Epidemiologic studies indicate that light to moderate alcohol consumption from beer, wine, or spirits is associated with a reduction in all-cause mortality, owing primarily to a reduced risk of coronary heart disease (CHD). To find out whether this protective effect of small to moderate amounts of alcohol could be confirmed in Germany, where much of the alcohol consumed is taken in the form of beer, we studied the relation between alcohol and CHD and total mortality in a population of southern Germany. We conducted a prospective cohort study from 1984 to 1992 among 1,071 men and 1,013 women, age 45-64 years at baseline, from the Augsburg region. Eighty-seven per cent of men and 56% of women reported drinking alcohol at baseline. Among drinkers, men had an average alcohol intake of 42 gm per day, of which 33 gm per day came from beer. Women who drank had an average alcohol intake of 16 gm per day and derived about half of it from beer and the other half from wine. During the 8 years of follow-up, 96 deaths (all causes) and 62 incident CHD events (nonfatal and fatal) occurred in men, and 45 deaths (all causes) occurred in women. Adjusting for a number of potential confounders, in men the adjusted hazard rate ratio (HRR) of CHD events for drinkers as compared with nondrinkers was 0.51 [95% confidence interval (CI) = 0.27-0.95]; this protective effect starts with the 0.1-19.9 gm per day alcohol category and does not change much with higher intake. In men, the adjusted total mortality HRR for drinkers as compared with nondrinkers was 0.59 (95% CI = 0.36-0.97). The total mortality HRRs for the different alcohol groups compared with nondrinkers show a U-shaped curve, with the lowest HRR of 0.46 (95% CI = 0.20-0.80) for the 20-39.9 gm per day alcohol group and an HRR of 1.04 (95% CI = 0.54-2.00) for the > or = 80 gm per day alcohol group. In women, the total mortality HRR for those drinking up to 19.9 gm per day as compared with nondrinkers was 0.46 (95% CI = 0.22-0.96).