Monday, August 4, 2014

Who said beer is just for drinking?

What would you say is the earliest human invention still widely used today?  Most of you are probably imagining the opening reel from the Flintstones, thinking: “It has to be the wheel”.  As it turns out, Homer Simpson may have more connections to ancient human inventions than Fred Flintstone ever yabba-dabba-did (I apologize, I couldn’t resist).  And no, I’m not talking about donuts.  

Some of the first evidence of beer brewing and consumption comes from what is now China around 7000 BCE, while the invention of the wheel is placed somewhere around mid-4th century BCE.

I’m talking about beer! It might come as a surprise, but beer predates the wheel by about 3 millennia, and its influence stretches much further than, well, its influence. For example, without beer we might be forced to tilt our glasses to extreme levels to reach that last drop of soda, risking unnecessary neck strain, not to mention the inevitable ice-cube- smack-in-the-face. You see, beer in its ancient form was much thicker than what we see today and the art of filtering had not quite been mastered. In order to strain larger impurities from the drink, it was consumed by sucking it through a cylindrical tube we now refer to as a “straw”. So the next time you slurp up the last drops of your sugar- or (gasp!) aspartame-laden drink, remember, beer made that possible. However, after all of these years, and countless keg stands, is it possible we are not using this ancient invention to its full potential?

By virtue of its ingredients, beer contains high amounts of polyphenols, substances recently heralded for their antioxidant properties. The most prevalent beer polyphenols include xanthohumol, isoxanthohumol, 8-prenylnaringenin, kaempferol, quercetin, tyrosol, ferulic acid, and bitter acids. Recent work reviewed in the Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology suggests that these polyphenols may be beneficial in treating a number of skin disorders. In these studies, both fermented barley extract and hops water extract were shown to alleviate some symptoms of atopic eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, a non-contagious inflammatory skin disorder. For the sun worshipers, quercetin may be the polyphenol of choice as it and its metabolites have demonstrated anti-carcinogenic properties in in vitro studies of epidermal carcinoma and melanoma. Additionally, ferulic acid was shown to prevent the formation of squamous cell carcinoma tumors in laboratory tests. Perhaps in addition to drinking beer, we should be bathing in it.

Beer polyphenols predominantly come from the malt (~70%) bottom left and hops (~30%) bottom right that are necessary for the fermentation and flavoring processes, respectively.

Alas, this idea is not as revolutionary as it might seem. Beer spas have become increasingly popular throughout European countries such as Austria, Czech Republic, and Germany (big surprise) over the past few decades. These spas offer customers Turkish baths filled with dark lagers, pilsners, stouts, and even those specifically brewed to “enhance their therapeutic potential”. At the Landhotel Moorhof, a popular wellness destination in Franking, Austria, the dermatologically-challenged can enjoy the full experience, including a relaxing brewski soak, oat straw sauna and steam bath, massage, and a four-course meal accompanied by - what else - a beer tasting. This intoxicating experience will cost you €139 (~187 USD), but for only a few Euros more, you can tack on a hop- and malt-infused facial for good measure. Surely the only thing better than twirling through the Bavarian Alps belting “The hills are alive….” is doing so after literally swimming in beer (not that it will improve your vocal abilities). However, it might not be necessary to travel quite so far to partake in this rising trend. Never one to be left behind, the United States has decided to get in on the action. The Lodge at Woodloch in the Pocono Mountains offers treatments infused with brews from the craft geniuses at Dogfish Head Brewery in Delaware.

Patrons of the Landhotel Moorhof spa enjoy their beer both orally and osmotically. Another benefit/drawback of enjoying this particular custom in Europe is the apparent lack of an age limit. 

While most of you are undoubtedly excited about this new prospect in an otherwise tea tree and argan oil-centric industry, others might cringe at the idea of soaking in vats of the frothy brew. Okay, germaphobes, in the words of Douglas Adams:  DON’T PANIC. Hop extracts have also been shown to impair several strains of gram-positive bacteria such as Staphylococcus epidermis and its much more dangerous cousin, Staphylococcus aureus, whose effects can range from mild skin inflammation to life-threatening sepsis, especially in antibiotic-resistant strains such as MRSA. As these same hop extracts also weaken Propionibacterium acnes, bacteria commonly associated with acne breakouts, teenagers may finally have an alternative to products that subject you to sob stories about how Adam Levine and Mandy Moore “suffered” from acne (minus the whole Minor in Possession misdemeanor thing, of course). In fact, it may have been the preservative nature of hops that led to the creation of the infamous IPA. Legend has it that a large amount of hops had to be added to beers being exported over long distances to warmer climates, such as India, hence the creation of the love of hopheads worldwide, the India Pale Ale (IPA).   

On a more serious note, there is no direct evidence that the topical application of beer will be beneficial to any of the aforementioned skin conditions. The majority of these studies were completed on cultured cells in laboratory environments and it is unknown how the concentrations (amounts) of polyphenols necessary to gain the desired effect compare to what is found in beer. Additionally, more research is needed to determine if these compounds, when applied topically, would be able to penetrate the skin. There is also no word as of yet pertaining to the benefits of using craft beer compared to more mainstream brews, and to be completely honest, as a craft-beer enthusiast, this sounds like a big waste of good beer. However, we might have finally found a use for that case of Bud Light that someone always brings and inevitably leaves at your house.

Contributed by:  Sarah Wilson
Follow Sarah on Twitter: @WilsonSM42

Mark, Joshua J. “Beer in the Ancient World.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. 02 Mar, 2011.

Rail, Evan. “Beer Spas: Yeast of Eden.” New York Times. 30 Apr, 2006.

Chen, W., Becker, T., Qian, F., & Ring, J. (2014). Beer and beer compounds: physiological effects on skin health Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, 28 (2), 142-150 DOI: 10.1111/jdv.12204

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