Since non-alcoholic beer was first invented in 1973, German beer companies have historically marketed it as the ‘car driver’s beer’ - the responsible alternative to regular beer. The initial reception to alcohol free-beer was lukewarm at best, thanks in large part to its reputation for being of poor quality and taste.
This outlook has changed considerably in recent years and the market is now booming. There are more than 400 non-alcoholic beers available and, over the past decade or so, a number of breweries such as Erdinger and Krombacher, have expanded their offerings to non-alcoholic athletic beers.
That’s right, non-alcoholic beers marketed explicitly for athletes and recovery.
The rise of non-alcoholic beer in sport
From 2011 to 2016, German consumption of non-alcoholic beer grew 43%. This isn’t just because Germans can’t get enough beer (although it’s true that they drink more beer per capita than almost any other nation); non-alcoholic beer is extremely popular amongst athletes in Germany because it has been ear-marked as an effective recovery drink.
The Bavarian brewery Erdinger calls its non-alcoholic wheat beer (ERDINGER Alkoholfrei) ‘the isotonic thirst quencher for athletes’ (note that regular alcoholic beer is highly hyper tonic so not so effective as a recovery drink!).
30,000 bottles of Erdinger were handed out at the end of the 2017 Berlin Marathon and even the podium-finishers were presented with a pitcher of the stuff to sip on.
And Erdinger aren’t the only brand to partner with an athletic association. In 2018, Krombacher 0% became a new partner of the Association of German Cyclists (BDR). In the same year, they supplied the athletes’ village at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games with around 3,500 litres of the stuff.
Our German ‘man on the ground’, Triathlon Coach Mario Schmidt-Wendling at SISU training, gave me his take on this emerging trend. He believes part of the appeal of non-alcoholic beer comes down to the drink’s lack of sweetness.
It’s very popular here, Team Erdinger is so big and even the German Triathlon Federation is sponsored by Bitburger 0.0%. After having several hours of sweet and sugar in a race, something harsh is often preferred by athletes afterwards. I think that plays a big part in its appeal.
What are non-alcoholic beers made of?
Commonly, it’s thought that they must contain special ingredients to replicate the taste, aroma and body of regular beer. But, the reality is not so exciting. Almost all of the ingredients in non-alcoholic beer are the same as those in normal beer – water, grain, yeast and hops. It’s just that the brewers use them differently.
It’s also commonly assumed that non-alcoholic beer must contain a much higher sugar content than its full-strength sibling. But, whilst some non-alcoholic beers are high in sugar, there are just as many which are low, much like regular beer.
Generally speaking, alcohol-free beers are actually lower in calories because of their low alcohol content (each unit of alcohol contains 56 calories).
Is non-alcoholic beer really a sports drink?
Not just any brew can be called a sports or recovery beer. For instance, a regular alcoholic beer couldn’t because even though it’s still a fluid, it’s a diuretic and causes athletes to urinate more. The net effect is dehydration.
Beer’s high concentration of polyphenols is the most oft-cited health benefit to the beverage. Polyphenols are micronutrients that naturally occur in plants. They have unique molecular structures and have been credited with many health-promoting properties. These benefits in relation to athletic performance include supporting the immune system and reducing inflammation.
The inclusion of vitamins B9 and B12, amongst others, are also believed to play a part, as well as the isotonic nature of the drinks.
The evidence for non-alcoholic beer as a sports drink
Studies in this area have looked at a range of effects of non-alcoholic beer, including the drink’s ability to rehydrate, as well as its impact on the cardiovascular system, inflammation, and illness.
One of the major studies was led by Johannes Scherr and David Nieman who named their work “Be-MaGIC” - Beer, Marathons, Genetics, Inflammation and the Cardiovascular system.
Their study involved 277 marathon runners who were each instructed to drink up to 1.5 litres of either non-alcoholic Erdinger beer or a specially formulated indistinguishable placebo (that contained no polyphenols) a day for three weeks prior to the 2009 Munich Marathon and for two weeks after.
The study found that when athletes consistently drank non-alcoholic beer, markers of inflammation like white blood cell activity were down by 20% and there was a lower frequency of infection (along with milder symptoms).
Non-alcoholic beer was shown to limit athletes’ risk of illness – which is often cited as one of the more common reasons for inconsistency in training.
The evidence for non-alcoholic beer as a recovery drink
In 2013, Dr. Ben Desbrow, from Griffith University in South East Queensland, took an interest in ‘light’ beer and its effect upon performance and recovery. Part of his team’s aim was to achieve a more viable way for people to consume alcohol without the dehydration that makes us feel less than 100 percent the next day (and which in turn can impede recovery).
The team crafted a specially formulated reduced-alcohol beer with added electrolytes. They tested its effect on fluid balance with seven participants who exercised until ~2% dehydration before then drinking various kinds of beer.
The ‘light’ beer and Desbrow’s specially formulated salty, watered-down beer both rehydrated participants better than regular beer.
Given that adding some sodium to a drink helps the body to retain more of that fluid (plus regular beers’ diuretic effect) it isn’t that surprising that the beverages with the least alcohol content, or the most sodium, led to better rehydration. Helping the body to correct its fluid and sodium losses after sweating with proactive rehydration is key to aiding quality recovery.
Desbrow’s work has come under fire in the past for trying to craft a beer that doesn’t cause hangovers. But, he’s not been shy about justifying it:
If you're going to live in the real world, you can either spend your time telling people what they shouldn't do [drink real beer], or you can work on ways of reducing the danger of some of these socialised activities.
Ultimately, if you’re partial to a beer after racing then a low-alcohol option is definitely better from a rehydration and recovery standpoint when compared with the ‘real’ thing.
Should you use non-alcoholic beer as a recovery drink?
There’s no escaping the fact that a better choice is to skip the alcohol altogether and opt for a non-alcoholic option. Rather than stunting recovery, a non-alcoholic beer will go part way to aiding it.
As to whether this can really be considered ‘best practice’, the evidence isn’t overwhelmingly convincing.
Desbrow’s study showed a ‘light’ beer (with or without electrolytes) was better than a regular one. Scherr’s study showed a phenol-containing non-alcoholic beer was better than one without when looking at inflammation and illness.
Where the current research is lacking is evidence that shows a non-alcoholic beer outperforms a more traditional post-exercise electrolyte sports drink.
My take-home message would be if optimising recovery is your goal, skipping the alcohol is the better option.
But, to echo Desbrow, we live in the real world and sometimes you’ve earned that cool bottle of ‘real’ beer after a race or big training session. And remember, if you do overdo the beers, we’ve heard PH 1500 can be an effective hangover “cure”...
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