Straws and Beer – Sounds Weird, But The Story Doesn’t Suck

Straws and Beer – Sounds Weird, But The Story Doesn’t Suck

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

You don’t see people using straws with beers very often, unless it’s a person with a physical challenge or trying to not mess up lipstick. I asked J.J. and Bobby at Moontown Brewing about straws and beers and they said they’ve only seen it a handful of times and it’s usually a lipstick issue.

Ashley at The Pint Room in Carmel said she too has had people ask for a straw with their beer a handful of times in her 11 years of bartending, but majority of those she has seen have been because of teeth sensitivity. That’s a reason I hadn’t thought of. Jen at The Guardian Brewing in Muncie has a regular with a physical disability, while Just Jon at Elm Street Brewing (also in Muncie) says he has a couple of fellow employees that take their beer through a straw. On the other hand, Sydney at Upland FSQ said she can’t remember anyone ever asking for a straw with their beer.

For whatever reason it happens, when you do see it, it looks odd, like something is out of place or just isn’t right. However, with the advent of beer cocktails you might see more straws with beers to go along with the straws in the fruity mixed drinks that people have around the pool and come with the paper umbrellas.

Since you normally don’t picture a beer with a straw in it, it might surprise you to learn that straws were invented specifically for use in beers! It may be that the people doing beer bongs and with those silly beer helmets are the most traditional of all beer drinkers! Let’s look at the history of the straw with respect to beer, and then talk a bit about how drinking alcohol through a straw can change your experience.

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History.  It was those practical Sumerians that invented the straw before 3000 BCE. Beer makers at that time didn’t have heat exchangers to do cold crashes or whirlpools to remove trub, so beer tended to be a dense, particulate laden drink. In order to avoid the floating particulate and the fallen sediment, some forward thinking Uruk citizen used a reed or grass suck beer through. Heck, Tanzanians and Kenyans still use straws for this purpose because their beers are thick as soup; beers there are basically meals for them (I drink my lunch most days of the week so this is no big deal to me).

Around 2500 BCE, the straw became a social status symbol. The rich adorned their straws with stones or metals, or had them made out of gold. Why, might you ask, would someone need a fancy straw to have a beer with dinner? Well, it relates to the other reason that straws were invented. The Sumerians drank their beers from the vats in which they were made. They gathered around the large bowl and drank straight from it; but this limited the number of people that could drink at one time.

By using long straws, drinking became a social activity, and one could show off by having the most adorned straw. In fact, some historians/anthropologists credit the straw and beer drinking as one of the major factors in the formation of societies. I always thought it was farming and domestication of livestock, but hey, if they want to say it was beer, who am I to argue.

Egyptians building the pyramids used straws, so did ancient east Asians drinking rice beers and Babylonians (they equated straws with sexual provocation, interesting). Therefore, it’s been more than 5000 years that straws have been with us, and they can be mostly attributed to beer.

image credit: india mart

Still, with all that use and history, it wasn’t until the 1880s that the mass-produced, artificial straw was patented by Marvin Stone when he got fed up with his natural rye gras straw constantly degrading in his mint julep and making it taste grassy. He wound strips of paper around a pencil and glued the ends to make his first straws and then switch to paraffin embedded paper to keep them from getting soggy. And thus, the modern straw was born.

Plastic straws became all the rage after WWII, but even prior to that Joseph Friedman had invented the bendy straw in the 1930s. In my house growing up, you didn’t get a bendy straw unless you were sick in bed. It was the only nice thing about getting sick. Currently, Americans use about 400 million straws a day (OK, probably fewer during the pandemic); that’s a lot of straws. Unfortunately, straws tend to drop through recycling machinery or are too light to be moved through the recycler, so they often end up being a trash problem.

Ocean trash contains lots of straws (90% of ocean plastic trash, including straws, comes from China, Indonesia, and Vietnam), so work is being done to reduce the waste of this plastic, partly by bringing back the Marvin Stone paper straw. However, straws can’t be eliminated because they are such an aid for sanitary drinking and for people with disabilities.

image credit: welcome to the jungle

Straws and getting drunk. This is the subject most people bring up with respect to straws and alcohol. I admit up front that nobody has really studied it scientifically. There are no published papers in PubMed concerning drinking straws and blood alcohol levels. However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a good amount of anecdotal evidence and speculation out there.

There are four reasons why people think drinking beer or other alcoholic drinks might get you drunk faster. The most common (ie. least supported) reason is that drinking through a straw displaces oxygen and reduced mixing so that more alcohol goes directly in the blood. Closely linked to this theory is the one that says alcohol gets volatilized through the straw and can get sucked into your lungs where it is easily absorbed and makes you drunk faster. However, alcohol is readily absorbed through all mucosal surfaces directly into the blood stream, including the mouth, esophagus, and stomach, so this is an unlikely source of faster intoxication.

The third theory is that carbonation increases alcohol absorption through mucosal surfaces (it does), so using a straw that reduces bubbling of drinks and increases CO2 consumption would speed intoxication. Most likely this is true on a small scale, but not enough to make a difference over the course of one drinking session.

The last theory is probably the true source of all the others. It’s simple. Drinking through a straw is efficient, so you drink more, faster. It isn’t that the straw makes the alcohol more likely to enter your bloodstream, it’s just that you are drinking more than you think in the same time period. This makes perfect sense, and adds a hint of logic to the entire conversation.

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Other Effects of Beer through Straws. It’s true that the senses of smell and taste work together to produce one overall effect. If you lose your sense of smell things taste different and are less flavorful; the opposite is true as well. As this applies to drinking through a straw, what you’ve got is less chance for the aroma of the beer to come out since you are bypassing your nose for your mouth.

We can make it even more technical if you like. There are two types of smelling that you go through when you eat or drink. Orthonasal smelling is through your nostrils, while retronasal smelling comes from compounds in the food in your mouth being volatilized during chewing or swallowing and traveling north in your pharynx to your olfactory receptors. Orthonasal smelling is reduced with your use a straw because your nose stays farther from the beer in your glass.

More important, retronasal smelling is reduced if you drink beer through a straw because you tend to drink faster through a straw, so the beer spends less time in your mouth – less time to filter up to your olfactory receptors. Beyond this, when the beer spends less time in your mouth, there is less warming from your palate and cheeks so there will be less aerosolization and less retronasal smelling. Showing the importance of heat to both taste and smell, research has shown that perception of sweetness and bitterness (both important in beer) intensify when the substrate warms ( Salt and sour are less affected by heat, so the temperature of the beer will definitely lead to a change in flavor profile –ie. use a straw and your beer will taste different.

Conclusion. Tiny straws in fruity cocktails can be OK, and if you’re going to be a beer helmet kind of person, go ahead. But other than that, why don’t we stay away from the straw in the beer unless you need it. It messes with the smell and flavor of the beer and just makes you drink more while enjoying it less. You may get drunk faster, but is that really the point of craft beer? No one reveres history as much as do I but I’m still not going to drink my NE IPA through a straw just because the Sumerians started it.

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