Cheers! 5 Intoxicating Facts About Beer

(Image credit: Rita Juliana | Stock Xchng)

If America, and American workers, had an official alcoholic beverage, it would probably be beer. According to the Brewers Association, the overall U.S. beer market was worth $96 billion in 2011, when some 200 million barrels of beer were sold (1 barrel equals 31 gallons of beer). In the same year, 1,989 breweries in the United States were fermenting everything from light lagers to chocolaty stouts.

In that spirit, and in salute to Labor Day, LiveScience proposes a toast to beer, that sudsy beverage that humans have brewed for millennia.

1. What's in a glass?

Water, mostly. But also flowers, fungus and grains.

Beer gets much of its flavor from hops, which are vine-grown flowers that look more like mini-pinecones than daisies. The alcohol in beer comes from grain, usually barley, which is malted (or allowed to germinate) and then steeped in water to extract its sugars. Those sugars become a feast for yeast, the tiny, unicellular fungi that thrive on sugars and excrete alcohol. [More Fun Beer Facts]

Yeasts usually get filtered out of commercial beers before they're bottled, but they leave traces (and flavors) behind. A study published in August 2010 in the Journal of Proteome Research found that beers contain a surprising variety of proteins: at least 62, 40 of which come from yeast. These proteins are key in supporting beer's foamy head, the researchers noted.

2. Who drank it then ...

Humans and yeast have been working together for millennia to create tasty brews. As early as the sixth millennium B.C., ancient Sumerians had discovered the art of fermentation. By the 19th century B.C., they were inscribing beer recipes into tablets in the form of a Hymn to Ninkasi, their female deity of beer.

Other cultures around the world developed beer independently, but the job of brewing often went to women. Tenenit, the Egyptian deity of beer, was female, as was the Zulu beer goddess Mbaba Mwana Waresa. A 2005 study found that among the Wari people of ancient Peru, elite women brewed the beer. Centuries later, women dominated the European brewing scene, according to a 1993 article in Yankee Brew News by late beer anthropologist Alan Eames. According to Eames, it wasn't until the late 1700s that beer became a male-dominated drink.

3. And who drinks it now

Today, beer is the preferred beverage of men, according to data from a July 2010 Gallup poll. Of the 67 percent of U.S. adults who drink alcohol, 54 percent of men named beer as their top alcoholic beverage compared with 27 percent of women. (Liquor was equally preferred by both genders, while women heavily favored wine, a trend largely driven by women over 50.)

Beer is more popular among young people, with half of 18- to 34-year-olds listing it as their top intoxicating beverage. Midwesterners are the top beer-drinkers in the United States, but not by much. Forty-six percent of Midwesterners said beer was their favorite drink, compared with 42 percent of Easterners, 40 percent of Westerners and 37 percent of Southerners.

4. It's not just good for drinking

Beer isn't only enjoyable to drink. Cooks use beer to flavor barbecue sauce, season bread and moisten grilled chicken.

But that's nothing compared with the use John Milkovisch, a retired railroad upholsterer, put beer (or at least beer cans) to. Starting in 1968, Milkovisch spent 18 years lining the outside of his modest Houston home with flattened beer cans. He strung the lids from the eaves and turned them into chain-link fences.

Milkovisch died in 1988, and his home is now a museum. According to the Beer Can House website, the inspiration for the project was simple. [Image Gallery: Extraordinary Environmental Art]

"Well, I think it might have been the good Lord says 'Nut, it's time for you to build this crazy stuff,'" Milkovisch is quoted as saying. "So here I did, I built it."

5. What floats down

Observant beer drinkers might notice that when beer is poured into a glass, the bubbles seem to defy the laws of physics, floating down instead of up.

Turns out those people haven't had too much to drink. Beer bubbles really do float downward sometimes, according to a 2004 analysis by Stanford researchers. Because of the drag from the walls of the glass, they found, the beer bubbles float up more easily in the center of the glass. As those bubbles go up, they pull the surrounding liquid to the surface. When the bubbles join the froth, or "head" of the beer, the liquid begins to pour back down the sides of the glass, dragging smaller bubbles down with it. The researchers used a super-slow-motion camera to capture the bubbles' descent and figure out the mystery. (That's one way to win a bar bet.)

Research reported in June suggested the pint glasses in which stouts are typically enjoyed, which are narrower at the bottom, may be what makes beer bubbles trek downward in the first place.

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.