When asking questions like “what has more sugar: beer or wine?” it is important to note that the answer is complex and nuanced and requires a full discussion and understanding of sugar in these beverages. So, let’s talk about sugar in beer and wine, which has more, and why.
Sugar, Yeast, and Fermentation
We talk a lot about how you cannot ferment without yeast. And it’s true. Yeast is the single essential ingredient that, without it, you could never have alcohol. It is a living organism that has been on earth for billions of years, existing for one purpose: to find sugar and consume it.
Sugar is the energy source of yeast; without it, yeast cannot survive. It will lie dormant and sleep until it senses sugar in the environment, at which point it will rally and go after its energy.
Sugar is not only the nutrient that keeps yeast alive and well, but it is also what keeps it reproducing healthy daughter cells through an asexual process, creating more yeast cells to continue to seek sugar.
This life cycle has been going on since long before humans hit the scene, and the sugars once came from the sun, through plants, in a process called photosynthesis.
Indeed, yeast are thought to have evolved from bacterial cells, which fed from sugary plankton in the sea.
Yeast cells are then thought to have evolved to form the first plants and animals that went on to populate the earth, branch again and again and eventually evolve into the plants and animals we know today —- including humans.
So, you see, we are all just complex yeast cells —- we are born, we feed, we reproduce, and we die. And a large part of that feeding process involves sugar.
Sugar is energy.
When yeast consumes sugar, like any other life form, it must expel waste, the parts of the sugar it no longer needs. That waste process is a conversion process. Just like cows convert their food to methane, yeast cells convert their food to alcohol and carbon dioxide. Lucky us.
Thus, any time yeast cells are involved in the fermentation process, that’s what’s happening.
Yeast cells consume the sugar, they reproduce and make more yeast cells, and they convert the sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide, releasing it into any food or beverage in which it may be fermenting.
That’s how we get alcohol.
So, while we often say that yeast is the essential ingredient in alcohol, and that we couldn’t make alcohol without yeast, the same is true of sugar.
The only difference is that sugar can come from multiple sources —- fruits, vegetables, grains, and more.
Sugar and Wine
One of the most obvious sources of sugar —- fruit —- is the ingredient behind wine.
It’s generally believed that wine was a discovery rather than an invention. Someone somewhere set a bucket of grapes or a container of grape juice aside, and after a few weeks, the juices naturally turned to wine. Yeast settled in, got busy fermenting, and produced what came to be considered “the elixir of the gods.”
Early humans thought wine was a miracle because to the naked eye juice simply became wine after a period of time. Magically.
So how much sugar is in wine?
Well, at first, a lot.
It takes about 2 cups of grapes to make a glass of wine, and there are approximately 15 grams of sugar in a cup of grapes. That’s a lot of sugar. To make matters worse, the sugar volume increases as you convert fruit to juice. There are approximately 36 grams of sugar in a single cup of grape juice. And an average glass of wine is about 5 ounces, or 3 ounces shy of a cup.
Without fermentation, you would be consuming about 23 grams of sugar.
Lucky for you, and everyone else watching their sugar, there’s only about one gram of sugar in a glass of wine.
Well, once yeast gets involved, it basically consumes all of that sugar. We know this because of gravity readings. When you measure the gravity of wine before it ferments, you’ll get an Original Gravity between 1.70 and 1.90. Water is 1.0, and it is all the sugars in grape juice, or must, that increase the gravity reading.
Once fermentation has completed, however, the typical wine final gravity, or specific gravity, is around 0.99. All of that sugar has been consumed and is now alcohol, carbon dioxide, and hundreds of secondary metabolites.
So, in the end, sugar has 1 gram or less of sugar per glass, once it’s wine. But if you’re trying to cut sugar, definitely avoid grape juice.
Sugar and Beer
Now, what’s the story with beer? After all, there’s no fruit in most beers.
The average beer is made with grain, which isn’t particularly high in sugar.
That is, until you germinate the grain.
Yep, barley malt is the most common brewer’s grain used to make beer, the standard base, and it is pretty high in sugar.
To make malted barley, or any other grain, the grain is germinated, or sprouted, meaning it is soaked in water until the little green plant is about to sprout from within, and then the grain is dried out. Sometimes it is toasted. And then it is ground.
This process of malting the grain unlocks the sugars in the grain by converting the starches to sugars, making a sweet substance that only needs to be boiled and steeped in water. Now you have the wort to make beer.
Barley malt generally has around 1.3 grams of sugar per cup, so still way less than grapes, but enough to get yeast excited to consume and reproduce.
The typical original gravity of wort is around 1.35 and can be as high as 1.60, and the final gravity typically hovers somewhere around 1.10.
Here you can see that the original gravity starts out lower, and the specific gravity remains a bit higher.
This difference explains why beer typically has much less alcohol than wine. Beer often averages an ABV of 5% whereas wine has an average ABV of 11%. That’s quite a difference.
What Has More Sugar?
Which one has more sugar? Well, both come in very low in the sugar department, usually coming in at the 1 gram or less range, so if you’re strictly interested in sugar, you’re in the clear.
However, it is important to note that beer does have way more carbohydrates than wine does, and carbs convert to sugar in your body —- for that energy we were discussing earlier.
So, if you’re looking at the long term issues of sugar, blood sugar, and weight loss, you might be happier sticking with wine.
But in general, guidelines typically advise that beer and wine in moderation are safe for anyone watching their sugar, including diabetics. That means one or two glasses with a meal should be the maximum.
And let’s be real, one or two glasses of great beer or wine is usually plenty.
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