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Beer and Alcohol Content

When it comes to counting alcoholic beverages and estimating one’s degree of intoxication, even well-meaning casual drinkers can have poor judgment. This is due in large part to the fact that our idea of what constitutes “one drink” very rarely aligns with medical and professional standards. The differences in alcohol content between equal amounts of beer, wine, and liquor can be drastic – this means that a double shot of tequila or vodka may have a much more drastic effect than two beers.

Not all of the consideration should be focused on the differences between types of beverages, but also within them. While the high alcohol content of liquor means that they receive plenty of attention in terms of their variations in “proof” (a number reached by doubling the percentage of alcohol), beer has traditionally flown under the radar in this respect.

U.S. guidelines referring to a 12-ounce beer as “one drink” take the assumed alcohol content of the beer to be about 5%. In reality, commercial beers can range from less than 1% alcohol to almost 24% – double the typical concentration of most wines. Unlike liquor, the differences in alcohol content with beers can be difficult to detect given the carbonation and “masking” effect of flavors such as hops.

Many people assume that the “stronger” or more bitter and intense a beer is, the more alcohol it contains, and adjust their drinking habits accordingly. In reality, some of the most stout beers – those high in the distinctive hops flavor – are among the lowest in alcohol content, with a few British porters weighing in at only 2 or 3%. Conversely, a “smooth” beer can often have an alcohol content upwards of 10%.

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