Beer 101: What Is Alcohol?

05-01-2016, The BeerVibe Crew


comic what is alcohol

Chemically, and in simplest terms, an alcohol is an organic compound with at least one hydroxyl group (O-H) bonded to a saturated carbon atom. (Alright, perhaps the simplest terms will still cause your head to spin.) A chemical name ending in “ol” will usually mean an alcohol. They are clear, colorless, volatile, and inflammable liquids.

There are quite a number of alcohols, and they have their uses in medicine, industrial processes, fuels, solvents, antifreeze, disinfectants, and cleaners. Few of these we would want to take internally, as most of them are very poisonous. What if used externally? How about all those classic western films where an outlaw takes a swig from a flask of whiskey and then pours a generous amount onto his gunshot wound before a cohort attempts to extract a bullet? Well yes, although antiseptic properties are present in drinking alcohol, they are few. That poor delirious sap is out of options; you are not. We recommend the much cheaper isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) as a more effective topical antiseptic—but NEVER on an open wound, that is, unless you’re feeling like a cowboy (or cowgirl). Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Where were we? Oh yes, ethanol, C2H5OH, the alcohol we ingest and enjoy, is a metabolic byproduct of yeasts of the genus Saccharomyces. Yeasts are anaerobic organisms, fermenting sugars and producing carbon dioxide and ethyl alcohol (ethanol) in the absence of air. Stay with us.

It has been estimated that humans produce about three grams of ethanol daily through the fermentation of some of the contents of our digestive system, so, humans and many other organisms have to have the ability to metabolize ethanol. In fact, to our great joy, we are well equipped to handle ethanol. The kidneys and liver catabolize ethanol through a rather complicated process into carbon dioxide and water. In humans ethanol is oxidized into acetaldehyde…dehydrogenase…alpha…beta…blah blub…Huh?…Who cares?

Relax, we will not test you on any of this.

Aren’t we glad that somebody knows all about how ethanol is produced and then is metabolized? Aren’t we glad that we don’t have to know all of this to appreciate a good beer? Our ancestors were able to obtain and metabolize ethanol long before the invention of the microscope, the discovery of yeasts, and before the laws of chemistry were unraveled. If you want to know more about what alcohol is chemically the information is readily available online, although it may help to have an advanced degree in biochemistry to understand what you are reading on any of these sites. Most of us beer drinkers have no such degree, so you’re on your own.

On the other hand, a simple alcoholic drink, not poisonous, can be made with water, sugar, and yeast. Brewer’s yeast is recommended, but feeding sugar to any yeast you find in the supermarket will give you ethanol. Yeast for baking bread will result in a drink that smells like, you guessed it, bread. Using brewer’s yeast will probably be more to your liking. Keeping it all free from contamination from bacteria and wild yeasts will improve your product, and for this you will want to use some method to vent out carbon dioxide from your disinfected fermenting container, without letting any air in. Assume that ordinary breathable air is loaded with living things that would love to infect your brew. The best way to avoid contamination is to use an airlock just for this purpose. Using these simple ingredients, dissolve about 3 ½ cups of sugar in a gallon of water. You can activate the yeast by pouring it into a cup of warm water. When you see that the yeast has awakened and is busily making little bubbles, then you can add it to the sugar-water mix. When you let the yeast do its work, you might have an end product with up to 20 percent alcohol by volume. You would probably choose to mix this liquid with a soft drink, fruit juice, or whatever else might suit your taste. If you were to distill this, which is illegal in the United States, you would have something similar to rum. Since, at this present time, Wi-Fi is not readily available to inmates in prison cells, we strongly suggest that you resist the urge to start a distillery in your home office. We would like to keep our readers out of the joint where they can delight in certain freedoms, one of which is drinking beer. Again, don’t say we didn’t warn you.

So ethyl alcohol, a.k.a. ethanol, is an important part of beer. It is easy to come by. It is likely one of the reasons why you drink beer in the first place. Now, after reading this, if your head is still spinning, it is likely due to your attempts at mentally digesting the explanation of alcohol and not due to the alcohol itself. We hope.

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