This year I was privileged to give the opening talk at the annual meeting of the MBAA, the Master Brewers Association of the Americas. My charge was to discuss the health effects of beer. My audience: the premiere brewers’ organization in the US. Present a scientific talk about beer to a group of professional brewers who know as much about beer as anyone else in the world? Now there’s a challenge for the Beer Doctor!
The MBAA was founded in Chicago in 1887 by three Braumeisters (Master Brewers), Louis Frisch, Charles J Schmidt and William J. Seib, all German immigrants. The ties with Germany were so strong that they originally conducted all of their meeting in German, though they switched to English with the onset of World War I. Nonetheless, the German influence on American brewing is evident in the lagers and pilsners that Americans prefer.
The MBAA promotes the science of brewing and the training competent brewers. Their meeting emphasizes scientific research into brewing, the quality, consistency, process, and the ingredients of brewing. They provide resources including the basic brewing guides and manuals used throughout the world. If you have had a good beer recently, whether small craft or mass-produced, chances are an MBAA member had a hand in it.
What could I say that the MBAA members didn’t know already? As it turned out, quite a lot. Brewers are just as vulnerable as the rest of us to the myths and urban legends about alcoholic beverages. I wanted to set the record straight, particularly
on nutrition, metabolism, and health, subjects about which I know a lot. The title of my presentation was, “A Bottle a Day Keeps the Doctor Away: Facts and Fallacies About Beer and Your Health.”
I began by reviewing scientific and medical literature. There are a large number of publications, including clinical and epidemiologic studies, investigating the effects of consuming alcoholic beverages. There is no space here for details, but suffice it to say that the general consensus is that a drink or two per day is good for you (Technically, one per day for a woman, two for a man). In fact, for most people, it’s healthier than not drinking at all. And don’t let the wine enthusiasts fool you–beer is
just as good as wine, or possibly better, because it is more nutritious, and contains more silicon for your bones, and more vitamins than wine.
The most controversial topic, though, was the calorie content of beer. Beer calorieshave become very important to the brewing industry due to new ObamaCare-based regulations requiring nutritional labeling of all beverages served in restaurants. Although nutritionists have accurate understanding of the fat, sugar, protein and carb calories in beer, we honestly don’t know how many calories are contained in alcohol. The FDA claims that alcohol has 7 calories per gram–based on burning it to completion, but this is misleading. Our bodies cannot obtain 7 calories from a gram of alcohol any more
than we can obtain 5 calories from eating a gram of wood (based on burning wood to completion). At least 30 to 50% of alcohol’s energy content is unavailable to us, and the true value is closer to 2 to 3.5 cal/g. Regardless, the FDA labeling of alcoholic beverages will continue to mandate that the calorie content of beer specify 7 calories per gram of alcohol, which amounts to toughly 98 calories in a 12 ounce bottle of 5% beer. Interestingly, the label doesn’t have to give the alcohol content.
Although this labeling appears unscientific and misleading, it would take an act of
Congress–literally–to change it. And it is not likely that Congress would be
receptive to a lobby that wants to make beer appear to be healthy (even though it
is). At least the brewers’ consciences can rest easier, knowing that their creations
are much healthier than everyone thinks–even if they aren’t allowed to say it.
After my opening talk I was able to relax and enjoy the rest of the meeting. It was a
delight, even for an amateur home brewer such as myself. The coffee breaks were
the best part of the meeting. There wasn’t much coffee to be found, but there was a
lot of beer! Many breweries contributed cases and cases of their wares, and it was
available on ice throughout the day… and into the evening.
I was especially intrigued by the presentations on barley, which included an
opportunity to taste a number of malted and roasted barley varieties. Roasted
barley is crunchy, chewy, and sweet, and some of the hull-less varieties are like
candy. I learned that there is a wide range of flavor in barley varieties, not to
mention the nuances added by malting and roasting. More fascinating, though are
the newer varieties that have been bred or discovered as heritage grains. There is a
resurgence of interest in hull-less varieties of barley, which have some advantages
in the brewing process.
My attention was especially drawn to a heritage variety called Purple Egyptian, also known as Obsidian. This ancient grain originated in the headwaters of the Nile River millennia ago. Unlike typical brown barley this grain is purple. I tasted it; it has a remarkably nutty flavor. It will soon be available to brewers, and I look forward to trying a beer brewed with this grain.
At the closing reception, I was introduced to the past presidents of this Society, and I met many other interesting people as well, from many countries and with diverse interests. These are the folks who create beers, insure their quality, fix what goes wrong, make sure the yeast strain is faithful, help insure consistency in the product, and get them to us to enjoy. They are passionate about brewing, whether they work for a large multi-million barrel brewery, or a small craft operation. The meeting slogan, “share the passion” captured the spirit of this meeting.
The passion was palpable. And the beer was cold.
In addition to her fascinating essays on a variety of topics to be found @ 3 Quarks Daily, also available from Dr. Westbrook: