Pee and Preservatives

glutenThis cartoon was in the New Yorker recently, and it skewers food faddism in a delightfully succinct way.

Because of the suffering of a few people who actually have celiac disease, gluten has shot up there with trans fats and high fructose corn syrup as a Very Bad Thing in the minds of many. Marketers, of course, are happy to take advantage of all our phobias and fancies about food, and so they will advertise sugary items a “fat free”, or foods loaded with hydrogenated vegetable oils as having “zero cholesterol.”

On the other side of the equation, most people who go gluten-free, high-antioxidant, and all-natural hardly ever think twice about downing a beer (at least a gluten-free beer), and yet, two of the key ingredients of beer are piss and preservatives. Let me explain.

Alcohol is one of the main reasons people drink beer. Alcohol is produced by creatures (yeast) that eat sugar and excrete a liquid waste: alcohol.  Alcohol is just another name for yeast pee.

The preservative part goes back to the 15th century. Throughout the long history of beer, various flavorings have been added to the basic recipe of barley, water, and yeast, including fruit, or herbs such as sage, yarrow, and myrtle.  In English, the generic term for malted beverages was ale. The problem was that ale had to be made and consumed fresh.  It would start to taste bad after only a few days. Of course, alcohol itself is a preservative, so one way around the problem was to make ale with higher alcohol, though that had the disadvantage of making everyone drunk and sleepy. Lower alcohol ales were preferred for ordinary drinking.

Some, like the artisinal bakers of today, would see the need for freshness as an advantage. You want the best product you can create. Purity laws for ale were passed in some parts of England for just this reason. However, the Dutch and Germans discovered that brewing ale using an herb known as hops not only had a pleasant flavor, but the hops had a preservative effect, allowing the ale to be stored longer without a loss in quality. English brewers used the continental term beer, to distinguish the hop-based ales from traditional ale.

Beer was looked on by some as an inferior product. In 1544 when the British invaded Picardy, the troops ran out of ale and complained of being forced to drink beer instead. However, from a commercial perspective, beer’s long shelf-life had significant advantages and it gradually took over. One of the death blows to traditional ale came in 1710. The government was making significant revenues taxing hops, and banned the use of herbs other than hops to prevent brewers from evading taxation.

So next time grocery shopping makes you overly anxious about what’s in your food, remember there’s a cold glass of yeast pee and preservatives waiting at home in the fridge.



  1. I didn’t know this–about ale being the everyday, hops-free, preferred beverage, and about the gov’t/economic interest in promoting the hop-laden alternative.

    Very interesting. Thank you!

    (Would have enjoyed your post even more if you’d included your source(s). But that’s pretty snotty of me to say, since you obviously didn’t, and thus: Why say it, yeah?–and hypocritical, since I often don’t.)

    1. Several sources are in the links that I included on the page. Beyond that, you’ll have to make do with Google.

      1. I am a bleary-eyed fool. I did not spot one link–possibly because I was reading with blinds closed sans reading glasses. My apologies. I’m delaying my breakfast a bit to read them now. (slinking slowly away…)

    2. No offense taken. And the sources aren’t necessarily scholarly, but I figure if you were curious, you might want to be alerted to their existence.

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