For many centuries ingredients, other than the traditional ones namely malted cereals, hops, sugars and water, have been used by brewers and regulations for their use have existed almost as long. Adulteration of beers, wines and spirits has occurred for most of their respective long histories and the fact that some adulterants were possibly injurious to the health of consumers was recognised early. One of the better known regulations designed to ensure purity of beer was the Reinheitsgebot, introduced in Bavaria in the late 15th century, which confined brewers to the use of malt (usually made from barley, but sometimes other cereals), hops, water and yeast only.
A report of the UK Commissioners of Inland Revenue in the 1850s (1) indicated that the following additives had been found in the possession of licensed brewers of about half of the samples of beer examined over a period of 12 years: Aloes, caramel, carbonate of soda, chillies, chiretta, cocculus indicus, common salt, coriander seeds, gentian root, grains of paradise, liquorice, quassia, saltpetre, sulphate of iron, sulphuric acid, tobacco.
In Australia, adulteration was apparently also rife because in 1875 the Victorian Government Analyst’s laboratory was swamped by a flood of beer samples taken in response to claims of adulteration. (2) The difficulties experienced by early colonial brewers, including recurrent shortages of malt and hops of reasonable quality, no doubt led them to use various additives in attempts to correct or mask defects in beer quality. It is known that the use of sugar as an additional source of fermentable material was introduced in the 1860s by brewers endeavouring to counter the deleterious effects of the use of poor quality malts of lower fermentation potential. (3)
Sugar (generally sucrose, but also invert sugar) was not an adulterant, although in the eyes of some purists of the day it was considered as such. The use of sugars in brewing was legalized in the UK in 1847 and Australian brewers gradually adopted cane sugar as a reliable source of carbohydrate; initially this sugar was imported, generally from Mauritius. By the 1880s, worts in which up to 30 per cent of the available (fermentable) extract was derived from sugar were common, particularly when ‘colonial’ (local) cane sugar of reasonable quality became available. Eventually, in the early decades of the 20th century, a distinctive lager beer style, characterized by the use of cane sugar, emerged in Australia. (4)
In 1901 the South Australian Government commissioned a report (5) on The Analysis of Beer Manufactured in SA and asked brewers in that state to declare materials ‘other than malt, hops, sugar and water’ used in their brews. The list of such materials derived from this enquiry included calcium bisulphite, caramel, gum heading, isinglass (treated with tartaric acid), potassium metabisulphite, saccharin, salicylic acid, sodium chloride, sulphurous acid and vinegar. The gum heading was probably gum Arabic; salicylic acid, sulphurous acid and sulphites were employed as preservatives and isinglass (now considered to be a processing aid) is a traditional fining or clarifying agent. Of the 22 breweries questioned, seven declared that they did not use any additional materials and 14 of the remainder used isinglass. Salt (sodium chloride) was a relatively common sundry material in Britain and Australia but saccharin was then added by very few brewers; the mention of vinegar by one brewer is mystifying (unless it was used to ‘cut’ or soften the isinglass).
The report on beers from the breweries surveyed was far from flattering as it declared ‘ that out of a poor lot, two were passable and even they fell below the standard of good beer’. It stated that ‘brewers in this State may brew from any materials that may be made to ferment …’ and recommended that ‘regulations should be enforced to ensure the production of a good, sound and wholesome article in place of the improperly described liquor now consumed under the name of beer’.
Pure Food Acts and their regulations were slowly developed from 1905 (when Victoria introduced the first relevant Act, regulating the composition of foods and beverages) but it was not until the latter half of the last century that food regulation really became a public issue. Various committees were set up in 1955 by the Commonwealth Dept of Health, under the auspices of the National Health & Medical Research Council (NHMRC). Among these were the Food Standards Committee (FSC) and Food Additives Committee (FAC). Although FSC and FAC had the joint aim of coordinating activities designed to derive new and standardized food regulations for adoption by all states and territories, they had no ‘teeth’ and could only recommend adoption. (2) In many cases the states modified the suggested standards to suit their own circumstances and it was not until the advent in 1991 of another federal body, the National Food Authority, now known as Food Standards Australia & New Zealand (FSANZ), that true national standardization was achieved.
For the past 100 years or so, the use of sundry materials or additives has been confined to those designed to enhance the flavour or physical characteristics of beer and/or to improve its keeping quality. Today, the list of additives permitted in Australia and New Zealand is short and includes antioxidants, colouring and flavouring agents, foam stabilizers and preservatives. The use of a number of prescribed processing aids is also permitted; these are materials which do not remain in the finished beer nor create deleterious by-products and include isinglass and other clarifying and stabilizing agents.
The current FSANZ Standard 2.7.2 – Beer reads as follows:
In this Standard –
Beer means the product, characterised by the presence of hops or preparations of hops, prepared by the yeast fermentation of an aqueous extract of malted or unmalted cereals, or both.
A reference to beer includes a reference to ‘ale’, ‘lager’, ‘pilsener’, ‘porter’ and
2. Addition of other foods during preparation –
The following foods may be added to beer during production –
a. cereal products or other sources of carbohydrate; and
b. sugar, and
c. salt, and
d. herbs and spices
Under Standard 1.3.1 – Food Additives the following additives are permitted in beer:
- ascorbic acid and sodium, calcium and potassium ascorbates
- carbon dioxide
- erythorbic acid and potassium erythorbate
- flavourings, excluding caffeine and quinine
- propylene glycol alginate
- sulphur dioxide and sodium and potassium sulphites
[all additions permitted at Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) rates, with exception of sulphur dioxide and sulphites where limit is 25 mg/kg SO2][From www.comlaw.gov.au Jan 10, 2012]
Additionally, a number of processing aids are permitted in the manufacture of beer with the proviso that neither these aids nor by-products derived therefrom remain in the beer.
1. A history of English Ale & Beer; H A Monckton, The Bodley Head, London (1966)
2. To Feed a Nation. Keith Farrer, CSIRO Publishing, Collinwood Vic (2005)
3. Beer Barons or Bankrupts? Early Brewers in South Australia; Alison Painter, in the press (2012)
4. From British Ale to Australian Lager – A hundred Years of Change, J V Harvey, Proceedings of 19th Convention, The Institute of Brewing (Australia & New Zealand Section). Hobart, 9 (1986)
5. Report on, and Analysis of, Beer Manufactured in South Australia, WA Hargraves & P Robinson, Govt of SA, Adelaide (1901)