Sunday, 24 August 2014

That Magic Headache Ingredient

Thirty years or so ago during the early 1980’s, when I was living in Maidstone, a friend who was older, and much wiser than me came out with a statement that was pertinent then, and still holds true today. He was describing the morning after a night spent drinking Shepherd Neame beers, back in the day when the company’s beers were worth drinking, and when they also had a considerable presence in Kent’s county town.

“What is that magic headache ingredient in Shepherd Neame beers?” my friend asked. Of course neither of us knew the answer, but we both knew what he was talking about, as even a moderate session on Sheps invariably led to a sore head the following morning. This was in sharp contrast to the other readily available cask beer in West Kent at the time; Fremlins Bitter. You could drink a gallon of the stuff and still feel OK the next day!

I’ve pondered this question over the years, but never arrived at a satisfactory answer. One thing I have noticed though is that the next day headache is NOT related to the alcohol content of the beer. I was reminded of this fact last Friday morning, having attended a CAMRA meeting the night before. The meeting took place at a pub in Tunbridge Wells.  I had arrived late, the pub was an old one and it was quite dark in the bar. The pub was tied to Greene King, but like several others locally the licensee is allowed to stock several guest beers.

A beer called Swordfish from Wadworth caught my eye, and I have to say it was rather good. I have never been a huge fan of the company’s flagship beer, 6X. There’s nothing wrong per se with the beer, it’s just that a heavily malt-driven ale is not to my taste. If anything Swordfish was even maltier than 6X, but after eight days in Bavaria, drinking predominantly hop-driven, light-coloured beers, it slipped down rather well; so much so that I ordered another. It was only after a friend pointed out the beer was 5% that I thought it perhaps prudent to switch to something lighter for the final beer of the evening.

The next morning I had the headache from hell, and it was then that I decided my discomfort must be due to something in the beer, rather than just its strength. After all, a few days previously I had been drinking Bavarian beers of a similar strength, and in greater quantity, with nothing worse than a dry mouth the following morning. Without a doubt, this new beer from Wadworth had that infamous “magic headache ingredient” but what could it be?

Research shows that classic hangover symptoms are not due solely to excess alcohol (ethanol), although if one has obviously over-indulged, rather than just having had a few pints, then the high levels of alcohol in your system will make you feel rough regardless. Drinking an alcoholic beverage that contains impurities or preservatives can give you a hangover, even if you only have one drink.

 Some of these impurities may be other alcohols besides ethanol. Other hangover-causing chemicals are congeners, which are by-products of the fermentation process. These “higher alcohols” and congeners are more likely to be formed when fermentation takes place at higher temperatures, which would explain why the beers  I was drinking in Munich the other week did not have this effect; having been fermented and matured at a lower temperature than traditional English ale.

So in the interests of further research, and as something of a project to list out beers to watch out for if you don’t want too much of that “morning after feeling”, which beers, in your experience, have that avoid at all costs, “magic headache ingredient”?


Cooking Lager said...

Beyond dehydration, one convincing theory I read was that the all fermentation contains trace methanol in addition to ethanol and it is the trace methanol that poisons you and the hangover is a reaction to this.

I agree about bavarian beer, it's magical. They claim things like freshness and purity but maybe it's all in the yeast and what it spits the sugars into.

Curmudgeon said...

Surprised Cookie didn't just say "proves lout is best". You can certainly jug away 5% lager in way that you can't with 5% ale.

m.lawrenson said...

Acetaldehyde, I reckon.

Paul Bailey said...

m.lawrenson, the oxidation of ethanol into acetaldehyde by enzymes in the liver is the first stage in the metabolism of ethanol. It is claimed that acetaldehyde is more harmful than ethanol itself.

This doesn't explain why some beers create worse hangover effects than others, because theoretically a 5% ale and a 5% lager will produce identical amounts of acetaldehyde as the liver goes about metabolising the ethanol.

I think, as Cookie mentions, the presence of other alcohols, such as methanol (worrying!), propanol, butanol etc, are the more likely cause.

Bottom fermentations, which traditionally take place at lower temperatures, are known to produce a "clean" tasting beer, whereas top-fermented beers typically will have a certain amount of fruitiness, due to the yeast working at a higher temperature and the production of certain esters.

Here my chemistry gets a bit rusty, but I do know certain esters have a fruity odour and/or taste. Whether they worsen the effects of a hangover is open to debate, or perhaps further research.

p.s. Any nominations yet for other beers with the "Magic headache ingredient"?

m.lawrenson said...

Could be that certain beers already have acetaldehyde in them already. I've certainly had wines like that.

Cooking Lager said...


where lout is best is in getting you pissed quicker. Fizzy alcohol gets it into your blood stream quicker. Champagne V Wine or Stella V Pongy Ale.

I've noticed a lack of hangover in Bavaria but not really when necking lots of Helles beer in this country. Dunno why.

StringersBeer said...

Newcastle Brown always did it for me. The science of hangovers looks pretty complicated. And there's bound to be a lot of individual variation. So if you ask enough people, you'll probably come up with a list containing pretty much all beers.

The smart money nowadays seems to be on some kind of inflammatory involvement, and there's all kinds of candidates in beer. Certainly, yer anti-inflammatory "painkiller" is most peoples choice for the next day. I've often wondered if there would be any advantage in preloading on (say) ibruprofen (NOT aspirin, NOT paracetamol). Unless you have problems with that. Note: am not medically trained.

StringersBeer said...

...and I can't spell "Ibuprofen" either. Sorry.

RedNev said...

I'm not sure that preloading on Ibuprofen would be a good idea, mainly because of the possible side effects. My friend, a retired nurse, believes it should be treated with a lot more respect than it often is.

I do recall rumours that certain 60s and 70s keg brewers used to put a chemical in their weak beers to cause a mild headache, so that next morning people would think they'd had a good night on the ale. I've no idea whether that's true.

I don't get headaches, not even after a session on a 5% beer.

Cooking Lager said...

if we're on the hangover cures mine are dioralyte (actually meant to be for dehydration following diarrhoea but is pretty good for hangovers)

Greggs warm sausage rolls, big macs & full fat coke seems to have a positive effect too.

Paul Bailey said...

Now you mention it, StringersBeer, Newcastle Brown used to give me a blinding headache as well. People used to call it "chemical beer", and there was some urban myth (except they weren't called that back then), going around about a special ward in Newcastle Royal Infirmary, for recovering Newcy Brown addicts.

Maybe the Brown Bottle character in Viz was more real than we thought!

StringersBeer said...

Indeed @RedNev, I wasn't suggesting that everyone should neck'em like smarties before a night on the lash.