Beer is good for you

Study by UC Davis brewing professor touts the health benefits of his favorite beverage

Two UC Davis students brew a batch of tasty, healthy beer.

Two UC Davis students brew a batch of tasty, healthy beer.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Vice has always had its champions and its foes, but in recent years, it seemed to be losing the public relations war to “just say no” campaigns, a proliferation of data about the health dangers of alcoholism, and the daddy of all killjoys: evidence that cigarettes cause cancer.

In the last half of the 20th century, moderation and abstinence became watchwords, and few socially lubricating vices came out unscathed. Beer probably suffered the least among the vices. Because most beers contain only 3 to 6 percent alcohol, you could still have one—or two without getting too loopy.

But still, it wasn’t like beer was actually good for you. So even beer’s biggest loyalists have probably felt twinges of guilt every time another French guy in a suit stood up in front of the TV cameras and gave one more healthy living pitch for one of beer’s most moderate cousins: red wine.

Apparently, wine shot up in popularity in the early 1990s, when it was reported that researchers had discovered why the French lived so long, even though they reveled in delicious fatty foods—a situation known as the French Paradox. What the French did, of course, was drink copious amounts of red wine, which researchers credited with reducing the build-up of cholesterol and resulting heart problems.

To think that beer would be betrayed by such a close family member. If it ever needed a hero, now is the time.

Enter Charles Bamforth, Ph.D., Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor of Brewing Science at University of California, Davis. He watched over the shoulders of his students as they approached his magnificent beer-brewing machine. It looked like something out of the movie Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Metal tubs drained into various loops of metal pipe that responded to various colored knobs. Hanging inexplicably in the middle of it all was a simple metal spoon.

The day’s team of five brewers, led by graduate student Curt Traina, measured out barley and started to heat water in the brewery.

“We need about 6.85 liters to mash it,” said Traina. The students began to fill tubs and check temperatures, kicking off the first steps in the first batch of beer brewed this quarter.

“Some very important brewers learned on this machine,” said the professor, rattling off the names of celebrities no one outside the industry has ever heard of.

Since the mid-1970s, Bamforth has been studying, analyzing and teaching the precise science of brewing beer. He’s one of the few professors in the country who has a department dedicated to the art.

With only a few graduate students, who study things like marketing, flavor stability and the composition of beer bubbles, Bamforth spends many of his teaching hours introducing his undergraduates to different types of barleys and yeasts and walking them through the brewing of their very first batches.

At the end of the semester, they have a tasting contest. One assumes that the single high-school student taking the lab for credit has already heard a number of Bamforth’s lectures on moderation by then.

Perhaps because of Bamforth’s affection for the beer industry, he recently looked closely at the myth that wine is the only healthy form of alcohol. He reviewed scientific studies from around the world, most of which were published in the 1990s and later.

Eventually, he uncovered some news that beer drinkers can really savor: It’s the alcohol itself, in moderate quantities, that appears to offer the greatest health benefits, not anything related specifically to red wine.

In his paper, titled “Nutritional Aspects of Beer: A Review,” published in the January/February issue of Nutrition Research, Bamforth insists that “critical assessment of the literature indicates that beer appears to be just as beneficial in countering diseases such as coronary heart disease,” which is one of today’s biggest killers.

Beyond that, Bamforth reintroduced readers to the idea that beer is really a fine foodstuff. Made up primarily of water, it also includes B vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, which have been credited with much of the health benefits of wine, and fiber. It’s also a substantial source of calories.

“It seems that on Captain Cook’s ships,” he wrote, “beer contributed as many calories to the sailors’ diets as biscuits and meat combined.”

Bamforth further supported his point with examples from his own life in Britain.

“When my wife had kids—my first son was born 21 years ago,” he said, “in the hospital, nursing mothers were given beer and were able to have beer. The trolley came around … and on there were stouts. It’s actually good for you. It’s going to replenish some parts of the body that need re-building up. For instance, beer contains a lot of calcium.”

Any desperate new mothers out there might also remember that beer provides a calming effect, or as Bamforth writes, a “sedative and hypnotic impact.”

But as any good academic will tell you, the health benefits of alcohol of any kind will slip away with excessive use. Though the news about wine’s health benefits caused a great surge in sales, it obscured other news, including this, reported by the Pacific News Service in 2000: “Heart disease remains the number one cause of death in France. The French drink 1.5 times more alcohol per capita than Americans and their death rate from liver cirrhosis is more than 1.5 times greater than that in the United States.”

“No self-respecting brewer would advocate for drinking in excess,” said Bamforth. But for a man who recited “in moderation” over and over again as he spoke, he cited evidence that even “moderation” can be liberally interpreted.

The professor brought out a chart published in his book, Beer: Tapping into the Art and Science of Brewing. It compared the “relative risk of death” based on how much alcohol one consumed per week.

“Up to about 15 pints a week,” said Bamforth, “you have a reduced risk of death.”

Based on the chart, the optimum might be about seven pints per week, but only after about 20 pints per week did the risks begin to outweigh the benefits. If one is to believe Bamforth’s reading of the literature, not drinking any alcohol is significantly riskier.

So, if one can enjoy nearly three beers a day before living life as dangerously as a teetotaler, why is red wine considered the healthier option? Bamforth would say it has something to do with the stellar marketing skills of vintners, who’ve attributed the benefits of alcohol directly to their product. But he also has to admit that tests show wine drinkers to be healthier than beer drinkers. It’s just that differences between beer and wine may not contribute to those findings.

Wine drinkers might eat more healthy foods, or live fitter lives, said Bamforth. The research suggests they may have greater access to health care due to higher socioeconomic status. Researchers have even gone so far as to say that in Denmark, wine drinking correlated with higher IQs.

“People who drink beer tend to be sausage-eaters,” said Bamforth, by way of comparison. “They tend to sit a lot more watching ballgames.”

But with the removal of lifestyle factors, including the consumption of other dirty pleasures like coffee and cigarettes, the differences in the benefits of specific alcoholic beverages shrank to little or no significance, according to Bamforth.

As a brewer and a fan—Bamforth relishes words like “Bud” as he talks about the pleasures of beer in ballparks—he obviously has an interest in the perceptions people have about his favorite product. A couple of his graduate students even studied how people responded to everything from the color of beer to the fullness of its head and the stories people tell about it.

“If you say to people, this beer’s been made in a day, and this beer’s been made in six weeks. Which do you prefer? It’s actually the same beer, but people are prepared to say ‘oh, that one’s much better,’ ” said Bamforth, who likes to point his budding brewing students toward positions at Anheuser-Busch or Sierra Nevada, where they can share their talents with the industry.

So, how many of his students will be spreading the word about the quality and health benefits of beer in the near future? Well, here’s the ironic twist: Almost half the students who spoke with the SN&R were not so much budding brewers as they were budding vintners.

“Shhhh,” a couple of them said, pointing surreptitiously across the room at the professor.