*** Published in the Nov / Dec 2014 Issue of TAPS MAGAZINE
A friend of mine recently had a non alcohol beer smashed by a stranger at a bar. Her crime? Appearing to drink while pregnant.
A few years back, I decided to dedicate my career to craft beer. I write, judge, organize, market, promote and of course, enjoy the suds too. So, you can imagine how the excitement of conceiving my first child was met with many awkward conversations from friends, family and colleagues. “How will you ever survive nine whole months without beer”…. I’d generally just smile, change the subject and (not-so) secretly long for my first pint of Oatmeal Stout post-baby.
There is a an entire laundry list of items that are “off-limits” once a woman has a bun in the oven – soft cheese, caffeine, tobacco, sushi, deli meat, artificial sweeteners, runny eggs, etc. – but nothing elicits quite the controversy as alcohol. In fact, when I attempted to generate a facebook discussion around the topic, 57 impassioned yet respectful comments quickly followed on all sides of the topic.
As a visibly pregnant woman, you automatically invite public scrutiny; the personal becomes incredibly political. And, when it comes to alcohol, misconceptions can sometimes lead to direct criticism from strangers. For example, while merely pouring Cask Ale at the Halifax Seaport Beerfest this summer, I was repeatedly approached by strangers who told me “you better not be drinking”, or “don’t you know the affects of alcohol on your unborn child?”. Or, while wearing my Halifax Ladies Beer League shirt to an event that I organized, I fought off eye rolls and dropped jaws. There is quite a taboo to being associated with alcohol in any way while pregnant. I always felt compelled to explain to those around me when it was a non-alcoholic beer filling up my pint.
It is unanimously accepted that there are serious consequences of heavy alcohol consumption while pregnant, including Fetal Alcohol Effects (FAE), Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder and worse, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). These are incredibly serious and life-long conditions with Health Canada estimating that up to 740 babies are born with FES per year, and roughly 1,000 born with FAE (based on 370,000 live births). Physical symptoms include premature birth, facial abnormalities, small head circumference and low birth weight, while cognitive symptoms include learning difficulties, poor socialization skills and developmental delays (6).
Yet, despite the above mentioned consequences, our society is full of conflicting messages such as: “Pregnant women in Ireland drink a Guinness-a-day to increase their iron storage”, “expectant French moms enjoy a glass of red wine with dinner”, or “our grandmothers’ generation drank (and smoked) throughout pregnancy, without the following generation being plagued by an FAS epidemic”. Whether or not there is any truth behind these stories, women shouldn’t let them guide their personal decisions; They should instead turn to the science.
Because of these known risks, nearly every North American doctor has adopted the “No safe time, no safe amount” mantra, with most admitting that the modern medical establishment simply does not know conclusively how much alcohol consumption is needed to actually cause FAS or FASD (1). So, where are the limits exactly? Getting drunk seems to be clearly dangerous. How about a pint of low alcohol beer? How about half a glass? A sip?
While it is inherently unethical to conduct controlled studies on expecting mothers consuming large amounts of alcohol, more recently, several studies have indicated that there is indeed a critical difference between moderate and light alcohol consumption when consumed after the first trimester. For example, a study by the “International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology”, which assessed nearly 11,000 7-year olds born between 2000 and 2002, concluded that children born to light drinkers (defined as no more than two units of alcohol per week) appeared to have no adverse behavioural or cognitive consequences in childhood (2). In the UK, one unit of alcohol equals approximately 160 ml – about 5 ounces – of 5% ABV beer (5).
In an Italian study, women who drank up to one unit per day were not more likely to have premature babies than those who didn’t drink at all (8). Another study from Australia compiled the drinking habits from 5,000 pregnant women, and later assessed the learning achievements of their children at age 14. Again, children born to light drinkers had equivalent IQ’s to children born to mothers who abstained (7).
While I originally assumed that European governments would take a more liberal stance on the issue, the UK appears to be the only government that provides a defined limit to alcohol consumption. Since 2006, the UK Chief Medical Officer’s advice to women has been: “Women should be advised that if they do choose to drink alcohol when pregnant, they should drink no more than one or two units of alcohol once or twice a week…. if a low level of alcohol is consumed, there is no evidence of harm to an unborn baby” (3). While it still remains a personal choice whether or not to consume a low level of alcohol during pregnancy, I can imagine that when a society engages in a more open dialogue around the issue, women are more comfortable having an honest conversation with their doctor about their use of alcohol while pregnant. This is especially important when it is widely thought that women underreport their alcohol consumption to their doctor or midwife (9).
So if some governments and reputable studies are disproving the zero tolerance theory, why hasn’t it trickled into mainstream thought? I have to wonder if the strict zero-alcohol during pregnancy advisory is at least partially maintained out of a concern that light consumption too easily becomes more than that. Additionally, I suspect it’s easier for our society to misconstrue the recommended safe limits than it is to maintain a black-and-white stance.
So is there harm in enjoying a small glass of low alcohol beer once and a while? (e.g. Bellwood’s “Stay Classy” at 2.8% ABV, or Boxing Rock’s “Sessionista” at 3.5% ABV) Well, the devil’s in the details as usual. Is that ‘small’ glass of beer small enough? What’s the beer’s ABV? Can you stop after finishing that small glass? How often are you drinking it? Are you drinking at a pace in which your liver can process the alcohol? Why are you drinking it at all?
What can be said for the ‘why’? Some people don’t understand why you need to have any alcohol at all during pregnancy. In my opinion, in such small quantities it’s not about beer’s intoxicating effects, but rather flavour exploration and continuing to provide feedback to the beer community. After taking the evidence into account and applying a healthy dose of common sense, I was perfectly comfortable having a sip of my husband’s beer or doing a bi-monthly review on a 3 oz sample. Beyond that, my gut steps up-to-the-plate and tells me to stop.
For another personal interpretation on the issue, I turned to a friend and fellow female beer crusader Crystal Luxmore. Crystal recently shook up the online community when she wrote a piece for “Today’s Parent”, claiming that she continued to consume small amounts of beer during her pregnancy. After being accepted into the midwifery program in Toronto, Crystal devised a customized plan that her midwife approved – no alcohol in the first trimester (the “smell & swirl” technique proved useful), followed by no more than one or two beers a week, and only half pints at a time. Crystal admits frankly that, “since I work in the beer industry, I needed to set these limits for myself based upon the most recent research. Pregnant women should have access to this information, because currently in North America there is no room for them to discuss it with their doctors”. While Crystal’s bold proclamation simultaneously created a frenzy of criticism and support, she was surprised by the flurry of emails from mom friends thanking her for having the courage to share her experience publicly (6).
It is my hope that this conversation continues to evolve, recognizing the serious effects of FAS while opening up the dialogue between health care providers, women and society at large. I’m not a medical doctor, but I strongly encourage women with questions about alcohol and pregnancy to talk to their doctor about their own situation. Maybe then we wouldn’t be so quick to judge.
Of course we can all agree that there is no harm in abstaining completely during pregnancy, nor does the consumption of beer provide any benefit to neonatal development. One Toronto-based company has made it a bit easier for pregnant women to get their beer fix. Premium Near Beer imports the world’s best non-alcoholic beer and then distributes it to grateful Canadian customers. According to founder Ted Fleming, who gave up alcohol in 2005 after being diagnosed with a life-long illness, pregnant women make up 10-15 percent of their customer base. Ted shares, “I think most pregnant women are already aware that non-alcoholic beer (or wine) is an option for them. It’s more of a matter of raising awareness about the quality and variety of products we offer”. And, Premium Near Beer has not shied away from the spotlight, appearing at the Spring Time Baby Show in Toronto, and bringing their “Beer Bike” to mother picnic events throughout the city (10).
Health Canada: Fetal Alcohol Syndrome / Fetal Alcohol Effects. Last reviewed 23/3/12. Available online:
Oster, Emily. Expecting Better. New York: The Penguin Press, 2013. Print (pg. 40)
Y. Kelly et al., “Light Drinking versus Abstinence in Pregnancy – Behavioral and Cognitive Outcomes in 7 year-old Children,” The International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology 120, no. 11. October 2013: 1340-47. Available online:
Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: Alcohol Consumption and the Outcomes on Pregnancy. RCOG Statement No. 5. March 2006. (pg. 3)
F Parazzini et al., “Moderate Alcohol Drinking and Risk of Preterm Birth,” European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 57, no. 10. October 2003: 1345-49.
F. V. O’Callaghan et al., “Prenatal Alcohol Exposure and Attention, Learning and Intellectual Ability at 14 Years: A Prospective Longitudinal Study,” Early Human Development 84, no. 2. February 2007: 115-23.
United Kingdom National Health Service. NHH Choices, Your health, Your choices: Can I drink alcohol if I’m pregnant? Last reviewed 13/7/14.
C. Nykjaer et al., “Maternal alcohol intake prior to and during pregnancy and risk of adverse birth outcomes: evidence from a British cohort.” Journal of Epidemiol Community Health (2014): 3, Print.
Luxmore, Crystal. Personal Interview. 26 Aug 2014.
Fleming, Ted. Personal Interview. 1 Sept 2014.
More so than most of today’s eccentric beer labels, the label for Le Naugrageur’s St. Barnabe truly sets the stage for the beer contained within. Pouring jet-black in colour, this tempting brew has aromas of bitter chocolate, roasted malt & a hint of anise, and is supported by a frothy, cream-coloured head. The first sip is thoroughly inviting, with an initial smokiness that gives way to a dry, lingering bitterness reminiscent of espresso or 99% dark chocolate. There is nothing sweet about this Dry Stout; instead it presents a distinct earthiness like tobacco or ash. The smooth, gentle carbonation allows the flavours to shine. This here beer pairs well with hearty grilled meats, chocolate desserts, or a fine cigar.
Released just in time for Robbie Burns Day 2014, Howe Sound’s Wee Beastie has undergone the Oak Aged transformation that’s been so popular amongst breweries in BC and beyond since last winter. With a 7 % ABV & appropriate complexity, this Scotch Ale is anything but wee. From the start, the dark chocolate-coloured hazy brew has deep red hues & teases you with its robust and persistent head. With an aroma of rich toffee and caramel, you can also get deeper hints of black currants, crystallized ginger and a “tootsie-role-esque” charm. The flavour is quite savory and features a smokey, subtle dryness that cautiously lingers into the aftertaste. I found this beer to be incredibly smooth, like whipped icing on a cake with a gentle warmess to get you through the Canadian Winter. Keep some around for a mid-summer campfire too.
Canada needs more classic examples of Red Ale, and Fernie Brewing Company in the interior of BC has answered the call. Big Caboose Red Ale is named after a train that travels through Fernie, sounding its horn as it goes. It’s growing popularity amongst BC’s outdoor crowd comes as no surprise, as who can resist a flavourful and drinkable canned ale. It pours a dark brown with ruby hues, almost hazy until you shine a light through it. The aroma is packed with sweet, grainy esters, reminiscent of strawberries and cherry, yet is quite clean. Earthy nuttiness and carmel come through on the palate, with hints of buttered bread and floral hops. The clean aftertaste on this creamy, medium-bodied ale has a refreshing sharpness. I’d gladly wash down a burger or soft cheese with this beer, and I hope you’ll do the same.
As New Brunswick’s smallest brewery, jack-of-all-trades Patrice Godin of Acadie-Broue has focused on creating unique German & Belgian-style beers in his 54 gallon system. This month, I was thrilled to try an early bottle of his Lambic, conveniently called Zirable or “it’s gross!” in Acadian. As an avid lover of Lambic & Gueze styles, I was pleasantly surprised by the drinkability of this beer. With a very gentle carbonation, Zirable has a specific pungency that cuts the lactic sourness, making it taste quite sharp & refreshing on your palate. The aroma is spot on with notes of barnyard, horse & vinegar with virtually no detection of hops (Lambic style beers use hops only for their antibacterial properties). It is pale yellow and exhibits the Lambic’s typical poor head-retention and was clearer than I expected. With a flavour that matches the aroma, I also picked up flavours of slightly sour pineapple & gentle sweetness from the large amount of wheat in the grain bill. Hey Patrice, keep these rare gem’s coming, you’re putting Ammon New Brunswick on the map!