had already knocked-off a dozen or so 24-ounce cans of suds when Strong decided to pull the old “switcheroo.” Obviously a latent beer connoisseur, Mr. Shippentower eventually realized what he was drinking and punched out his drinking buddy who later died of head injuries.

I’ve been unable to clarify whether Shippentower knew he had been punk’d on the first sip of urine or whether he had to get down to the “bad bottoms” of the can before he realized what he was really drinking. Haven’t we all been there?

A mouthful of urine is one thing—-what this poor beer drinker below knocked back on a cold winter night will probably have me staring into every bottle of beer I drink for the rest of my life.

On December 14, 1953, the Illinois Appellate Court made a ruling on the Heimsoth versus Falstaff Brewing Corporation case, a civil lawsuit that certainly made beer drinkers in Illinois take a second look in their beers before going “bottoms up!” This is one of those case studies that never come up at the De Paul College of Law.

Some background testimony on this important event in legal history that began in early 1953 in a small neighborhood tavern in East St. Louis, Illinois is certainly warranted before the reader passes judgment. What follows is a segment from the court’s ruling, based on eyewitness accounts of this beer drinking travesty:

The bartender said he took the cap off the bottle and when he took the cap off it was a live bottle of beer, made a popping noise, and foamed. Another witness confirmed the fact that the beer had foam on it and was a live bottle of beer. The bartender testified that no one tampered with the bottle during the six hours he was on duty, from 4:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. on April 2, 1951.

The plaintiff testified that he drank about half a bottle of beer and as he was drinking it he felt a slime go over his throat and he immediately had to vomit. After he had vomited and come back to the table he asked a friend who was sitting with him, who also testified, what was in the bottle, and both he and the friend, and the bartender, and other witnesses, looked at the bottle and saw that it contained a foreign substance which was a substance often referred to as a “rubber prophylactic contraceptive latex.” The plaintiff, another witness, and three doctors, testified that plaintiff became ill and suffered nausea, sustained a fixation neurosis, and had considerable loss in his business as a result of having consumed the bottle of beer with the latex prophylactic in it.

Spotting a “floater” in a beer or being handed a warm can of piss is one thing—-drinking an invisible, but potential biological time bomb is another.

In 1978, the United States Brewers Association (USBA) learned of a study in Germany in which traces of nitrosamines (DMNA) had been discovered in some European beers at an average level of two or three parts per billion (ppb). Twenty-two years earlier, scientists had found that high levels of this chemical compound could cause cancer in laboratory animals, targeting stomach and intestinal cells.

For almost one hundred years, nitrosamines had been added in sizable quantities to foods like bacon and packaged meats as an inexpensive means of preserving them. With the plodding efficiency of a typical bureaucratic organization, the FDA finally established limits on their use in foods in the early ‘70s.

Scientists in Germany, however, had found that the process of converting barley to malt, a necessary step in the beer-making process, also contributed to the formation of natural-forming nitrosamines. After the malted barley was mashed, the resultant wort fermented into beer; then bottled, canned, or from the tap, the beers literally became portable time bombs for beer drinkers. What compounded the problem was the additional discovery that alcohol actually enhanced the effects of nitrosamines.

The USBA immediately informed the appropriate U.S. federal agencies, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Food and Drug Administration, that trouble was really brewing in beer and issued a public release to that effect. American researchers affirmed that DMNA could be formed in the malting process, causing a complete revamping in how barley would be malted for American beers. This new malting technique included the use of sulfur during the malting procedure to inhibit the formation of DMNA.

So spooked was the American beer industry that consumers would stop drinking beer that breweries, like the Coors Brewing Company, took out full-page ads extolling the fact that their original and costly processing of malt insured the fact that “There are no detectable nitrosamines in Coors beer.”

As soon as the nitrosamine scare had begun, the FDA began randomly testing beers manufactured in the United States and foreign imports. Their results were startling. Of the 30 American brands of beers tested, none of the domestics were found to have exceed the 5 ppb level that the FDA had established as the maximum accepted level of DMNA in beer. Some domestics did, however, test very close to the acceptable level—-but the government refused to say which ones. What’s interesting about this FDA test, however, was that three import brands were named as exceeding the 5 ppb level; India Beer, made by Cerveceria India of Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, San Miguel Dark Beer of San Miguel Corporation of Manila, Philippines and Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery Pale Ale from Tadcaster Ltd. Of Yorks, England. Nothing like a little American nationalism during the middle of a beer crisis.

WLS-TV in Chicago decided to have their own testing of American and imported beers done while the very real beer scare was building in intensity. They commissioned Thermo Electron Laboratory in Waltham, Massachusetts who came up with some startling figures for the beers that they had tested:

Brand of Beer with Nitrosamines in PPB in 12 oz.

Stroh 2.0
Pabst 2.2
Old Style 2.5
Lowenbrau Light 2.7
Miller High Life 2.8
Olympia 3.1
Budweiser 3.3
Lowenbrau Dark 3.7
Schlitz Lite 3.8
Michelob 5.5
Schlitz Malt Liquor 7.7
Schlitz 7.7
Old Milwaukee 9.2
Erlanger 18.8

Brand of Beer with Nitrosamines in PPB in 12 oz.

Heineken 6.9
Heineken Special Dark 23.4

American and foreign brewers were given 6 months to demonstrate that their beers contained no detectable amounts of DMNA. Changes in the way that barley is malted and kilned (dried), have brought nitrosamine levels in malt down to “acceptable” levels today. Despite these measures, there are contemporary reports coming from the food science industry that link colorectal and stomach cancer with excessive beer consumption, thought to occur from the small, and currently acceptable, amount of nitrosamines that can still be found in beer. For every negative scientific report, however, there are just as many, if not more, studies that conclude that moderate consumption of beer has some healthful benefits.

Makes me wonder, though, why the federal government just doesn’t allow breweries to include ingredient and nutritional analysis information on beer containers?
Bottoms up!