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Stop knocking beer and enjoy a glass

Added: Friday, July 14th 2023

Drinking beer

What is it about the British that we treat beer, our national drink, with such lack of respect? I spent several days in Belgium last month on a work assignment and I was struck – not for the first time – by the way in which Belgians talk about beer not only with respect but also with knowledge and even affection.

The Café Beethoven in Ostend lacked only thing – a house beer called Ode to Joy. Groups of men and women were drinking from a wide range of beer and one man was telling his friends about the history of India Pale Ale with impressive knowledge of the subject.

Beer is not confined to cafés. My hotel in Ostend is called the Botteltje or Little Bottle and has no fewer than 300 beers, including house beers. The rooms are named after breweries: I stayed in the Rodenbach Room with a large photo of the wooden vessels where the beer is aged for a year or more. This is not the sort of mural you will find in your average Premier Inn or Travelodge.

On the outskirts of Ostend, the name of the restaurant Heerlijk means “delicious” and it lives up to the billing, with more than 200 beers, including all those brewed by Trappist monks. There are special tastings menus, with each dish matched by a carefully chosen beer.

It’s a different and demoralising picture back home. On my return I was confronted by a long diatribe in the Daily Telegraph on the dangers of alcohol and the claim that the Brits drink too much of it.

It was matched by a column in the Guardian by the broadcaster Adrian Chiles with the title Drinking Alcohol is Bad for You: End Of. The Guardian obligingly illustrated the piece with a photo of glasses of beer and the caption: Beer is not a health drink.

A couple of years ago, Chiles made a television programme about his drink problem. He was consuming more than 100 units of alcohol a week and was taking steps to tackle his addiction.

Very wise – but like all repenting sinners he now urges sensible and moderate drinkers to follow him down the path of righteousness. As his chosen tipple was beer, let us examine the argument that it’s bad for you.

I’m indebted to fellow beer writer Annabel Smith for a well-researched piece in the newsletter of the Wakefield branch of CAMRA. Annabel is the founder of BeerBelle that runs training courses and beer events for breweries and pubs, and her knowledge runs deep.

Like me, she is annoyed by the way in which beer gets a bad press. “At least a couple of times a week, when I listen to the news on the radio or open the newspaper there is some doom or gloom story about how alcohol is ruining the health of the nation, and it’s usually accompanied by a picture of cask ale being poured,” she says.

Spot on, Annabel. We’ve all seen – too many times – that grainy old piece of film the BBC trots out, showing a pint being pulled by handpump, to illustrate a report about the damage caused by alcohol, ignoring the fact that beer is the least dangerous of all types of drink. As Annabel points out, beer is made from around 95 per cent water and helps keep us hydrated.

She is keen to debunk some myths about beer “which drunk in moderation is not unhealthy. Through the ages it’s been referred to as ‘liquid bread’ and it contains zero fat and zero cholesterol.” It contains fewer calories than wine and spirits and the “beer belly” claims are more to do with the type of food people eat when drinking than with beer itself.

Annabel says beer is mainly made from barley, which when malted, is a rich source of B group vitamins, including niacin, riboflavin, pyridoxine and folate. She adds that there is a high concentration of silicon in beer that plays an important role in the synthesis of collagen, the protein found in hair, nails, tendons and skin.

“More importantly, it makes bones denser, preventing the onset of osteoporosis, a disease which affects three million Britons.”

Turning her attention to hops, Annabel says they are “brimming with healthy properties. They are a natural disinfectant and were widely used as a medicine in the 17th century to fight off infections. Hops are said to ease constipation and sooth anxieties.”

Well said, Annabel. I raise a glass of life-enhancing beer to you as I look forward to my next trip to Belgium.

First published in What's Brewing, July 2023