Currently, beer is the third most popular drink in the world, after water and tea. Until the 18th century, tea was unknown to most people outside Asia , so beer and wine were once the preferred beverages in most of the world, back when most people’s supply of drinking water was unclean and downright dangerous to drink. People must have noticed that they stayed healthier when they consumed beer rather than water and that beer helped wounds heal when poured on them, so they trusted that low-alcohol beer would be a relatively safe and healthy drink for people of all ages.
Of course, healthiness according to the Medieval definition is different from a more modern idea of health: if your only beverage choices resulted in probable intoxication and bad behavior on one hand (beer), and probable death by cholera or typhoid on the other hand (polluted water), the “healthier” beverage choice is obvious. This is due not only to the antibacterial effect of alcohol and the hops in beer, but also to the use of boiled water in beer brewing. Another health benefit in earlier centuries was the nutritional value of beer: peasants and the poor, especially, benefited by the extra calories provided in a measure of beer, although malnourishment was and still is a widespread problem. Beer has even been given to pregnant women as a nourishing drink, for this very reason, although it’s discouraged these days.
In more modern times, a situation called the “French paradox” has caught the attention of scientists: while the typical French diet is higher in fat than the typical American diet, the French have lower incidents of coronary disease than Americans. This situation has been attributed to the red wine that the French customarily drink with their meals, but studies in 2000 have suggested that beer is just as effective as red wine in promoting heart health. Other studies have revealed that beer contains folate and B vitamins. Moderate alcohol consumption can be a sedative, relieving stress, and beer can relax the blood vessels and thin the blood, temporarily relieving high blood pressure.
So, with all of these benefits, why is tea still better for you than beer? While beer has a modest amount of polyphenol antioxidants and a good amount of B vitamins, you only reap those benefits with “light to moderate” beer drinking, and more is definitely not better! Unlike with drinking tea, you have to limit yourself to 1 to 2 drinks per day — 12 to 24 ounces of beer — or the risks outweigh the benefits; even three beers is pushing the limit. How easy it is for most beer fans to drink three or more beers in a day! Gregg Glaser, news editor of All about Beer magazine, reports that a Clinical Professor of Medicine at Boston University School of Medicine has discovered that “four drinks a day does more harm than good and … death rates are higher for heavier drinkers than for abstainers.” Health risks include the excess alcohol, which not only intoxicates and contributes to dangerous activity, but it is a drying agent. Other negative effects include liver damage and increased risk of high blood pressure and cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer. Beer also contains 150 calories per 12 oz., which are easy to forget about, and result in extra body weight, which contributes to other diseases.
So, while beer can be a beneficial part of the diet — if consumption is limited to 2 beers a day or less — tea is a beneficial part of the diet no matter how much you drink. In my mind, at least, tea is the clear winner in the tea vs. beer smackdown!
Copyright 2011, Elizabeth Urbach.
For more info: “Tea vs. beer: does it have to be all or nothing?”
“How to find a tea for a beer drinker”
“Why tea is better than beer: the health benefits”
“Alcohol: Health Benefits Questioned”
“Beer in England”
“Beer in the United States”
“Clues to the meaning of beer”
Everyday Life in Medieval England, by Christopher Dyer.
English Society 1580-1680, by Keith Wrightson.
“Health benefits of beer?”
“How much did they drink? The consumption of alcohol in traditional Europe”
Medieval Sourcebook: “The Assizes of Bread, Beer and Lucrum Pistoris”
“Research Shows Possible Health Benefits of Beer”
“Should you switch to tea?”
“The Health Benefits of Beer” by Simon McNeil
“The United Kingdom of Beer – Land of Hops and Glory”
“Why Europeans Drank Beer and Asians Drank Tea” by Mark Bittman
“You’re better off with beer: beer and your health” by Gregg Glaser