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The Case for Beer: Why Knocking Back a Few Cold Ones Won't Derail Your Strength and Fitness Gains

Yes, it seems almost too good to be true. But according to new science—and the superfit guys at Colorado’s New Belgium Brewing Company—you can actually incorporate your favorite “recovery” drink into a healthy lifestyle.

The night before setting off on their hundred-mile ultramarathons through Mexico’s Copper Canyon, the Tarahumara people, the greatest distance runners in the world, prepare not with monkish abstemiousness but Dionysian abandon, purging themselves of their “secret lusts and desires” by pounding tequila made from rattlesnake corpses and a nutrient-packed corn beer called tesgüino. Then, according to Christopher McDougall’s 2009 best-seller, Born to Run, they sleep with one another’s spouses and wrestle half-naked in the dirt. When they awake the next day, purified and hung over, they run.

Nine hundred miles to their north, along the Colorado Front Range, the Tarahumara have a kindred spirit in yet another unique tribe committed to the oft-intertwined joys of imbibition and exertion—though, admittedly, without the swinging and wrestling bouts.

They’re the employees of New Belgium Brewing Company, the fourth-largest craft beer maker in the U.S.—guys like Shawn Hines, New Belgium’s 44-year-old “Pharaoh of Phlow” and a competitive distance runner. Before Hines goes for one of his regular evening trail runs, he first steels himself with two pints of a session IPA or a Czech-style pilsner, a carefully calibrated quantity that gives him a buzz that, he claims, enhances rather than impairs.  

“It creates a nice headspace,” he says. “It’s a little carbo-loading.” When Hines gets home, he takes off his headlamp, gives his wife a kiss, and reaches for a recovery beer—something maltier and bolder, “with a little more teeth.” The guy’s nothing if not consistent: The evening before one of his 50-mile ultramarathons, he drinks beer. The moment he finishes one of his 50-mile ultramarathons, he drinks beer. Even during his 50-mile ultramarathons, he drinks beer.

“When I used to do bike racing, they’d give you a water bottle that was half water and half flat Coke,” Hines explains. “I was like, ‘I don’t like Coke, but I like beer.’ ” Now, a couple of times during a race, Hines will reach for an eight-ounce squirt bottle filled with a slurry of water and black lager. “Midway through a race, it’s so awesome and uplifting,” he says. “I don’t know if it gives me any kind of a boost from a physical standpoint, but from a mental standpoint, there’s something satisfying about saying, ‘I’m having a beer right now.’ It’s like a shot of Prozac right to the frontal lobe.”

Hines may drink a lot of beer, but he’s hardly chugging to the level of a Tarahumarian hangover. He seldom drinks more than three beers a day, and his nightly intake is spread over many hours. He doesn’t look like a Joe Six-Pack, either—unless you’re talking about his abs. During race season he’s a muscular 147 pounds coiled around a 5'9" frame, with a mere 11% body fat. His tattooed arms look like they’re forged from iron. If you happen to meet him in a dive bar along Cameron Pass in the Rockies, you may, at first glance, assume he’s not only an ultramarathoner but also a Navy SEAL between tours.

In reality, Hines has a day job that’s much more fun. As Pharaoh of Phlow, he’s New Belgium’s events coordinator. Wherever the brewery is shilling its products, such as Fat Tire amber ale or Blue Paddle pilsner, Hines is likely to be there, setting up makeshift bars, pouring pints, and spreading the gospel of New Belgium. When I first hear about him, it makes sense to me that one of the company’s public faces would be some ripped, superhealthy guy. But when I learn that Hines isn’t an outlier—that he’s one of several hyperfit, beer-evangelizing jocks working there—I begin to wonder if these guys, from their magical perch in the Rockies, have solved one of the most unsolvable riddles in fitness, unlocking a secret that men the world over are all dying to know: Can you really be fit and be a regular beer drinker? Is it possible to indulge in your favorite lager after—or even during—a crazy workout and not erase all your hard- earned gains (as so much science has led us to believe)? And are there beers that are more “ab-friendly,” while others should be avoided like a deep-dish pizza?

With those questions (and more) in mind, I decide to pack my best outdoor workout gear—and a sizable bottle of Advil—and set off to find out for myself.

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