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Healthy beer? In moderation, it truly can be

Chris Herr hates the bad rap beer gets in health circles.

“A lot of people don’t think of beer as being healthy because they’re shown beautiful girls getting hammered with their Coronas,” said Herr, head brewer at the Pearl Street and Pan-American gastropubs in downtown Buffalo.

Burly men with beer bellies don’t help, either, nor do giant beer companies that use corn, rice and other “adjunct ingredients” that sap the taste from his favorite beverage, he said.

When restaurant owners where he works – including RiverWorks in the Old First Ward – recently announced they’d forged a partnership with Independent Health to create healthier menu options, Herr defended his craft brews.

Beer is fermented, he maintained, yielding vitamins, minerals and other helpful compounds. The craft variety also is a whole food that generally contains just four ingredients: malted barley, hops, yeast and water. Sometimes fruit and wheat are added, creating an even healthier mix.

“Beer as a nutritional supplement is a very old idea,” he said.

Monks have downed it for centuries as a way to improve digestion and sleep. Belgians once served a low-alcohol variety to children because it was safer to consume than drinking water. And researchers have discovered in more recent years that one to two beers a day can hike good cholesterol and may lower the risk of cataracts and Type 2 diabetes.

The bad news: Binge beer drinking raises blood pressure, increases the risk for liver failure and several types of cancer, and packs on weight.

“It’s sort of like a dietary supplements label. You can make a lot of jumps, like it’s made out of good food and many different kinds of food. But the amount of helpful compounds is (often) small,” said Peter Horvath, director of sports nutrition in the Department of Exercise and Nutrition Science at the University at Buffalo.

Still, Horvath said, beer-lovers can feel free to raise a couple of pints on Super Bowl Sunday without guilt.

Herr talked this week at the Pearl Street Grill & Brewery about three beers he brews and finds particularly healthy. “All of this, it should be noted, is for moderate consumption,” he said. “You’re always balancing the effects of healthy versus unhealthy.”

1. Lighthouse

Herr uses an enzyme that eliminates gluten in his recipe for this light, hoppy beer, which also serves as the base for Pearl Street’s Blue-eyed Blueberry Blonde. Hops used in the brew are rich in silicone, an essential nutrient that can help push back the onset of osteoporosis. “The hoppier the beer,” he said, “the better it is for your bones.”

Boiling is involved in the beer-making process, so it lacks the probiotic richness of raw fermented foods – “You’re giving your microflora something but it’s not the same as eating cabbage,” Horvath said – but Herr points out that the process also yields alcohol, which acts as a diuretic.

“You’re hydrating and peeing more,” he said, “which is a good way to flush out your kidneys” and lower the risk of kidney stones.

2. Wild Ox Wheat

Wheat beers often flash hints of banana, clove and other spices. Polyphenols – which have cardiac support, cancer fighting, antiviral and immune regulating properties – create those taste profiles, Herr said. “Polyphenols at the concentrations found in wheat beers have been found to be more effective than Advil in reducing muscle inflammation,” he said. “That’s why you’ll often see runners drinking wheat beers after a long race.” This and other types of beer also contain protein and B vitamins. Herr pointed out that some vitamin B supplements start with brewer’s yeast. “If that’s not a good excuse to drink a wheat beer,” he said, “I don’t know what is.” Malted wheat that has been allowed to sprout and kiln dried is used to make such beer – a product dissimilar to wheat used in processed food – Herr said and, like all craft beer, contains proteins and startches a little more readily soluable for fermentation

3. Street Brawler Oatmeal Stout

Generally speaking, dark beer has more fiber, which can help lower cholesterol and improve heart health. Unroasted, malted barley used to make dark beer also boasts iron, which helps carry oxygen through the bloodstream and regulate cell growth. Dark beer is also the variety with the highest amount of antioxidants, Herr said.

To be sure, Horvath said, beer should never be mistaken as a superfood worthy to replace lean proteins, fruits, vegetables and other fermented foods.

Still, said Herr, “When you’re drinking beer in moderation, there shouldn’t be any guilt in that.”


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