The Athlete

Drug Abuse

Alcoholic Beverages

THE CHEMISTRY OF ALCOHOL
There are hundreds of different alcohols. Some are made naturally through fermentation while most that are used industrially are synthesized. Some of the more familiar alcohols include:


- ethyl alcohol (ethanol, grain alcohol), the main psychoactive component in all alcoholic beverages;
- methyl alcohol (methanol or wood alcohol), a toxic industrial solvent;
- isopropyl alcohol (propanol or rubbing alcohol), used in shaving lotion, shellac, antifreeze, antiseptics, and lacquer;
- butyl alcohol (butanol), used in many industrial processes (O'Brien, 1991).

Ethyl alcohol, often called "grain alcohol," is the least toxic of the alcohols. Few people drink pure ethyl alcohol because it is too strong and fiery tasting.

By convention any beverage with an alcohol content greater than 2% is considered an alcoholic beverage.

In addition to ethyl alcohol, alcoholic beverages also include trace amounts of other alcohols, such as amyl, butyl, and propyl alcohol, that result from the production process and storage (e.g., in wooden barrels). These organic alcohols plus other components produced during fermentation are called "congeners." They contribute to the distinctive taste and aroma of alcoholic beverages. Beer and vodka have a relatively low concentration of congeners; aged whiskies and brandy have a relatively high concentration (Lichine, 1990). It is thought that congeners may contribute to the severity of hangovers and other toxic problems of drinking, though it is clear that the main culprit is ethyl alcohol.

Alcohol occurs in nature when airborne yeast feeds on the sugars in honey and any watery mishmash of overripe fruit, berries, vegetables, or grain. It then excretes ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide.

Elephants, bears, and deer as well as birds and insects have been observed in a state of intoxication, exhibiting unsteady and erratic behavior after eating fermented mixtures.

TYPES OF ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES

The principle categories of alcoholic beverages are beer, wine, and distilled spirits. When fruits ferment, the product is wine. When grains ferment, beer is produced. Spirits with different concentrations of alcohol can be distilled from fermented barley (whiskey), wine, or various other beverages. Each country seems to have its national or local drinks; Mexican pulque, made from cactus; Russian kvass, made from cereal or bread; Asian kumiss, made from mare's milk; and even California garlic wine. The actual consumption of beer vs. wine, vs. distilled alcohol depends very much on the culture of that country. For example, Germans drink six times as much beer per capita as they do wine; the French drink twice as much wine as the Italians (Eurocare, 1999).

Beer
Beer brewing and bread making were probably started about the same time in the Neolithic era, about 8000 B.C. The raw ingredients were produced the same way, in cultivated fields. Some of the first written records concerning beer were found in Mesopotamian culture dating back to about 3000-4000 B.C. The Mesopotamians taught the Greeks how to brew beer and Europe learned from the Greeks.

Beer is produced by first allowing cereal grains, usually barley, to sprout in a tub of water where an enzyme called "amylase" is released. After the barley malt is crushed, the amylase helps convert the starches to sugar. This crushed malt is boiled into a liquid mash. It is then filtered, mixed with some hops (an aromatic herb first used around A.D. 1000-1500) and yeast, and allowed to ferment. Beer includes ale, stout, porter, malt liquor, and bock beer. The difference among beers has to do mainly with the type of grain used, the fermentation time, and whether they are top-fermenting beers (those that rise in the vat) or bottom-fermenting beers. The top-fermenting beers are more flavorful and include ales, stouts, porters, and wheat beers. The bottom-fermenting beers include the most popular pale lager beers, e.g., Budweiser®, Coors® (Lukas, 1995). Traditional home-brewed beers are dark and full of sediment, minerals, vitamins, (especially B vitamins), and amino acids, and thus have appreciable food value, unlike modern beers that are highly filtered.

Virtually every country makes beer either as a national enterprise or a local business. These beers and ales come from Thailand, Vietnam, Peru, Germany, Italy, Japan, China, and Colorado

The alcohol content of most lager beers is 4% to 5%; ales are 5% to 6%, icebeers have 5% to 7%, malt liquors have 6% to 9%, while light beers are only 3.4% to 4.2% alcohol.

Figure 5-1. Yeast feeds on sugar and excretes alcohol and carbon dioxide.

Wine
In some early cultures, beer was the alcoholic beverage of the common people and wine was the drink of the priests and nobles, possibly because vineyards were more difficult to establish and cultivate. In Egypt however, pharoahs did have beer entombed with them in their pyramids to sustain them on their journeys and to offer a gift to the gods. Ancient Greek and Roman cultures seem to have preferred wine; the ruling class kept the best supplies for themselves (Heath, 1995). They also cultivated vineyards in many of their colonies. After the fall of the Roman Empire, many monasteries in Germany, France, Austria, and Italy carried on the cultivation of grapes and even hybridized new species.

Wines are usually made from grapes, though some are made from berries, other fruits (peach wine, plum wine), and even starchy grains (Japanese saké rice wine). One species of grape, Vitas vinifera, which comes in more than 5,000 types, is used almost exclusively to make most of the grape wine in the world. It was probably the same species that was used 6,000 years ago in the Middle East

Table 5-1. Production and consumption of beer and wine in Europe and the United States--1996
Beer Production in Hectoliters
Beer Consumption in Liters per Capita
Wine Consumption in Liters per Capita
Germany
114,800
131.7
22
Denmark
9,591
117.6
28
Luxembourg
481
109.0
58
England
59,139
103.6
13
United States
200,000
95.0
20
Spain
24,879
64.7
30
France
19,493
39.6
60
Italy
11,455
103.6
59
The United States produces the most beer but Germany, Denmark, Luxembourg, and England have a higher per capita consumption (Eruocare, 1999)
One hectoliter = 26.4 gallons; One liter = .2642 gallons

(Amerine, 1985). Grapes with a high sugar content are preferred because it's the sugar that ferments into alcohol. A disease-resistant hybrid of Vitas vinifera, grafted onto several American species, was heavily planted worldwide, particularly in temperate climates found in France, Italy, California, New York, Argentina, and Spain. Wine had a short shelf life until the 1860s when Louis Pasteur showed that heating it would halt microbial activity and keep the wine from turning into vinegar (pasteurization).

Grapes are crushed to extract their juices. Either the grapes contain their own yeast or yeast is added and fermentation begins. The kind of wine produced depends on the variety of grape used, the quality of the soil, the ripeness of the grapes, the climate and weather, and the balance between acidity and sugar. The color and flavor of a particular wine further depend on how long the fermenting liquid is in contact with the grape skins. Red wines are left in contact with skins longer, thus increasing the amount of tannin in the wine. (Some people are allergic to red wines because of their high tannin and histamine content.) White wines typically are aged from 6-12 months and red, from 2-4 years. Once bottled, wines continue to age and to improve in taste.

European wines contain from 8% to 12% alcohol, whereas U.S. wines have a 12% to 14% alcohol content. Wines with higher than 14% alcohol content are called "fortified wines" because they have had pure alcohol or brandy added during or after fermentation. Their final alcohol content is 17% to 21%. Wine coolers that are usually diluted with juice contain an average of 6% alcohol (Matthews, 1995).

Distilled Spirits (liquor)
The alcoholic content of naturally fermented wine is limited to about 14% by volume. At higher levels the concentration of alcohol becomes too toxic and kills off the fermenting yeast, thus halting the conversion of sugar into alcohol. In areas outside of Asia, drinks with greater than 14% alcohol weren't available until about A.D. 800 when the Arabs discovered distillation. This eventually led to the production of distilled spirits such as brandies, whiskies, vodka, and gin.

Brandy is distilled from wine, rum from sugar cane or molasses, vodka from potatoes, whiskey and gin from grains. Distilled spirits can be produced from many other plants including figs and dates in the Middle East or the agave plants in Mexico from which mescal or tequila is made.

One of the results of the invention of distilled beverages is that it became much easier to get drunk. Alcoholism rose in Europe after the introduction of spirits, i.e., the London Gin Epidemic. Similarly alcoholism became a major social problem in the early United States with the manufacture of increasing amounts of corn whiskey that was easier and more profitable to transport and market than bushels of corn. Grains and other sugar-producing commodities could be reduced in volume into more potent and higher-priced commodities that could be easily transported by wagon or in the holds of ships.

Information on Drug Abuse:

Drug Abuse Home Page

Information on Alcohol:

Alcohol Home

History

Overview

Alcohol Problems

Alcoholic Beverages

Epidemiology of Alcohol Consumption

Absorption, Distribution and Metabolism

Alcohol Effects

Addiction

Treatment

Assessment

The Athlete Home Page

- The Athlete.org

Back to top