So, I went to this lecture at a synagogue downtown (Rodeph Shalom) and the rabbi pulled a dozen or so Talmudic[i] references on beer and brewing for the group to consider. Now I will not bore my non-Jewish readers with the esoterica of rabbinic debate but the selection we discussed was who follow this blog (regardless of religious tradition). We talked about food in general and beer in particular as medicine.
For thousands of years before the discovery of penicillin (1928), ancient peoples used beer as an antibiotic to treat everything from gum disease to infected wounds. Now before you go there, it has nothing to do with alcohol. Beer has only 3-11% alcohol (v/v) and that is not nearly enough to kill germs but beer has other chemicals present as a product of either the brewing or fermenting that have pharmaceutical effect. For example, archeologists recently discovered what seemed to be the antibiotic tetracycline in nearly 2,000-year-old Nubian bones.
Tetracycline is naturally produced by a soil bacteria called streptomyces, and scientists theorized that streptomyces might have thrived in beer vats in Nubia and the Nubian bones unearthed had consistently high concentrations of tetracycline suggesting that these Nubians were regularly consuming tetracycline and had mastered the complicated brewing process necessary to routinely brew antibiotic beer. And its not just antibiotics that are present in some beers.
We’ve discussed the medicinal properties of hops before.[ii] As hops began to gain acceptance in England during the 17th Century, some argued that the new ingredient made beer more wholesome. Recent studies have also found that moderate consumption of hops helps may be preventative for Alzheimer’s Disease. Furthermore, a study published in Molecular Nutrition & Food Research found that hops have anti-inflammatory properties. The researchers found that the consumption of hops interfered with inflammation causing compounds. While some doctors warn against drinking there is also evidence that tossing back a nightcap with hops could actually help you sleep better. Hops have been shown to exert sedative effects. In one study, researchers found that women who drank nonalcoholic beer with hops, had decreased anxiety levels and better sleep quality. Results from another study corroborated the soporific effects of beer hops. These researchers, who followed 30 university students for 14 days, found that beer consumption improved the quality of sleep. It turns out that naturally brewed and fermented beer (much of these properties are lost in filtered and pasteurized beer) can confer a variety of health benefits.
There is some evidence that moderate consumption of alcohol, in any form, cuts down the risk of coronary heart disease. A preliminary study presented by the American Heart Association followed 80,000 participants for six years and found that moderate drinkers had the slowest decline in high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or “good” cholesterol, levels — and in turn, a lower risk of cardiovascular diseases. Research also shows that of men who have already suffered a heart attack, those that drank beer moderately were 42 percent less likely to die of heart disease.
In an article in the International Journal of Endocrinology we find a report that moderate beer consumption increased bone density in men. This finding was linked to the silicon found in beer, which is an essential mineral for bone formation. Depending on the malt and how that malt is brewed, beer has nutritionally significant amounts of calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, zinc, copper, manganese, selenium, fluoride. All necessary minerals for good nutrition. There is also an article in the Journal of European Association for the Study of Diabetes that reports that people who drink 3 to 4 times per week were less likely to develop diabetes than those who never drink. And when compared to those who didn’t drink beer, men who enjoyed between one and six beers per week had a 21 percent lower risk of diabetes.
Beer also contains a number of other compounds with known health benefits, including B vitamins and soluble fiber. If that weren’t enough, a study published in the Journal of Biomedicine and Biotechnology found that beer can keep bacteria from growing on your teeth. The researchers tested the effects of beer extracts on the bacteria that form biofilm and promote tooth decay and gum disease, and found that even the weakest extract of beer tested blocked the activity of bacteria. It appears that the old slogan form Guinness is true – Guinness is Good for You – and not just Guinness, all beer is good for you, in moderation.
While the modern beer industry has not been quick to latch onto the idea of medicinal beer, the Talmud was much more enthusiastic. Take this Talmudic reference for what can only be the “hair of the dog”.[iii]
“The treatment for catarrh, a build-up of mucus in an airway, caused by the foam of wine is beer; the treatment for catarrh caused by the foam of beer is water; and for catarrh caused by the foam of water there is no remedy. “
Rabbi Yohanan argues that beer (and bathing) protects you from leprosy.[iv]
“The Babylonians eat beets [teradin] and drink beer made from the hizmei plant. Rabbi Yohanan said: For what reason are there no lepers in Babylonia? Because they eat beets, drink beer, and bathe in the waters of the Euphrates, all of which are good for the body.”
Rabbi Yoseph has a cure for what ails all of us at the end of Pesach[v]
“I drink Babylonian beer[vi], and it is more effective than palm tree water. One should drink it between Passover and Shavuot. For one whose intestines are blocked, it will loosen his intestines and cure him; and for one whose bowels are loose, it will block him and cure him as well.”
Rabbi Nahman councils that regular beer drinking causes hair growth
“Rav Beivai, who regularly drinks beer, his daughters require that they be smeared with lime (NaOH), as beer causes hair growth, but we who do not drink beer, our daughters do not require that they be smeared with lime, as they have little hair even without this treatment.”
And of course, the real reason we all drink beer is it helps us feel good about ourselves and our communities. As Rabbi Hisda said, making beer is making the world a little better — Tikkun olam (Hebrew: תִּיקּוּן עוֹלָם, lit. ‘repair of the world’).
“If I were not a beer manufacturer, I would not have become wealthy. A pleasant secret and acts of loving kindness, as brewing is a good way to make money and also enables one to perform good deeds.”
Beer not only makes you feel good, it solves all manner of disease and ills in our world. But only when consumed in moderation.
[i] The Talmud (Hebrew for “study”) is one of the central works of the Jewish people. It is the record of rabbinic teachings that explain in great detail how the biblical commandments are to be carried out.
[iii] alcohol that is consumed with the aim of lessening the effects of a hangover
[iv] Hansen’s disease (also known as leprosy) is an infection caused by slow-growing bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae. It can affect the nerves, skin, eyes, and lining of the nose
[v] Passover when Jews refrain from eating foods with leavening (including beer)
[vi] Beer made from a wort that is one-third wheat, and one-third saffron, and one-third salt and cumin.