BEER CLINIC :: Why I Drink Beer

by Dr. Carol Westbrook on January 1, 2011

Ed: Dr. Carol Westbrook is a medical oncologist. She received an M.D. and a Ph.D. (biochemistry) from the University of Chicago, and spent 20 years in academic medicine, teaching and doing cancer research. Dr. Westbrook is also an amateur brewer and an occasional contributor to this column.


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I’m a doctor, and I drink beer.
I drink beer because I like it,
I’m fascinated by it, and
it’s okay to drink beer.

Yes, I drink other alcoholic beverages, but I have a special fondness in my heart for beer. My attraction to it has been attributed to my Polish ancestry (100% on both parents’ sides). But I think I would have become a beer drinker regardless of my ancestry, because I really and truly just like the taste of it.

I am always surprised to find people who don’t like beer. To me, beer is a wonderfully natural, refreshing beverage that has been enjoyed by humans for as long as we have been cultivating our own food crops.

Who couldn’t love it?  Yes, there are folks who don’t like beer because they don’t – or can’t – drink alcohol, and there are a few people who can’t enjoy it because of allergies to hops or grain.  But I take issue with people who claim they dislike beer, but have only tasted mass-produced beer-flavored beverage such as [fill in the blank!].  That’s like saying you don’t like seafood but have only eaten fish sticks and have never tasted lobster.

I’m not trying to convince a wine-aficionado that beer is better, or convert someone who is dead-set against beer that they are wrong.  However, I’d like to reach people who are interested in learning about (and tasting) craft beer, thus deepening their appreciation of it.  For these folks, we have THE BEER CLINIC.

What does being a doctor have to do with beer? Although I am a beer amateur, I also have a medical degree and a Ph.D. in biochemistry.  This gives me a unique perspective to really understand beer, and appreciate its health effects.

Let’s start with biochemistry. You probably already know that beer is produced from barley and is flavored with hops. To be more precise: beer is a beverage produced by the alcoholic fermentation of sugars that are derived from malting of the starches contained in cereal grains, usually flavored with hops.  Let’s break this down and see what we can learn.

Alcoholic fermentation of sugars. Primitive farmers learned early on that any sweet liquid left for a few days would turn into an intoxicating drink—alcohol. Yet, if this delicious liquid were not drunk immediately, it would sour and lose its intoxicating properties.  You may have inadvertently learned this by leaving an old container of apple cider or orange juice sit in the back of your refrigerator only to find it had turned into vinegar.

Sweet liquids were not easy to come by in prehistoric, subsistence farming communities, but would include honey (producing mead) and fruit (producing cider or other fruity alcohols).  The recognition that sprouted grain was sweet no doubt led to attempts to ferment it as well—and beer was the pleasant result. Where does the yeast come from?  No problem– wild yeasts are everywhere,. Leave out an open container of sweet liquid and airborne wild yeasts will soon find their way to it. And if you get a particularly good fermentation product, either a beer, wine, cheese, or bread dough, you can save the yeast and re-use it, eventually producing a strain.  Some of these strains are closely guarded and highly prized, and contribute to the unique characteristics of the beer that it produces.

How do you stop the vinegar from forming?   There are only 3 ways:  (1) Keep the beer cold.  This worked well for farmers in northern climates, but not in the south. This is undoubtedly why beer making was refined to a high art in northern European countries, but never developed much in the south, where wine grapes were a more convenient source of fermentable sugars.  (2)  Keep oxygen out of the beer. This is how we do it today.  Ethanol contains 2 carbon and 1 oxygen atoms derived from sugar; if oxygen is available it will combine with the ethanol  (with the help of yeast or bacteria) and produce acetic acid, or vinegar.   If there is no oxygen present, there will be no vinegar.  So we keep the fermentation vessel closed, let the carbon dioxide build up to drive off the oxygen, and pop the cork once in a while to let off pressure.  (3) The heck with it, just drink up the beer when it’s ready.  This is not doubt what happened in the early (prehistoric) years of beer production.  When the brew was ready, you drank it!  Perhaps that’s the origin of Oktoberfest, and other beer festivals throughout the world.  Beer drinking has always been a social event.

Sugars derived from malting starches. Cereal grains are seeds, of course, and starch is a storage form of energy for the seed to use when it starts to grow.  Starch consists of sugar molecules chemically joined to each other.  You cannot ferment starches. Neither can starches be used as an energy source for the developing plant when the seed is planted.  But nature helps us out.  As soon as the seed is wet and ready to sprout, enzymes are released that break down the starch into sugars.  This is called “malted grain.” It took an astute farmer to realize that his wet grain was not spoiled, but instead had turned into a highly sweet liquid, like fruit juice or honey, that could be fermented.  If you have the opportunity to do any home brewing, you will have a chance to taste malt extract, which is extremely sweet, and resembles honey or corn syrup more than it resembles grain.

Cereal grains. Just about any grain can be used to make beer, but traditionally barley is preferred.  Barley malt has a distinctive flavor that is, well, beer-like. Other cereal grains can be used for beer, including wheat, sorghum, corn and rice.  Often these are used for producing a particular characteristic, such as the cloudy lightness of the highly popular summer wheat beers.  More often, other grains are used as a cheaper additive for mass-produced beer, to supplement the barley.  Note also that the initial steps in beer production are the same as for those for whiskey, but in this case the fermented grain is then fermented to extract the alcohol and leave the grain sediment behind.

Hops. Hops are a bitter herb consisting of the female flower clusters of the hop plant. They are such a distinctive part of the flavor of beer that we cannot imagine beer without hops.  Yet, if you consider that beer was being produced and consumed many centuries BC, then hops are a relative newcomer, since the first recorded use of hops in beer was in the 11th century in Bavaria.  Prior to that time, many other herbs were used to flavor beer, producing a bitterness to balance the sweetness of the malt.  These flavorings included dandelion, heather, horehound, and wormwood, among others.  But it was believed that the ales made with hops were less prone to spoilage, and they also added wonderful taste and aromas to beer, so eventually hops became the additive of choice.  Hops are thought to have antibacterial properties, though I have yet to find a good reference to back this up! Because of this, high levels of hops were added to beer that was destined for long storage, for example when English ales were carried by ship to India.  (although the high alcoholic content of these beers also retarded spoilage). The resulting “India Pale Ales” are very hoppy beers.  With the exception of sorghum beer in South Africa (not great!) I have never tasted a beer without hops. I’d be interested to try a non-hops barley-based beer to see how it tastes.

Next edition: The Health Effects of Beer!

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Daniel December 17, 2010 at 9:33 pm

great post, thanks for sharing

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Bob Stempski January 11, 2011 at 6:00 pm

Great article. Polish Power Prevails! Looking forward to The Health Effects of Beer! The next time I brew I will hoist one for you!

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