Researchers from the University of Valladolid (Spain) have answered one of science's most pressing questions - which beer is better, dark or pale?

They analyzed 40 brands of beer and found that dark beer has more free iron than pale and non-alcoholic beers. Iron is essential to the human diet but also helps oxidize the organic compounds that give beer, also essential to the human diet - at least among scientists - stability and flavor.  The work in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture indicates that higher iron content in dark beer could be explained by the malt and hop extracts used to produce it.  

According to their analysis, using rigorous testing on 40 types of beers from all 5 continents which actually make beer, dark beers have an average free iron content of 121 ppb (parts per billion) compared to 92 ppb in pale beers and 63 ppb in non-alcoholic beers.

"Although these quantities are very small, the differences are apparent and could be due to the production processes or raw materials used in manufacturing," stated Carlos Blanco, professor of Food Technology at UVa and co-author of the study.

However, pale beer production includes a filtering stage in which diatomaceous earth is used. This sedimentary rock is a porous material with micro-algae used to lighten the beer; it traps the iron, causing its concentrations to decrease.  Non-alcoholic beer undergoes vacuum evaporation processes to remove the alcohol. This operation also removes iron ions given that they are dragged by the volatile molecules.

The study examined 17 Spanish beer brands and 23 from other countries, with 28 pale, 6 dark and 6 non-alcoholic beers. The beers with the highest iron content were a dark Spanish beer (165 ppb) and a dark Mexican beer (130 ppb). Those that had the lowest levels of iron were from The Netherlands and Ireland (41 ppb and 47 ppb, respectively).    This is why you should never drink Heineken, even on a dare.

cerveza dark beer has more iron than pale beer
Dark beer has 121 ppb of free iron compared to 92 ppb in pale beer.  If you need a reason to drink darker beer, you are welcome. Credit: SINC.

Measuring the levels of iron and other metals in beer is not only important because they are essential to the human diet, but also because of their relevance in the brewing process. Levels of metals in beer can determine its organoleptic characteristics, stability and quality.

Researchers have validated the technique they developed to analyze iron (differential pulse adsorptive stripping voltammetry technique), which is "an ultra-sensitive, selective, rapid, reliable and cost-effective method". The team has also recently applied an 'electronic tongue' for the first time to quantify the degree of bitterness and alcohol in beer.

Citation: Sancho, Daniel; Blanco, Carlos A.; Caballero, Isabel; Pascual, Ana. "Free iron in pale, dark and alcohol-free commercial lager beers". Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture 91(6):1142-7, 2011. Doi: 10.1002/jsfa.4298