Could you drink beer instead of water and still survive?

Beer. It is one of the most awesome things in life. This leads to a couple of important questions. One: how long can you survive on beer alone? Two: to what extent is beer a suitable replacement for water?

A couple years ago, Slate's Jeremy Singer-Vine had a go at the first question. His answer? You'd live long enough to develop scurvy, but probably not much longer:

Not more than a few months, probably. That's when the worst effects of scurvy [resulting from vitamin c deficiency] and protein deficiency would kick in... If you kept to a strict beer diet—and swore off plain water altogether—you'd likely die of dehydration in a matter of days or weeks, depending on the strength and volume of beer consumed. There's plenty of water in beer, of course, but the alcohol's diuretic effect makes it a net negative in terms of hydration under most conditions.

One experiment, in particular, lends credence to the first half of Singer-Vine's hypothesis: in the 1920s, researchers fed two Rhesus macaque monkeys with 200 milliliters of India pale ale per day, and some other foods lacking in vitamin C — within 2 months the monkeys were exhibiting symptoms of scurvy. But what about the second half? The part about dying of dehydration?

Turning Water into Beer – A Tale of Three Studies

This brings us to our second question of whether or not beer is a suitable replacement for water. Singer-Vine suggests the answer is no — but some recent experiments suggest otherwise.

The first is one you may have heard of — but it's actually been widely misreported. Back in 2007, news outlets ran wild with reports that Spanish researchers had announced that beer does a better job of helping the body rehydrate after a workout than plain old water. Wrote The Telegraph, at the time:

Prof Garzon asked a group of students to do strenuous exercise in temperatures of around 40ºC (104ºF). Half were given a pint of beer, while the others received the same volume of water.

Prof Garzon, who announced the results at a press conference in Granada beneath a banner declaring "Beer, Sport, Health", said the hydration effect in those who drank beer was "slightly better".

Unfortunately, these news reports were total bunk. A little sleuthing on the part of Adventure Sports Journal's Dick Peterman cleared the air (emphasis added):

It you actually go to Professor Garzon’s website at the University of Granada and look under his list of scientific publications, you won’t find this study because it was never published. There’s even a bigger problem with this. Professor Garzon actually denies beer has any better hydration effect than water.

“Regarding the information that you cite, it has been taken wrong by the journalists,” responded the professor in an email, where he helpfully supplied his 166-page unpublished study of beer and hydration written in Spanish. And by the way, he goes by the name of Professor Manuel Castillo, not Garzon. “What we found is that rehydration with beer with a 4-5% alcohol level in a moderate amount, 660 ml (a little more than a pint), is not better, not worse than rehydration with water.” [Ed.: Managed to track down a copy of Garzon's Castillo's original presentation – check it out here]

Could you drink beer instead of water and still survive?

The second study (the largest to ever investigate beer's benefits for athletes) was published in 2011 in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, and investigated the health effects polyphenols – aromatic compounds found in beer and widely credited with health-promoting and cancer preventative properties. The study concluded beer reduced post-workout inflammatory reaction; increased support for the immune system; and could even help stave off a cold. But there was one big caveat: the study was conducted using non-alcoholic beer as the test beverage.

Which brings us to the third study. Published in a 1996 issue of The Journal of Applied Physiology, "restoration of fluid balance after exercise-induced dehydration: effects of alcohol consumption," actually matches up pretty well with Garzon's Castillo's findings.

As its name suggests, the study examined the effect of alcohol consumption on the restoration of fluid and electrolyte balance after exercise-induced dehydration. "Drinks containing 0, 1, 2, and 4% alcohol were consumed over 60 min beginning 30 min after the end of exercise," write researchers Susan Shirreffs and Ronald Maughan, who conducted the study. "A different beverage was consumed in each of four trials."

The volume of alcoholic beverage consumed was around 2.2 liters, equivalent to ~150% the body mass lost to exercise-induced dehydration. Some highlights from their findings:

  • The total volume of urine produced over the six hours following rehydration was not significantly different from trial to trial, though pee volume showed a tendency to increase as the quantity of alcohol ingested increased.
  • Peak urine flow rate occurred significantly later with the 4% beverage.
  • Increase in blood and plasma volume was slower when the 4% beverage was used to rehydrate, and — this is the important part — did not significantly increase blood or plasma levels significantly greater than the dehydrated level.

According to the researchers, these results indicate that beverages with low alcohol concentrations have "a negligible diuretic effect" when consumed in a state of exercise-induced dehydration. The researchers conclude that recovering from a state of dehydration is effectively the same whether you're rehydrating with water, or a beverage containing up to 2% alcohol — though drinks containing 4% alcohol, they write, "tend to delay the recovery process."

Could you drink beer instead of water and still survive?

Of course, "delay" ≠ "prevent entirely," so what the researchers are actually saying is: yes, you can rehydrate with a beverage containing roughly 4% alcohol; you'll just recover more slowly than you would with a 2% brew in your hand. This is good news, as beers that are 2% ABV can be somewhat hard to come by. In the U.S., most reduced alcohol beers (aka "Light" beers, like Bud Light, Coors Light, and Miller Lite) come in at around 4.2% ABV, though there are some exceptions. Miller 64, for example, weighs in at 2.8% ABV, and Beck's Premier Light at just 2.30% ABV.

At 2.10% ABV, Pearl Light (a beer we've never even heard of — probably because it's produced in very low volumes and sold in parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and, well, literally nowhere else — is one of the closest to the 2% ABV quoted by Shirreffs and Maughan. So is Windhoek Light (again: never heard of this before writing this post), which actually manages to come in right at 2.00% ABV.

Didn't Egyptians Drink a lot of Beer? Were They Just Hammered Constantly?

Well… maybe. First, let's put a thing or two in context. At percentages as low as those of Pearl Light and Windhoek Light, you're well on your way to the land of what were once called "small" beers, so-called for their meager alcohol content. Small beers are thought to have been a drink of choice among Medieval Europeans and North American colonists alike. Commonly referred to as "porridge-like" in consistency, small beers were often unfiltered, and widely recognized for being hydrating and, to an extent, nourishing (with the added benefit of being more sanitary than water). In this way, small beer came to enjoy quite the following. Even George Washington was a fan — here's one of his recipes, straight from pages of one of his notebooks.

The popularity of small beer hundreds of years ago inevitably raises questions about the consumption of beer in ancient Egypt, circa 1550-1070 BCE. Fans of Firefly may remember a scene from the episode "Jaynestown," wherein Simon compares the local drink known as Mudder's Milk ("all the protein, vitamins and carbs of your grandma's best turkey dinner, plus fifteen percent alcohol," according to Jayne) to the beer the ancient Egyptians fed to the slaves who built their pyramids. "Liquid bread," says Simon. "Kept them from starving, and knocked them out at night, so they wouldn't be inclined to insurrection."

Could you drink beer instead of water and still survive?

Were the Egyptians pumping their workforce full of 15% ABV beer? Maybe, but probably not while they were working. Truth be told, archaeologists really aren't certain. Our knowledge of Egyptians and their libations is something of a mixed bag. On one hand, we know that beer was an inextricable aspect of Egyptian culture; in an article published in The Journal of the American Society of Brewing Chemists, University of Cambridge archaeologist Delwen Samuel characterizes it as a "staple food" important to all aspects of Egyptian life. Only recently, however, have the brewing processes of ancient Egypt come to light, and on this topic there is still significant disagreement:

Although it is often assumed that beer was made from barley, there is no real agreement on the meaning of inscriptions accompanying artistic depictions [of beer]. Was beer made only with barley, or also with emmer [a type of wheat], or with both as some scholars state? Were dates a standard ingredient, as hops are today? Were other flavorings used, and if so, what were they? Many lists of flavorings can be found in the literature, but their identification is not based on the direct evidence of material remains of the plants themselves. [Samuel, for his part, argues against the long-held view that ancient Egyptians made beer from bread and that dates were a standard ingredient, grounding his position in chemical analyses.]

Disagreements on ingredients and brewing methods aside, Samuel says one thing we do know is that beer was produced in different strengths. Given our discussion of beer, hydration and nutrition thus far, we think its reasonable to assume that any beer provided to working slaves would have come from the less-alcoholic side of the spectrum. Hammered workers, after all, make for wonky pyramids.

Of course, the real question is: if Mudder's Milk were real, how long could you realistically survive on that before succumbing to liver disease? Unknown. Though a feasible, if pessimistic answer, would probably be: longer than the typical lifespan of a Mudder.

Top image and treadmill via Shutterstock