Beer has a special place among the foods and beverages that are problematic for people with diabetes. Enjoy a few cans or pints and the carbohydrate content can push your blood sugar way up … just before the alcohol brings you back down with a thud. While there are lower-carb beers available, it’s mostly “lite” megabrews, the type of stuff that the beer lover might find thin and tasteless.
As exciting as the explosion of the craft beer industry has been, those delicious, lovingly-made microbrews can be even more trouble. The more flavorful the beer, the higher the carbohydrate count is likely to be. And the smaller the brewery, the less likely you’ll have any idea how many carbs are in a bottle.
Beer lover Seán Deeney had never given much thought to beer’s sugar content until May 2020. That’s when, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.
“I only figured that out because I’d just been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease a couple of months before, in February. So, it was not a great year.”
Seán, age 23, lives in Dublin. He’s just completed his university degree. And despite the incredible bad health luck, he’s bounced back pretty quickly.
His transition to life with diabetes was smooth in part because he was already fairly familiar with the disease: his brother James had also been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, only a few years previous.
Actually, it was James that first alerted Seán to the likely meaning of his symptoms. James used his own blood sugar meter on his brother, and “it was way up, above 20 mmol/L [360 mg/dL].” By the time Seán went into the hospital, he was in the beginnings of ketoacidosis.
“But it wasn’t even too bad. I kind of had a general idea of all the stuff you have to do, how you take insulin, how you check your blood sugars. And it was helpful to have someone I could ask all the time.”
The two had already been collaborating on homebrewed beers, and with each now sharing notes on diabetes management, they were bound to start talking about diabetes-friendly beer.
“My brother has been brewing his own beer for years, and he worked in a brewery as well, Carlingford Brewing Co. We’ve made all sorts of types of beers. Basically anything you can think of, we’ve at least made an attempt at doing.”
“It was only a few months ago that I started really liking these brut beers. It’s a really dry style of beer, so it isn’t very sweet, and I’d wanted to do one for a while, so we looked up how you actually go about doing them. But we didn’t know before we looked it up that there was almost no sugar in them.”
“It turns out it’s basically similar to a normal beer, except you put in glucoamylase, an enzyme that breaks down the complex sugars into more basic sugars.”
“Normally, the reason that the beers have sugar in them – which is what will mess with your blood sugar levels – is that there are unfermentable sugars that remain in the beer, sugars that the yeast isn’t able to convert into alcohol. It’s just a byproduct of how you make it. But this enzyme glucoamylase actually breaks down these unfermentable sugars and makes them into fermentable sugars, so the yeast can convert all of the sugar into alcohol, and there will be no sugar left in the beer at all.
“We were looking at this and thinking, ‘If there’s no sugar left in the beer, surely it shouldn’t affect your glucose levels.’ So we tried one out, and it worked! You can go and drink eight pints of it and it won’t affect your blood sugars at all. Neither myself nor my brother has seen levels rising from drinking it.”
A warning – please don’t take this as an endorsement to drink eight pints of beer, which is probably a bad idea, diabetes or not. Seán (who is still in the honeymoon period) and James have never noticed their blood sugars drop after drinking beer, but your experience may significantly vary. It’s well-known that alcohol, which prevents the liver from releasing glucose the way it normally does, can cause blood sugar drops and dangerous hypoglycemia, especially when taken in excess. I cautioned to Seán that his own experience might change over the years, too.
Seán Deeney, enjoying his beer
To be clear, Seán hasn’t had his beer scientifically analyzed or anything. He’s not a chemist. But he’s convinced that his brut homebrew has significantly less sugar than any other beer style he’s tried, if not absolutely zero. It’s been nothing but steady blood sugar lines for both brothers:
“We both have CGMs. He has the Dexcom, I have the Libre. You can really see the lines, and it just won’t go up at all.”
Brut beers are usually done in a clean, bitter, highly fizzy IPA style, almost like a beery champagne, but Seán has tried the glucoamylase in other recipes as well.
“Normally it’s only a pale ale or IPA that people put this enzyme into. But I really like German wheat beers. So I decided I’d try and make a wheat beer with this enzyme as well.”
“It did exactly what it was supposed to do. You end up with no sugar at the end, and a really tasty beer. So I’ve been doing it with a few others – a rye, and a Kolsch, and all the sugars completely ferment out.”
“We’ve had some fun in naming them as well. The first one, the IPA style, we call it Insulin, because it keeps the levels down. The wheat that I like to make we have now called Diawheaties.”
And his non-diabetic friends approve:
“Everyone seems to like it. They tend to be quite nice, easy-drinking beers. We wouldn’t make them just for the zero sugar if they were no good. They’re as good as the normal beers.”
“It’s really handy. It’s one less thing to worry about.”