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Old 07-29-2010, 09:41 PM   #1
mattozan
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Default Methanol in Kenyan brew

I've been following this story of methanol poisoning in Kenya.

See below for other links regarding the culture of illicit brewing/distilling of "chang'aa" in Kenya. It seems like some accounts are misusing the terms "distilled" and "fermented," so I'm a bit unclear as to whether chang'aa and bus'aa are equivalent to beer or liquor.

I'm pretty sure chang'aa, the drink at fault, is a grain-based (maize or sorghum) distilled spirit. It sounds like the methanol was actually added to the spirit, not just occurring naturally. The accounts keep repeating this line that the methanol is added to "increase the fermentation rate" and enable quicker production.

My question: Would the addition of methanol, or even "jet fuel," actually increase yeast fermentation activity? (leaving aside whether it would be a sane or insane idea)

Or do they really just mean that these additives are used to artificially increase the alcoholic content?

From what I have read, the CNS will react similarly to both ethanol and methanol, so adding methanol would, in fact, give a beverage more "kick." The problem occurs in the liver, where the same metabolic path that turns ethanol into ascetic acid turns methanol into formic acid and formaldehyde (resulting in blindness and organ failure).

It doesn't seem like a good business model to just add straight poison to a product. So I'm assuming these additions have some chemical purpose. Any idea what that purpose might really be?

  1. BBC- Life after dark in Nairobi's slum
  2. Daily Nation- Out in a Den with a Busaa Drinker


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Old 07-29-2010, 10:06 PM   #2
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I have no source to give you, but a while ago I did some general research to see if there was any risk to create methanol while distilling or brewing at home.

The general conclusion was that methanol is always created during fermentation, but in very small quantities. It is also true for commercial brewers. The action of distilling will only concentrate the methanol the same way it concentrates the ethanol, but there is still no risk doing it.

You can't mess up in any way brewing or distilling that will create dangerous quantities of methanol.

The only way to get blind like it happened in Kenya is to add methanol directly in the brew after the fermentation or after the distillation. Such quantity do not result from fermentation itself. Also, adding it before the fermentation would only prevent the yeast to ferment more (ethanol and methanol are poison), the same way that a +/- 15% alcohol brew will stop fermenting even if there are some fermentable in it. It would not improve fermentation in any way.

Also, the effect on methanol on your body is the same as ethanol, only you get much more drunk with the same quantity (also, you can get blind or die).

EDIT: The answer to your question is bold.



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Old 07-30-2010, 05:57 PM   #3
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I looked at the sources on that wiki page (except the ones from the economist, because I don't subscribe and therefore couldn't see them). None of them suggested that addition of adulturants does anything to improve fermentation. Only the wikipedia page said that, which leads me to believe that this is a case of someone posting something who either limited understanding of the english language, the process of fermentation/distillation, or both. I can't see any way in which adding that stuff to the fermentation would improve it. Though it would give a watered down product more of a "kick".

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Old 07-30-2010, 06:03 PM   #4
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I think they aren't increasing the rate of fermentation, but using the additives as a shortcut to increase the alcohol content. The producers do not care that the alcohol in question is methanol, and thus more dangerous. This has been a common practice throughout the ages with all types of booze, especially in unregulated environments.

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Old 07-30-2010, 06:23 PM   #5
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Undead8 View Post
The general conclusion was that methanol is always created during fermentation, but in very small quantities. It is also true for commercial brewers. The action of distilling will only concentrate the methanol the same way it concentrates the ethanol, but there is still no risk doing it.
Not to sidetrack too much here, and I don't want to get too in depth with distillation talk because that's not allowed on here. I don't distill myself and won't as long as it's illegal for me to do so, but I do have an interest in the subject and have learned about it through distillery tours as well as non-liquor related distillation knowledge coming from academia.

Anyways, the point I'm going for is that, if done very improperly, distillation will in fact concentrate methanol. Distillers will use the terms 'heads' and 'tails' to refer to the stuff they collect at the beginning and at the end of the distillation process which they do not include in the final product. If an inexperienced, malicious, or stupid distiller were to collect the heads and not keep enough of the ethanol they're going for they may end up with higher concentrations of methanol.

If done properly, distillation will remove most of the methanol.

Regardless, the problem here is things being added, most likely after fermentation, to try to cheaply increase the potency of these beverages.
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Old 07-30-2010, 07:05 PM   #6
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I thought this was an issue during the 1920s when prohibition in the US outlawed alcohal sales and use. Apparently, back then, non-ethal type alcohals were sometimes added to moonshine and that casues many health problems including blindness.

Ethal is no lady but she does not kill!

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Old 08-04-2010, 04:53 PM   #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by mattozan View Post
It doesn't seem like a good business model to just add straight poison to a product. So I'm assuming these additions have some chemical purpose. Any idea what that purpose might really be?
Methanol is not a "straight poison." From a toxicology standpoint, it is the dose of a compound/element that makes it poisonous, not the compound/element. In large doses, ethanol is poisonous, water, iron, selenium, vitamin c, b, k and any other compound are toxic according to the dose. Some take very little mass to be toxic to humans.

We consume a lot of methanol from fruits, where by we get methyl esters from pectin. Apples are high in pectin and so are oranges. Methanol is metabolized into formaldehyde which is further metabolized into formic acid. Methanol and formaldehyde are volatile while formic acid is relatively stable. If you are able to respire the methanol and formaldehyde before metabolization into formic adic, you are ok. The best antidote, based on availability and relative toxicity, for methanol poisoning is ethanol. Ethanol competes with the metabolic conversion of methanol.


As far as the addition of methanol for a chemical purpose with the fermentation process, there is none. Methanol is volatile compared to any substrate that is involved in fermentation and would want to enter gaseous phase and convert to formaldehyde rather than interact with the substrate.

As for jet fuel, kerosene would be interesting to study. Kerosene is not exactly a barren substrate for organisms and a concern for diesel injection systems. But drinking kerosene would be toxic in low dose and I cannot foresee the benefits of kerosene with fermentation.
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Old 08-04-2010, 05:11 PM   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by robertbartsch View Post
I thought this was an issue during the 1920s when prohibition in the US outlawed alcohal sales and use. Apparently, back then, non-ethal type alcohals were sometimes added to moonshine and that casues many health problems including blindness.

Ethal is no lady but she does not kill!

A LDlo of methanol is on the order of 143mg/kg. Quite a bit of methanol.

Ethanol is about LDlo 1400mg/kg. But we drink a lot more ethanol than methanol.


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