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The Truth About Beer

WebMD Expert Column

Beer, the sweet nectar of the gods, is the alcoholic drink of choice for thirsty American adults. 

Invented before history was recorded, beer has been an important part of life for centuries and the great tradition of beer continues. Beer is the world's most widely drunk alcoholic beverage and probably the oldest.

In the U.S., drinking beer is a social tradition and an all-American pasttime that goes hand in hand with ball games, card playing, darts, backyard barbecues, and special occasions such as Super Bowl Sunday.  

Here's what's in beer -- from calories to carbs to trendy high-gravity beers -- and its potential health risks and benefits.


Beer Trends

Americans drink mass quantities of an ever-expanding variety of beers. The Beer Institute's Brewers Almanac estimates that Americans drank almost 6.5 billion gallons of beer and malted beverages in 2009.

However, beer consumption has been slowly declining since 1994, when the average American drank 22.3 gallons, compared to 21.1 gallons in 2009.

Pale lagers are the major beer styles and the most commonly drunk beers in the world.

Matt Simpson, beer sommelier and columnist for Beer magazine, says overall, there is a slight decline in the drinking of pale lager macro beers (such as Budweiser, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and Miller) but there is a huge demand for the trendier craft beers.

"People are beginning to realize there is an expansive style of beers beyond pale lagers, which are light and refreshing, but the trendier brews have more flavor, aroma, and complexity to meet a broad range of palates," Simpson says.

High-gravity beers are just one of the many craft beers gaining in popularity. A high-gravity beer simply means an increased amount of sugar that increases the specific gravity of the beer and results in a higher alcohol content. Brewers are adding more sugar and other ingredients at the beginning of the brew process in an attempt to create more complex and uniquely flavored beers -- not necessarily to increase alcohol content. These beers are more expensive, more flavorful, and are meant to be appreciated and even paired with foods, like wine.

With such a wide range of craft beers available, many restaurants are hosting beer dinners to showcase how beers pair naturally with a wide variety of foods.

Avid wine drinkers are starting to recognize the value of and enjoy high gravity and other drier, more acidic craft beers, Simpson says.


What's in Beer?

Beer is commonly made from a recipe of water, grain, hops, and yeast.

Malted barley is the most common carbohydrate source that is usually flavored with hops, which add bitterness, balances the sweetness of the malt, and acts as a preservative. Finally, brewer's yeast ferments the brew into alcohol.

Brewing is the process that converts the carbohydrate source into sugary liquid called wort, which is converted into alcohol through the yeast fermentation process.

Beer's alcohol content ranges from less than 3% to 40% by volume, depending on the beer style and recipe. Most pale lagers are around 4% to 6% alcohol by volume.

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