A 2003 study of 2,000 men and women in Czechia found that beer consumption didn’t equal beer belly. One might suspect bias from the country with the highest annual beer consumption in the world (143.3 liters—about 38 gallons—per capita).
Namibia (really?) follows a distant second with 108 (29 gallons). Respect.
But the truth is, it’s all about the calories. Czechs love their pilsners, and Namibian beer is typically lagers on the light side.
Epidemiological data show mixed results about whether alcohol consumption can lead to weight or obesity problems, but beer can undoubtedly pack on the calories.
One gram of alcohol contains about 7 calories, and whether your beer is entirely fermented malted barley or a mix of wheat, rye, corn, or rice (or entirely sorghum or an equivalent, for those who can’t have gluten), it’s coming from grains and bringing carbohydrates to the final product. The starches are converted into the sugary wort for fermentation, and what isn’t turned into alcohol may remain as residual sugars, i.e., more calories. Then consider ingredients added later—fruit juices, lactose—which bring still more.
Take, for example, a 12-ounce bottle of Leinenkugel’s Berry Weiss, which is only 4.7 percent ABV but still brings 207 calories and 28 grams of carbs. That’s starting to resemble a can of Coca-Cola—140 calories, 38 grams of carbs (but all from sugar or corn syrup).
Enter the low-calorie beers.
They’ve been around decades in the mass market—you may be old enough to remember “tastes great, less filling” and trademarking the word “Lite.” (Miller Brewing tried to make “lite” its own, but in 1977, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said no: “We hold that, because ‘light’ is a generic or common descriptive word when applied to beer, neither that word nor its phonetic equivalent may be appropriated as a trademark for beer.”)
The problem is, dropping calories may also be losing flavor and body. Consider Bud Select dipping to a very pale 55 calories and you may wonder why you didn’t stick with water. To be fair, bottled water is pretty close in price.
But brewers are making better low-cal, sessionable beers, responding to the trend toward hard seltzers with lower calories and alcohol content. (Seltzer king White Claw comes in at 5 percent ABV with 100 calories and 2 grams of carbs for a 12-ounce can, and a White Claw 70, their new lower-calorie release, drops those numbers to 3.7 percent ABV, 70 calories, and no carbs.)
So-called session beers lower the higher alcohol content we often encounter in craft beers in many styles, making it possible to drink a couple—a “drinking session”—and still walk straight. Thanks to that reduction in alcohol, many of those brews land within the 135–150 calorie range. Founders Brewing’s popular All Day IPA Session Ale slips just under the upper limit there, and tastes pretty great.
Here are a few beers that go even lower—and still taste great.
Dogfish Head Craft Brewery’s Slightly Mighty Lo-Cal IPA
95 calories, 4 percent ABV, 3.6 grams of carbs, 1 gram of protein
I hadn’t considered drinking beer to meet my daily protein recommendations, but I am open to the idea. This was the lowest-calorie beer I sampled, and while it is light in body, it is not so in flavor.
Monk fruit, native to China and parts of Thailand, is the latest natural miracle sweetener with no calories. Its use here allows the brewers to cut back a bit on the malted barley while retaining some body and sweetness. The hops give it some tropical aromas as well, and with numbers like that, this is tastefully enjoyable, guilt-free picnic hydration.
Deschutes Brewery’s Wowza! Lo-Cal Hazy Pale Ale
100 calories, 4 percent ABV, 4 grams of carbs
A stronger hops presence and a touch of added ingredients set many low-cal craft beers apart from the mass market light beer variety. In this case, Belgian chicory root, in addition to the oats and wheat, gives a bit of depth to this light-bodied ale. Add to that hops with a hint of fruit-juicy character one expects from the hazy style.
Deschutes Brewery also makes Da Shootz!, a 99-calorie, 4.2 percent ABV pilsner that doubles as a helpful pronunciation guide to the brewery name. Punctuation suggests you should shout it.
Allagash Brewing Co.’s River Trip
128 calories, 4.8 percent ABV, 7.9 grams of carbs
This was one of the standouts in my modest sampling. A Belgian-style table beer, River Trip is brewed with local grains, spiced with coriander, and dry-hopped with Comet and Azacca hops. It just has a bit more character than the other two, and an extra hint of citrusy hops.
This may be the upper range for the category “low-cal,” but I think I am willing to go those extra 20 or so calories. I also like that you can get it in 12- or 16-ounce cans.
125 calories, 4.2 percent ABV, 10 grams of carbs
Don’t let that darkness fool you. I admit I wouldn’t have expected this in my early beer drinking years, but Guinness is actually pretty light. Bud Light has 110 calories. I will definitely take the same-as-it-ever-was, full-creamy-delicious Guinness for the extra 15.
To be clear, not all stouts are equal. Samuel Smith Imperial Stout, with 7 percent ABV, is on the lighter end of imperial stouts and clocks in with 257 calories and 21 grams of carbs (12 ounces). Crank the booze factor up to 10 percent in a barleywine or a thicker, sweet imperial stout aged in a bourbon barrel, and you are topping 350 calories, on your way to consuming as much as a Big Mac (563 calories) or a Starbucks Venti-sized Java Chip Frappuccino (510 calories).
Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler and the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey” and several outdoor and brewery guidebooks. He is based in Madison, Wis., and his website is TheMadTraveler.com