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Is Nonalcoholic Beer an Effective Recovery Drink?

Is it possible nonalcoholic beer was partly responsible for Germany’s success in the 2018 Winter Olympics? According to German ski team doctor Johannes Scherr,1 the answer is a resounding yes. Scherr says nearly all of his athletes drink nonalcoholic beer during training and some continued drinking it as a recovery beverage during the Winter Games. Research conducted by Scherr and others show alcohol-free beer fights inflammation and reduces upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs).

Nonalcoholic beer is so intertwined with German sports, the brewery Krombacher shipped 3,500 liters (about 924 gallons) of it to the athletes' village in Pyeongchang, South Korea. German Olympic athletes such as alpine ski racer Linus Strasser and biathlete Simon Schempp are among those who routinely use beer as a recovery drink.

While it may be difficult to directly link the nonalcoholic brew with Germany’s success, the country tied for first with Norway with 14 gold medals and took second place overall with a total medal count of 31. While those results are impressive, you may be wondering about the science behind beer as a sports drink. Is nonalcoholic beer an effective rehydration and recovery drink?

According to The New York Times,2 Scherr, who in addition to his role as an Olympic team doctor is also a sports medicine teacher at the Technical University of Munich, made the discovery about “recovery beer” in 2009. At the time, Scherr noticed athletes who drank nonalcoholic beer suffered fewer URTIs than athletes who had received a placebo. In addition, Scherr noted athletes who consumed nonalcoholic brew also experienced significantly reduced inflammation, which enabled them to recover faster between competitions.

Scherr’s double-blind study, which was financed by a brewing company and published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise3 in 2012, involved 277 healthy male runners. The men, ages 31 to 51, were participants in the Munich Marathon. Each runner consumed 1 to 1.5 liters of nonalcoholic beer daily for three weeks prior to and two weeks immediately following the race.

The placebo group received a similar foamy nonalcoholic beer with the polyphenols removed. The objective of the research was to determine if nonalcoholic beer, which contains antioxidant, antipathogenic and anti-inflammatory properties, could benefit athletes. To Scherr’s surprise, the results indicated the group of beer-drinking runners, as compared to the placebo group, experienced:4,5

  • A 20 percent reduction in the activity of white blood cells, a good indicator of inflammation
  • More than a threefold reduction in the incidence of postrace URTIs

Given the outcome, German athletes are not the only ones benefiting from nonalcoholic beer as a recovery beverage — a 2016 Chilean study6 published in the journal Nutrients found soccer players who downed nonalcoholic beer before their workouts stayed better hydrated than their peers who drank regular beer and water.

Polyphenols and Beer: What’s the Connection?

The high concentration of polyphenols contained in beer is what researchers believe delivers the powerful immune-boosting effects uncovered by Scherr and his colleagues. According to Runner’s World, “beer is known to include more than 2,000 organic and inorganic chemicals, including more than 50 polyphenols from barley and hops.”7

One of Scherr’s research partners, David Nieman, a professor in Appalachian State University's department of health and exercise science, has studied the health benefits of phenols. He suggests phenol-rich diets help lower inflammation and curb your risk of illness. In addition to their antiviral properties, Nieman states, "[Polyphenols] have a very unique molecular structure that can actually regulate the genes that control inflammation.”8

To be effective as a recovery beverage, nonalcoholic beer has to be formulated properly, says associate professor and dietitian Ben Desbrow, Ph.D., from Griffith University in Australia.9 Traditional beer provides an insufficient amount of carbohydrates and electrolytes to benefit your body after exercise, notes Desbrow, who has been experimenting with formulations that will provide the beneficial properties of a rehydration drink without the dehydrating effects of alcohol.

In a 2013 study published in International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism,10 Desbrow and his colleagues found that beer with a lower alcohol content and added salt provided better hydration than traditional compositions. Given its status as a plant-based beverage, Desbrow and his team believe reduced-alcohol beer has more naturally occurring nutrients than commercial sports drinks.

"A properly formulated beer beverage is likely to do you no more harm than you are likely to get from a sports drink," said Desbrow.11 A 2015 study,12 also involving Desbrow, reflects that making changes to the electrolyte concentration of low-alcohol beer appears to more significantly impact an athlete’s postexercise fluid retention than small changes made to its alcohol content.

The History of German Nonalcoholic Beer

Although nonalcoholic beer has been around in Germany since 1973, Scherr notes only in the past decade have beer companies been more intentional about pitching nonalcoholic products to health-conscious consumers. Once the scientific research was completed, the public began to respond to alcohol-free beer. As such, according to Euromonitor International, consumption of nonalcoholic beer in Germany grew 43 percent from 2011 to 2016, even as overall consumption of beer declined.13 

According to The New York Times,14 Germans fall in second place behind Iran as the nation consuming the most nonalcoholic beer. It’s no surprise then to learn that Germany has worked hard to develop brewing techniques designed to perfect and differentiate the flavor of alcohol-free brews.  The work seems to be wildly successful based on the fact more than 400 nonalcoholic beers are now available on the German market. Below are a few of the tactics German breweries have used to market their nonalcoholic beers exclusively as sports drinks:15

  • Bavarian brewery Erdinger touts its nonalcoholic wheat beer as “the isotonic thirst quencher for athletes”
  • Heineken alcohol-free beer, which is dubbed “Heineken 0.0,”16 will be featured in vending machines at McFit Fitness locations nationwide
  • Nonalcoholic beer is made available to runners at the finish line of most major German marathons, with Erdinger supplying 30,000 bottles of its "Alkoholfrei" beer to finishers of the 2017 Berlin Marathon

In a press release announcing its sponsorship of a 2015 marathon in Orange County, California, Erdinger had this to say about its sober brew:17

“Brewed under the strict Bavarian Purity Law of 1516, which requires high-quality, only natural ingredients, Erdinger Non-Alcoholic replenishes the body with essential vitamins including B9 and B12, which help reduce fatigue, promote energy-yielding metabolism and support the immune system. The brew contains less than 0.5 percent of alcohol by volume, and is low in calories with just 125 per serving.”

Alcohol-Free Beer Versus Traditional Sports Drinks: Which Is Better?

Traditional sports drinks like Gatorade do not have much of a following in Germany. One reason for this may be the high sugar content. Nonalcoholic beer has a lower sugar content than most sports drinks and a taste that is preferred by Germans. “It tastes good, and it’s good for the body,” said Strasser after finishing his second run in the men’s giant slalom at the Winter Olympics. “Alcohol-free wheat beer, for example, is extremely healthy.”18

German speed skater Moritz Geisreiter says he drank nonalcoholic beer from the grocery store before switching to a custom sports beverage created by a nutritionist. “[Nonalcoholic beer is] a nice solution for someone who doesn’t want to pay dozens of euros a week for a nutrition drink,” he said during an interview at the Olympic speedskating oval in Gangneung, South Korea.

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