Did you know that, back in the day, many cultures consumed beer that was actually quite good for them? It’s true. While today’s beers lead to distended abdomens, the brews of days gone by encouraged digestion, contained a hearty mix of vitamins, minerals and enzymes and also helped to replenish the beneficial bacteria in the digestive tract.
The reason these beverages were so good for you lay in two facts: 1) the beers were made from raw sprouted grains in most cases and 2) the lacto-fermentation process encouraged the growth of good bacteria.
The process of sprouting grains increases their nutritive content big time. Once a seed has gone from its dormant state to one in which it is actually growing, it begins producing enzymes and vitamins that will aid in the growth of the plant.
Using these sprouted grains to make beers meant that this abundance of nutrients ended up in the final beverage. Among other nutrients including vitamin C, traditional beers would contain B vitamins, a complex profile of mineral ions and enzymes. They were often drunk during or after physical labor to replenish mineral ions lost through sweat and to quench thirst. It should be noted, however, that all beers made today also use sprouted grains. The barley used in beer making is soaked until it sprouts. The difference is that this barley is then roasted. Unfortunately, the roasting will kill off all the enzymes and much of the vitamins (although this may explain the presence of folate, a B vitamin, in today’s conventional beer).
“Small beers”, which were fermented beers with smaller amount of alcohol than their “strong beer” siblings, would be consumed along with a heavy breakfast in England in the 1600s, as the enzyme content aided in the digestion of the food, as did the lactic acid and beneficial lactobacilli which were present from the fermentation process. Beer for breakfast was associated with good health at this time, not a symbol of indulgent frat-boy antics.
But what about the fact that there is alcohol in these drinks? While it’s true that the beers of yester-century still had alcohol in them, the alcohol percentage tended to be lower than the brews of today. None the less, while these brews were often hearty enough to act as a meal replacement, I’m sure they were still used for the odd piss-up. Bottom line – these beers were abused back then too. Alcoholism is not a 21st century invention, after all. However, the small amount of alcohol present in these drinks was likely not something that caused many problems to the average moderate drinker. The beneficial effects of traditional beers likely outweighed any detriment small amounts of alcohol caused. And, while it’s still hotly debated, there is significant evidence that moderate alcohol consumption can actually have beneficial effects.
So why, you may ask, does the bottle of Heineken sitting in my fridge not have the same benefits as these traditional brews? After all, it’s still a fermented beverage so shouldn’t it still have the beneficial bacteria?
One of the main differences between the traditional beers I’m talking about and the beers you find today is the fermentation method. Lacto-fermentation is the process involving the lactobacillus bacteria, like that found in yogurt. Beer production today favors yeast fermentation since it is more predictable and easily controlled. (Although the use of yeast in brewing beer has been used for centuries and has paralleled the use of lactic acid producing bacteria, I have been focusing on the latter in this blog. I don’t mean to suggest that all beers traditionally used beneficial bacteria in the fermentation process and only modern beers use yeast). Today’s beer connoisseur may not recognize this lacto-fermented beverage as beer, since it shares little with its modern cousin. The resulting product from lacto-fermentation is sour due to the presence of healthy lactic acid, and these beers were often opaque rather than clear.
Another major difference between your Molson Canadian and lacto-fermented brews drunk back in the day is the fact that that modern mass-produced beers are usually pasteurized. In their infinite wisdom, the powers that be have determined that everything we consume should be dead food – devoid of any enzymes, probiotics or nutrients that are destroyed by heat. I’m not going to get into the pasteurized versus non-pasteurized argument here, because it’s a big one and deserves more attention, but needless to say I think a traditional, lacto-fermented, nutrient-dense, unpasteurized beer on the market would lead to a new era of healthy college students.
It’s too bad that most of the beers found in the beer store don’t have these kind of benefits. Although they do contain folate and some studies have shown that moderate beer consumption can have some beneficial effects, they are a far cry from these traditional beers. The addition of preservatives, chemical clarifiers, flavorings and colorings make most beers yet another over-processed food. Some beers are better than others, mind you, and local microbrews and craft beers tend to be a better choice than mass produced varieties. You can even find unpasteurized beer, often called “living beer” or “live beer”, or labelled as “bottle conditioned” which is a process in which extra yeast and sugar are added to the bottle so that the beer continues to ferment as it bottle-ages. As well as being a living product, the resultant offering has a more complex flavor and smoother mouth feel. These craft brews are the best choice for the occasional moderate drinker. Ideally however, I suggest you make your own (Sally Fallon has a recipe for Small Beer in her book Nourishing Traditions).
Q: If roasting the barley kills the enzymes where do the diastatic enzymes that convert the barley starch to sugar come from in the mash tun?
A: This is why a little barley is used in mixed grain mashes. Lactic fermentation is known to brewers and winemakers as an off flavor and can infect a yeast fermented beverage. All beer was cloudy before around 1842. As for lower alcohol it is still made in some european countries as low as 2.3% alc/vol. this can be controlled by the brewer who is controlled by the style over substance and bang for the buck society we live in today. Wild yeast produce lower alc/vol compared to cultured yeast used in beverage alcohol today it is also more efficient and helps against infections and off flavors. Lactic fermentation is promoted in some beers and wines. As for nutrients there is still plenty in beer a distended abdomen is from lifestyle not beer.
Q: So what is the best beer I should buy from the store. Making my own is out of the question. I have done it for years and just don’t enjoy the taste.
A: Dark, light, bitter, fruity, dry, sweet, there are endless possibilities. The LCBO is featuring beers from craft brewers around Ontario with taster packs. Look for the OCB or go on a beer tasting tour, there are many great brewers around and most craft brewers do not pasteurize. Or find a pub that specializes in draft of craft brewers and try them. Bottled beer will be a little more carbonated than the kegged version.