In addition to stocking up on diapers and wipes, families in Germany preparing for a newborn often make beer runs—for the breast-feeding mom-to-be. Nurses and midwives in the country commonly recommend a steady stream of alcohol-free wheat beer to boost breast milk supply.
The German penchant for pints is well-known: Beer is consumed at the movies and on the subway and is even warmed up as a comforting home remedy for cold symptoms. So it’s not much of a surprise that beer-loving, breast-feeding moms might enjoy an alcohol-free variety, which causes no harm to a baby. But does cracking open a frosty brew actually help boost breast milk production? Science says it just might.
University of Munich nutritionist Berthold Koletzko and his colleague Frauke Lehner reviewed the literature a while back for their book chapter “Beer and Breastfeeding” (Adv. Exp. Med. Biol. 2002, DOI: 10.1007/0-306-46830-1_2). It turns out that when researchers gave beer to non-breast-feeding women (and rats and sheep), levels of prolactin in their blood rose. This is significant because prolactin is a hormone responsible for initiating lactation in women.
Studies in sheep showed that beer powder, barley extract, and a crude malt extract triggered a prolactin rise, whereas a hop extract had no effect. Further basic chemical separations suggested that the prolactin-activating molecule in beer is not a lipid or a protein but a polysaccharide from barley. The review was based on only a few studies primarily conducted in the 1970s and ’80s, but the preliminary data suggested alcohol-free beer might indeed help boost breast milk production. Perhaps a new generation of scientists will hoist a stein in search of more conclusive data on the matter.
Newscripts suspects that the postpartum emphasis on wheat beer, which is brewed with a higher ratio of wheat to barley malt than other beers, is primarily based on taste. German brewers aren’t forthcoming about how they remove the alcohol without sacrificing flavor, though they point to vacuum distillation and reverse osmosis, two well-known strategies for removing ethanol from brew.
Vacuum distillation is a step up from standard distillation, in which alcohol is boiled off by heating the beer—to the detriment of taste. Under vacuum, the alcohol’s boiling point is reduced so that lower temperatures can be used to remove the alcohol, with fewer consequences to flavor. In reverse osmosis, beer is filtered to separate molecules the size of ethanol from the rest of the brew.
These flavor-saving techniques are especially important for any alcohol-free beer that wants to sport the Reinheitsgebot seal. The German beer purity law, which celebrates its 500th anniversary this year, limits the ingredients of beer to water, yeast, malt, and hops. This means the brewery can’t add flavor ingredients to the beer to replace any lost in the dealcoholization process.
Of course, sometimes brewers want to lose flavors naturally found in beer. DuPont recently reported an enzyme that can degrade diacetyl in beer. The molecule gives lager beers an unwanted butter or butterscotch flavor.
Diacetyl is made by yeast as a by-product during fermentation as the microbe produces the amino acid valine. Brewers typically just wait for the unwanted flavor to break down on its own—lagers undergo a so-called maturation process, which can take months. Impatient brewers have considered many strategies for avoiding diacetyl production in the first place. Besides the new DuPont enzyme, another idea is to add valine during fermentation so that the yeast don’t need to produce the amino acid themselves and thus don’t make unwanted diacetyl in the process (Appl. Microbiol. Biotechnol. 2013, DOI: 10.1007/s00253-013-4955-1).
Newscripts wonders whether the DuPont enzyme will become popular in Germany because adding it to brew may interfere with the Reinheitsgebot stamp of purity. But elsewhere, the enzyme may find application with brewers who don’t want to wait for diacetyl to break down on its own.