A kick in the guts

CROOK: Beer served from unclean pipes can give you a sore belly.
CROOK: Beer served from unclean pipes can give you a sore belly.

A couple of weeks back I was pretty crook - really bad stomach pains followed by what usually happens when you get food poisoning.

Problem was, I couldn't identify the food. My wife and I ate the same leftover chicken curry and she was fine; a colleague and myself had the same takeaway at work at the same time and he was fine.

The only thing I could think of was the pint of beer I'd had just after seeing off the first edition of the newspaper, and just before the All Blacks-Wallabies test in Sydney.

A pint of beer making me sick? I couldn't stomach the thought. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that, at the time, the pint didn't taste fantastic and I'd quickly declined a second. On Tuesday, back at work, the bloke I'd supped ale with confirmed the theory, reporting a similarly crook gut.

But I was still left wondering how the beer could have made me ill, as it's pretty hard for nasty bugs to survive in beer because of the alcohol and hops. Even beer that is past its best-by date won't make you crook - it might taste a bit oxidised and tired (or it might actually improve!) but it won't be infested with stomach-churning bugs.

Which left me thinking that it had to be the equipment. I'm assuming the glasses were washed properly in a dishwasher and went under the tap in a clean state. That leaves the actual lines used to dispense normally sterile kegged beer. Is it possible these bits of equipment can get so dirty it can make you ill?

The answer, sadly, is yes.

Some quick research tells me that plenty of people have suffered gastro infections from drinking beer dispensed from unclean pipes. It's not something any of us really think about - at least I didn't. I just assumed every decent pub would make sure their equipment was properly cleaned.

The lesson is that if you're drinking a beer and it tastes a bit off, talk to the bartender. Ask them directly whether the lines have been cleaned recently. Hopefully, if they're proud of their establishment, they'll tell you "yes". If they're defensive or evasive, ask for your money back and go somewhere else, because unclean beer lines can contain all sorts of bacteria and mould.

The same applies if you buy bottled beer and it tastes off. You can check the expiry date yourself and return if it's past it's best. But if the date is OK and you still suspect something's amiss, it could be that it's been stored in a too warm environment for too long, speeding up the staling process. Also, those bottles could be light-struck because someone left them outside in the sun, which turns the usually benevolent hop flavour into a "skunky" foulness.

Whatever the case, if your beer doesn't seem right, treat it like food that's undercooked, burned or handled unhygienically - take it back and ask for another.

It's worth it, because the results of drinking bad beer are pretty debilitating - and I now know there's one pub I won't be drinking at again, no matter how thirsty I am, at least until I've asked them about their cleaning processes.


Twitter: @mjwd

The Sunday Star-Times' beer columnist, Michael Donaldson.
The Sunday Star-Times' beer columnist, Michael Donaldson.

Sunday Star Times