Andrew has been at SmartyPants since 2014, an eternity in startup years. He started in field marketing but now runs all things media. In his free time, he enjoys adventuring outdoors, soaking in the art scene, and pizza.
Andrew here again. As a frequenter of hotel bars, local dives, and craft breweries during my travels in field marketing, I’ve had the unique experience of sampling suds from breweries all across the country. From pale ales to porters, I’ve heard many barstool debates about which beers are best, and – weirdly enough – just as many conversations about which beers are healthiest. So, in the name of science, I set out to research just that very topic.
Turns out the truth is complicated.
Not All Beer is Created Equal
First things first – not all beer is the same, especially when it comes to the beers of the past versus the beers of today.
Back in the day, many people drank a type of beer known as “small beer.”
If you were passed a glass of “small beer” at a bar today, you might not even recognize it nor want to drink it. “Small beer” was brewed with very little alcohol content and was drank as part of the meal or even as a meal replacement for children and adults alike. Unfiltered and almost porridge-like, it contained very little alcohol (0.75%) and was often made of the leftover mash from making “strong beer,” a more alcoholic type of beer akin to the “fun” beer we drink nowadays. “Small beer” was thick, hearty, and the original #liquiddiet.
What made “small beer” so nutritious?
It’s the same little microbe that makes our bread rise and our beer bubbly. In other words, yeast.
Take a look at the nutritional facts for brewer’s yeast. Just two tablespoons contains a slew of vitamins and minerals: it’s an excellent source (20% or more of the Daily Value for adults) of thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6, copper, and selenium, and a modest amount of iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, and manganese.
When people talk about the health benefits of beer – specifically its proportionately high amount of B-vitamins and minerals – they’re probably thinking of “small beer” or its modern cousin, cask ale.
What is Cask Ale?
Cask ale is unpasteurized, unfiltered beer that is left to finish fermenting in the cask itself. The darker and stronger the beer, the longer it can last before spoiling. Cask ales are not carbonated at the brewery, and must be drawn from the cask manually with a hand pump.
This is what’s referred to as “real ale” in England, as opposed to “beer.” There are some breweries doing this in the United States, but since the shelf life is limited, you can usually only obtain these beers close to the brewery. #localsonly
Because cask ale is unpasteurized and unfiltered, it retains much of the nutritional content from the yeast contained within. So where does the debate over the health benefits of beer arise? Well, to understand that question, we have to talk about a little 19th century invention called pasteurization…
The Pasteurization of Beer
The beer you buy at the grocery store and local liquor store is pasteurized.
Pasteurization is a process that involves heating something like beer or wine (and now milk) to kill microbes to prevent spoiling. This changes a beer’s shelf life from weeks to months, which is better for transportation in a globalized society.
However, while pasteurization and filtering extends the shelf life, it also kills off the yeast, which removes a lot of the nutritional value from which our ancestors benefitted.
We’ve traded those nutritional benefits for a world in which super-breweries can provide ice cold suds anywhere, even space.
The nutritional content of pasteurized beer is pretty abysmal. According to the USDA, 12oz of ice cold Budweiser clocks in at 147g calories, 11g carbs, only trace amounts of calcium, magnesium, and potassium. Darker, more alcoholic beers, on the other hand, are a little bit better, and ramping up the amount of thiamin, riboflavin, calcium, magnesium, and potassium in one 12 oz. serving…— a little more than your lagers, but not much. But, as a plus, it’s an excellent serving of niacin and vitamin B6, so that’s something to celebrate, sort of.
So What’s the Verdict?
Long story short – most beers we drink today contain little nutritional content, certainly not enough to be considered a health food by most.
If you’re lucky enough to get your hands on some unpasteurized, unfiltered ale from your local craft brewery, that’s your best bet to get a benefit from your buzz.
Otherwise, if we’re being honest, beer is just alcoholic wheat juice. But don’t fret too much, lots of our favorite beverages fall into the same category. If you really think about it, coffee is just caffeinated bean water.
So even though there may be no real health benefit from drinking beer, maybe the best reward of all is the happiness you get from enjoying a cold one every once in a while.
And remember, always drink responsibly.