What Is ABV and Why Does It Matter?
A bottle of wine shared among friends may seem like a more civilized way to spend time than sharing a six-pack of beer, but when we compare the same amounts of either libation, it’s actually the wine that’ll make you act uncivilized quicker thanks to its ABV content. What is ABV and why does it matter, you may ask. Well, pull up a chair, you’re in for a story.
Cut and Dry
In a nutshell, ABV stands for Alcohol By Volume, and it represents the percentage of ethanol (aka the garden-variety alcohol that humans imbibe on a daily basis) in a beverage by… (drumroll) volume! Painting with a broad brush, beer has the least ABV of all three – about 5 percent and is followed by wine which has around 12 percent ABV, while spirits (aka liquors, not to be confused with liqueurs) represent the beefier big brothers of the family with 40-ish percent as the mean (more on that in a bit).
It’s important to note that some states in the States (if you’ll pardon the pathetic attempt at a wordplay) regulate alcoholic beverages not according to (ABV) meaning Alcohol By Volume of course, but rather alcohol by weight, so some labels may seem a bit off. Crunching the numbers, an ABW of 3.2% would be approximately equivalent to an ABV of 4%.
Why Does It Matter?
In short, even small differences in ABV can have a big impact on your body and mental state, and the more alcohol in a beverage, the sooner you’ll get boozed up. Obviously, an occasional can of beer after lunch or a glass of wine with dinner won’t do much damage, but it’s only too easy to get carried away, and the cumulative effects can take a heavy toll on your capacities. So, from this point, we will talk about issues caused by excess, and how it ties into the differences in ABV between wine vs. beer. vs. liquor.
One of the main issues of excessive drinking (the actual definition of “excessive” will vary from person to person, but the usual rule of thumb is that people with less body weight will get drunk faster) is indigestion, sometimes followed by bloating, gassiness, vomiting the works. This is your body's reaction to ethanol. The higher ABV meaning more ethanol for your body to process. As your liver cleans out the toxin (ethanol) you suffer withdrawals. This is what we commonly call a "hangover".
So, how do you know you’ve had too much?
Your brain will tell you. Typically, first signs of too much alcohol are slurred speech, followed by tingling sensation in your extremities and an overall feeling of numbness. If this becomes a habit, the brain will literally shrink and you’ll experience issues with short-term memory. Speaking of which, you should keep in mind that this is the worst-case scenario (if you go too far too many times).
Wine vs. Beer vs. Spirits
For those of you not in the know, making any sort of alcoholic beverage involves a process called fermentation. In plain terms, this is a process whereby yeast gobbles up the sugar from whatever ingredients you use (grapes for wine, grains for beer, grains or potatoes for vodka, and so on) and turns it into alcohol. Obviously, different ways of making will result in different ABV percentages, so we’ll go through all three beverages step by step.
Wine is typically made from grapes, though other fruits and/or combos thereof are just as frequent. The more time the grapes spend on the vines, the more sugar they’ll store, and this will result in more robust wines and higher percentage of alcohol. Typically, the strain of yeast used for fermenting grapes into wine starts to die out when the ABV reaches 12%, but there are a couple of ways vintners are able to make high alcohol wines.
One is doing it naturally by using stronger breeds of yeast that have higher tolerance to alcohol, though even then you shouldn’t expect more than 16%. The other, more reliable method of making high ABV wines is fortifying them, i. e. adding a grape spirit (typically brandy) at any point during the production. When selecting wine you may find that natural wines are typically lower in ABV than mass-produced wines. There are some great wine clubs that curated only natural wines if you are interested in lower-ABV drinking.
Similarly, yeast strains we use in fermenting beer have a tolerance to alcohol that goes up to 10%, so getting anything northwards of this number is tough. Some brewers push the limits up by freezing their beer and then removing the ice which contains non-alcohol components, which leaves behind higher concentration of alcohol. Of course, given the fact that beer is made from grains, which contain more carbohydrates but less sugar, brewers will never be able to get as high ABV as vintners, even with stronger strains.
Spirits are different from both wines and beers in that they involve another process after fermentation – distillation. In plain terms, this refers to the process of separating alcohol from water. This results in high alcohol concentration that starts at 20%, but can go up to, officially, 96% (Spirytus Rektyfikowany, a monster of a spirit from Poland). That said, you’ll typically find liquors teetering between 35 and 45% (gin is around 35–40%, vodka about 35–45%, while whiskey and tequila stay in the 40–45% range). You can do some of your own research using this list of bourbon whiskeys.
How Much Alcohol Should We Be Drinking?
As far as official recommendations, the rule of thumb is as follows: up to one measure a day for (legally adult) women and men over 65 and double that for men under said age. For beer, the measure would be 12 ounces (so, about one can or three-quarters of a tallboy), which is equivalent to about 5 ounces of wine (or a standard wine glass), or 1.5 ounce of spirit (which is one shot glass).
Again, we can’t stress this enough – drink in moderation. After all, moderation is best in all things, as Hesiod and Plautus said. And, really, who knows more about wine and drinking than the Ancient Greeks and Romans?