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How lager is turning fellas into Stellas


LAST weekend I bumped into an acquaintance who was heading for the local Wetherspoon’s. ‘Good ales in there,’ I remarked. ‘Ugh – dishwater!’ he replied, ‘my drink’s Stella.’ Well, each to his own. But it was sadly typical that this man was overweight and although in his 50s could have passed for ten years older.

Although demonised, beer is actually a healthful drink. I contributed to Beer in Health and Disease Prevention, edited by Professor Victor Preedy at King’s College London. As well as nutritional value (if taken in moderation) drinking has considerable social benefits, and the public house plays a vital role in our culture. But more attention should be given to the provenance of a pint: fizzy Big Brand lagers are most injurious to health, as I shall explain.

Obesity has increased dramatically in recent decades. For evidence of this, compare crowded beach scenes at British seaside resorts from the 1950s or 1960s with today. Slim, toned torsos have morphed into flab. Obvious factors are sedentary lives and a fatty and sugary diet.  However, there is a specific problem in middle-aged men that may be attributed to their favoured tipple, whether consumed at the bar or on the sofa in front of the television.

The cause is not simply the high sugar content of mass-produced lager, but its elevating effect on the female hormone, oestrogen.  For all their banter and bravado in the company of fellow blokes, men are unwittingly emasculating themselves. Oestrogen is everywhere – in our water supply and in ubiquitous plastics – but heavy lager drinkers are particularly exposed.

In the journal Medical Hypotheses, Paul Cohen explained that ‘in males with increasing obesity there is increased aromatose activity, which irreversibly converts testosterone to estradiol resulting in decreased testosterone and elevated oestrogen levels’. As a study by Maria Trius-Soler and colleagues in Barcelona showed, the non-alcoholic content of beer does not cause abdominal fat gain in women

Obviously too much sugar is bad for either sex, but excessive oestrogen is hazardous for men. Female alcoholics have the opposite problem, whereby testosterone levels increase, in some cases leading to beard growth and other male characteristics owing to impaired liver function. During my hospital training in a hard-drinking town near Glasgow, I saw several patients with cirrhosis caused by alcoholism. I remember a man with terminal hepatic disease who had gynaecomastia (growth of female breasts), never needed to shave and had a high-pitched voice.

If you don’t want to worry about bioactive agents in your beer, I strongly advise that you avoid the global lager brands and try fresher brews from the hand-pump. Beer drawn from barrels in the cellar (often described as real ale) is profoundly short on ingredients: malt, yeast and hops. There is none of the additives of keg beers, and the head is from natural fermentation rather than infused carbon dioxide.

Sadly, cask ale is not always readily available. The long-term decline of pubs accelerated in the Covid-19 lockdown, and rising costs have put thousands more out of business. Many pubs and hotel bars do not sell real ale, a perishable product which customers will understandably avoid if not tended properly.  The large brewing corporations have no interest in tradition or taste – since the 1960s they have successfully weaned society on to their mass-marketed products with long shelf-life. Bland, insipid, but consistently smooth.

Until the 1960s every town in England had its brewery, typically family firms going back several generations, woven into the social fabric. Then the monopolising process began. The Big Six of Bass-Charrington, Allied, Watney, Scottish and Newcastle, Whitbread and Courage bought most of the breweries, in many cases simply to close them down. The strategy was to increase the volume of drinking: lower-alcohol bitter and lager were advertised with the theme of ‘thirst’. An old regular nursing a pint of stout was not the future.

The bullying tactics of the big brewers caused a backlash in the 1970s, leading to the formation of the Campaign for Real Ale. But despite the lasting revival of local craft brewing, the average Joe in the pub has been brought up on lager produced in vast amounts in industrial estates alongside a motorway. They know not what goes in their Carling or Bud Light, but it’s cool in both meanings: icy cold and a fashionably labelled commodity.

The Wetherspoon chain, under Tim Martin’s stewardship, promotes real ale and sells it attractively cheaply, yet look around a bar and you’ll see most young men drinking the higher-priced lagers. They are literally paying for – and doing – the marketing, a corporate trick analysed by Naomi Klein in her 1999 classic No Logo.  But they are paying in a more significant way as they slowly succumb to hormonal disruption. At a time when conspiracy theories are often becoming reality, I suggest that the feminisation of men is desirable for the powers-that-be, if not intentional.

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