When it sounds too good to be true, but still intriguing, research may help separate fact from lore. “Athletic” and “recovery” beers, like those by California’s Sufferfest Beer Company, present such a case. In the end, a well-timed beer can be health for athletes in some ways.
The myth of healthy beer is long-standing, because we want to believe we can have it all — a condition not novel to the 21st century. Geek mythology references ancient beer-like drinks, including tales of Olympians drinking the golden-amber “ambrosia,” bestowing upon them immortality and strength. The myths don’t mention the ancient brew’s alcohol content or its effect on drinkers, though.
Myths of athletes and beer seemed partially validated in 2016, as reports from the Olympic Village in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, told of German summer Olympians enjoying Bavarian beers. But that slate of Erdinger and Krombacher ales consisted of non-alcoholic sports beers. Alcohol and its impact on athletic performance were not so easily reconciled.
Clinical studies actually show post-workout alcohol consumption is not likely performance-enhancing. While beer appears to be better than a cocktail, due to plant phenols and antioxidants released during brewing, it still may not be “beneficial” for conscientious athletes shortly after exercise.
Alcohol negatively affects training in two ways: diuretic effects and compromised muscle repair. Post-exercise fluid consumption helps the body to flush toxins and maintain muscle flexibility for recovery. A 2013 study published in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism found that compensating for the diuretic effect of alcohol is not as easy as it seems. In the study, alcohol increased urination, leaving subjects more dehydrated and, according to biologist Mauricio Sepulveda, increased water consumption only led to further depletion of athletes’ electrolytes and sodium levels, slowing essential muscle repair.
Another study, by dietitian Ben Desbrow of Australia’s Griffith University, also found that alcohol consumed within two hours of exercise impaired myofibrillar protein synthesis — the anabolic process by which we absorb food proteins to repair and build muscles. Desbrow’s subjects exhibited lower rates of protein synthesis, compared to a control group, longer recovery times, and less strength development. However, as Desbrow pointed out in February in an NPR interview, absent alcohol, beer is rich with phenols and dissolved plant compounds that do benefit the body.
An earlier study, in 2011, by David Nieman at Appalachian State University, shed light on those benefits, focusing on 50 common phenols in beers. Phenols — mildly-toxic, organic compounds which present as pungent smells (e.g., carvacrol in oregano and guaiacol from barrel-aging) or flavors (e.g., the pepperiness of capsicum) — can be used as antiseptics and are active against micro-organisms. Nieman studied marathon runners, who each drank daily 1.5 liters of non-alcoholic beer. Their incidence of respiratory infection and white blood cell activity (an indicator of muscle inflammation) was 20 percent lower than typical.
In 2012, Caitlin Landesberg seized on the idea of creating a perfect beer to quench her thirst after trail runs, while supporting an athletic lifestyle and diet. Four years later, Landesberg launched the Sufferfest Beer Company, manifesting her quest in a series of probiotic, gluten-reduced, low-alcohol beers, balancing on a line between lifeless, sport-branded “light” beer and full-flavor craft beer.
In addition to certifying and registering her beer at less than five parts per million of gluten, Landesberg touts natural carbohydrates, potassium-rich soluble fiber, dietary silicon and orthosilicic acid in her beer. She asserts that these elements together fuel the body, stimulate healthy digestive enzymes, and support bone density. She suggests that these compounds, less gluten, and the natural phenols in her beers also pair with dark greens and regular weight-bearing exercises to support sustainable athletic performance.
Not all the science lauded by Sufferfest as to beer’s nutrient value overcomes sports nutritional science or the impact of alcohol on muscle generation. Nevertheless, studies do reach the beer-friendly conclusion that consuming beer two hours-plus after exercise and following a protein- and carb-rich meal, facilitates athletic recovery in some ways. Not least among those arises from biochemical releases triggered by the social interaction of enjoying a beer with teammates.
These less-tangible benefits to an athlete’s psyche and sense of well-being can be as supportive to performance as physical development. And so, at the end of a dusty trail, a crisp cool one may actually be just the ticket to heal the mind and prepare one for tomorrow’s adventure after all.
Cyril Vidergar is a homebrewer and beer law attorney based in Fort Collins. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.