(Warning, this post contains some dietary SCIENCE! I’ll also note that I’m not a doctor or a scientist, so any doctors or scientists who read this can feel free to correct me and I’ll update accordingly)
There’s a lot of buzz in the beer industry about India Pale Ale (IPA) reaching critical mass in terms of market share, and a quick glace at any US beer store might betray a prophecy coming true. But despite an overwhelming selection, the data and money follow the hops, and for the time being, America can’t get enough humulus lupulus.
The legacy of lager rumbles in the background like a storm on the horizon, while sour beers pop up in a perfectly mowed IPA lawn like defiant dandelions. The winds are changing slowly, subtly. If I had to bet, I’d put my money on a trend shift away from IPAs, and my guess is that the move won’t be entirely grounded in consumer burnout or “lupulin threshold shift,” but partly fueled by consumer health.
Let’s make no pretenses: as much as we love it, beer is not a health food. The contemporary spike in beer appreciation means a lot more people are putting a lot more beer into their systems, which will, at some point or another, manifest as slight (to severe) medical complications. By graduating from pale adjunct lager to IPA, we’re ingesting record numbers of hops and their constituent chemical parts, the impacts of which have yet to be realized (but no, for the millionth time, you won’t grow man-boobs).
The metric used to measure a hop in brewing is alpha acid. Typically listed as a percentage by weight, this term as Stan Hieronymus defines it in For the Love of Hops, “in fact refers to to multiple acids that are similar in structure but significantly different.” The three that matter most to beer are humulone, cohumulone, and adhumulone, which, when isomerized in a brewing boil, become the six iso-alpha acids that give us that desired bitterness.
The amount of acids extracted during the boil is reliant on the pH of the mash and wort, but IPAs tend to have significantly more parts per millions than other styles:
“Commonly, these iso-alpha acids are found in beer at levels from a staggeringly low value of 1.6ppm (Michelob Ultra) to over 40ppm (Ruination IPA)” -Beer Sensory Science
TL;DR – IPAs, by nature of being an aggressively hopped style, contain more iso-alpha acids.
A few months ago, a former coworker and brother-in-writing-arms sent me what I thought was an innocuous message over Gmail chat:
“I’m telling you, since I quit drinking IPAs, no more heartburn.”
I dismissed his comment as a personal gastrointestinal discovery, thinking maybe the rest of his diet was contributing to his over-achieving acid production. But the thought stuck with me, festered as if it were indigestion itself, until one night a few weeks ago, when I drank a Bell’s Two-Hearted IPA.
Heartburn after about half a beer. For the medical record, as to not appear to be falsely attributing causes, I’m an athletic, water drinking, veggie eating young man, with no predisposition to acid reflux in my genetic history.
I’ve had plenty of Two-Hearted in the past, love the beer, and never had an averse reaction to drinking it. But recently, any IPA over ~50 IBUs sets me off, and if I dare drink more than a couple in an evening, I wake up feeling like I used my esophagus to put out a campfire.
Time to dig deeper, said my brain. Time to drink more water, said the rest of my body.
Beer pH and You
A normal human body has an overall pH that hovers around a very slightly alkaline ~7.4 (remember from Chem 101: the logarithmic scale is 0 to 14, acid to alkaline). Beer’s pH varies by style, but is always acidic (~3.1-~4.5). For reference, black coffee tends to have a pH of ~5, while soda pop sits around ~3. That’s a lot of liquefied acid.
Basic logic and chemistry means that when we drink beer, we’re adding an acidic solution to an alkaline environment, which, after diffusion, will bring down the alkaline levels of the body in turn. This is normal; hell, our stomach is filled with 1.5-3 pH hydrochloric acid, but the deeply alkaline environment of our bones and muscular system help balance everything out.
Homeostasis is amazing.
The problem appears when consistently introducing acidic solutions to a body trying to remain neutral. While its pH remains similar to other styles, IPAs tend to have more additional acids in suspension waiting to be processed by your body, meaning the style contributes even more acid increasing compounds on top of an already acidic drink. While all beer will eventually lower you body pH, (in theory) IPA will do it faster, and with more gusto!
Eventually, if chronic enough, a low body pH leads to a condition called acidosis. This condition can cause serious respiratory and nervous system issues, but is also one of the main causes of acid reflux and GERD. Combine IPAs with other acidic or acid-promoting foods (like those found in large majority of American diets), and you’ve got a recipe for a pretty miserable existence where popping Prilosec like Larry the Cable guy becomes a morning ritual.
Brewing an good IPA is a beautiful tango between sweetness and bitterness, between malt and hops. As the amount of hops in a recipe rises, the brewer needs to use more malt to retain a semblance of balance. More malt means more sugar, more sugar means more alcohol. It’s the reason a lot of modern IPAs clock in around ~7% or higher, and why a lot of people (like me) think session IPAs lack body and taste like hop water (not enough malt for the amount of hops).
Alcohol inhibits your kidneys’s ability to regulate phosphate ions against mineral ions, which helps balance body pH. Mixed with a physical increase in the amount of acid in your system, you’re looking at a spike in acidity that your body can’t effectively control. If you consume hoppy beer daily, your body never has a chance to reestablish a neutral base, increasing your chances of developing acidosis and its sundry symptoms.
What does this mean for the future of our beloved hop-bombs? Young, healthy people tend to process alcohol and acid quickly and efficiently. But as the “craft” beer market ages, and the average drinker’s body is not as able to process additional acidity as effectively, we may see beer drinkers move onto styles that contain fewer suspended iso-alpha acids, or at the very least, significantly curtail their consumption of IPAs. Ultimately, the trend may shift not because of taste, but as consumers are forced to consider the detrimental effects of too much beer, or vis a vis, too much acid in their diet.
The solution to the potential IPA-to-acidosis problem seems obvious, I’m sure: moderation plus a healthy diet. But some of the underlying hedonism of being into beer juxtaposes “just having one,” as evidenced by the World Health Organization’s survey noting that the average American drinks 778 drinks per year (or ~2 every day). Beer enthusiasts (myself included) are probably guilty of even more than that, on occasion (thanks a lot, SAVOR).
While moderation is the ideal, those with IPA-laden habits are not likely to break them. Not unless they have to for some major reason.
Like, oh I don’t know, their health?
(Obviously this post contains a lot of conjecture. I just wanted to probe potential health issues related to pH, so don’t take any of it as gospel, please. I should also note that there are some fringe health benefits to some of the alpha acids in hops, but most of those come from ingesting small amounts, and are probably lost when talking excessive drinking.)