Saturday, August 25, 2007

Ask the Huisvrouw: Hefeweizen and Hangovers

Many thanks to a concerned citizen, who by directing said concern my way (see below) nudged me back into the blogosphere:

dear Huisvrouw:

you seem to have a preoccupation with yeast. interesting.

a question: what's this i hear about hefeweizen and its positive prophylactic qualities (in the matter of hangover avoidance)?

a concerned citizen

Dear concerned citizen:

I do indeed love yeast. I think that ultimately my love comes down to mystification, and that in this I share the awe that brewers, bakers, and vintners must have felt for hundreds and thousands of years prior to 1859, when Louis Pasteur traced the phenomenon of bread rising to the CO2 pooped out by happy, gluttonous colonies of yeast cells.

Think about it: completely oblivious to microscopic life that teemed about them, these people nonetheless trusted that if they exposed a flour-and-water sponge to air, it would start to bubble and they could look forward to a nice loaf of sourdough; or if they dipped a stick into a vat of particularly tasty beer, carried that stick to the next village and swished it around in their own vat, the resulting beer might share many of the same flavor characteristics of that first batch; or to go way back, or way deep into the present-day Amazon, womenfolk could spit into a cauldron of cassava mash and a few days later they'd have a drinkable brew. It must have felt like magic, or at the very least reinforced a belief in the universe as an overwhelmingly friendly place.

Even now that we can see the wizard behind the curtain, it's still pretty cool. Properly understood, the yeasts we use in baking and brewing are domesticated organisms. They're fungi, yes, but I still tend to think of them as little beasties, because the rhyme is endearing and because like us and unlike plants, they can't generate their own food out of solar energy but thrive by breaking that plant matter down.

But I digress. After creating this opening for me to natter on about yeast, you then asked about hefeweizen and hangovers, which makes me suspect you already have an inkling of the most scientific explanation for the hefeweizen effect. Hefeweizen is a style of deliberately unfiltered wheat beer that owes its cloudiness to suspended yeast. Yeast has a strong impact on the flavor profile of beer--which is to say that not all yeast poop tastes the same--and a good bartender will deliberately pour a bottle of hefeweizen to stir it up.

Binge drinking of alcohol--the kind of behavior that produces hangovers--not only dehydrates you, it impedes absorption of B vitamins, including vitamin B12 and folate. The resulting imbalance makes you tired and fuzzy-headed. But as many homebrewers will gleefully tell you, the yeasts contained in hefeweizen and their own imperfectly filtered brews are a great source of B vitamins: hence, hangover protection. This effect actually checks out with some actual studies, though I've heard a lot of chatter about B12, when the only B vitamin reputably traced to beer is folate; if I understand correctly, only meat, eggs, and dairy products supply B12.

[No, wait, hold the phone....I just ran a generic 12-oz. serving of BEER, ALE through My Pyramid Tracker (love it) and came up with 21.6 micrograms of folate, .2 mcg of B6, and .1 mcg of B12. Those are pretty trace amounts, but presumably they would be more substantial in an unfiltered beer like hefeweizen or homebrew.]

Craftbeers also tend to be more conducive to savoring than some of the more poundable commercial giants (and hefeweizen, like many other summery wheat styles, tries to be crisp and refreshing rather than big and boozy), so maybe moderation plays some role in the hefeweizen effect. I'd still drink a nice big glass of water before you go to bed--but then rest easy, because the beasties are your friends.

the Huisvrouw

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