News broke this weekend that the Australian government was concerned about Indigenous communities using Vegemite to brew alcohol. The government even floated the idea of banning the spread in some places where alcohol was already banned. Can you really brew alcohol using Vegemite? In short: No.
"Addiction of any type is a concern but communities, especially where alcohol is banned, must work to ensure home brewing of this type does not occur," Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion said in a statement. The Minister went on to say that it was the responsibility of retailers to report suspicious purchases in Indigenous Australian communities. The only problem? It's all bullshit.
One reason that this story is so easy to misinterpret is that a key ingredient of Vegemite is brewer's yeast. Sounds pretty moonshine-y, doesn't it? In one of the countlessly bad articles that ran this weekend, the BBC wrote, "Brewer's yeast is a key ingredient in the spread and is used in the production of beer and ale."
Which is true. Except that the yeast in Vegemite is deactivated as it's processed. As my wife said yesterday when we were talking about the story, trying to extract brewer's yeast from Vegemite would be like trying to extract an egg from a cake.
Sydney-based radio producer and science writer Signe Cane also explained why you couldn't brew alcohol from Vegemite in a blog post last night, where she described the viral story as "completely bunk":
In short, the yeast in Vegemite is dead as doornails and broken down into what's not even a vague semblance of the original fungus. If the yeast is dead, there is no way it can produce alcohol. Because it's dead. Unless they added some live yeast back into Vegemite, and that yeast somehow magically survived the high-salt environment, the sandwich spread almost certainly can't metabolise sugar.
So what's really going on here? At best, it's simple ignorance and someone in the Australian government unknowingly serving up urban legends about Indigenous Australians. At worst, it's old fashioned racism spread by the Australian government to insult Indigenous communities.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott, (known around the world as Australia's George W. Bush), quickly chimed in to assure Australians that he wasn't going to ban Vegemite anywhere, despite the tripe that his own Indigenous Affairs Minister was dishing.
"This is a deregulatory Government and the last thing I want to do is to have a Vegemite watch," Abbott said. "Because Vegemite, quite properly, is for most people a reasonably nutritious spread on your morning toast or on your sandwiches."
"What's important is that we ensure that remote communities, all communities, are being properly policed," Abbott continued.
This invocation of Vegemite as a nutritious and wholesome food is no accident. Vegemite is instantly recognisable as all-Australian. And a cynic might view his government's story about Indigenous Vegemite moonshine as a calculated smear campaign. Especially since Abbott's follow-up suggests this Vegemite moonshine story might be a pretence for further intervention in Indigenous communities.
You can make alcohol out of practically anything — fruits, potatoes, grain. And technically you could probably add Vegemite to whatever homebrew you're making. But it's not going to help the fermentation process any more than a humble potato alone would. The yeast is simply dead. Let's just hope the Abbott government doesn't propose banning french fries next.