The Rise of Low-Calorie, Low-Carb Craft Beer

Brewers discuss the increasing consumer demand for “light” beers in the craft segment

SeaQuench Ale. Photo courtesy of Dogfish Head.

In December 2018, Sam Calagione, the founder of Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton, Delaware, publicly resolved to end the month of January healthier than he began it by being more physically active, eating more healthfully, and drinking beer—specifically, by committing to drinking only Dogfish Head’s SeaQuench Ale, a tart gose with a lower-than-average alcohol content and thus fewer calories than most craft beers (which typically contain 150 to 300 calories per 12-ounce can).

The focus of Calagione’s resolution was what he might gain (or the weight he might lose) from replacing the higher-calorie beers he usually drinks with this 4.9% ABV gose, which packs just 140 calories a can. Calagione invited other Dogfish Head enthusiasts to join the challenge via the brewery’s blog. SevenFifty Daily spoke with Calagione about three weeks into his regimen, and at that point he said he’d only dropped three pounds. But beyond Calagione’s personal lifestyle goals, his monthlong challenge reflects a growing consumer trend toward health and wellness—a trend extending to an increased interest in lower-calorie beers among craft beer consumers.

Changing Tastes

The reduced amount of calories in SeaQuench Ale is significant, especially considering that the product comes from the same brewery that produces World Wide Stout (roughly 17% ABV), a beer that’s practically richer in carbs than a pastry. The rich stout, says Calagione, was tested by an independent lab, which confirmed it contains 666 calories per dozen ounces (perhaps that’s why it’s so devilishly delicious). Yet, says Calagione, it’s the SeaQuench Ale, which launched in 2016, that’s turned out to be the “fastest-growing beer in Dogfish Head’s history.”

Inspired by SeaQuench’s success, Dogfish Head plans to roll out a new, low-calorie IPA in April called Slightly Mighty. It’ll be brewed with local Delaware grains and will contain 95 calories and 3.6 grams of carbs per 12-ounce can (with 4% ABV).

Similarly, Founders Brewing Company in Grand Rapids, Michigan—originally known for its full-flavored, high-alcohol, 270-calorie Breakfast Stout, as well as the barrel-aged versions (the 340-calorie Kentucky Breakfast Stout and the 360-calorie Canadian Breakfast Stout)—has seen its 140-calorie All Day IPA grow to make up 60 percent of the company’s overall production since the product’s launch in 2012.

When SeaQuench Ale and All Day IPA originally debuted, however, it was their low-alcohol content that received the most attention. Craft consumers weren’t expressing interest in fewer calories or lower carbs then.

Even now, most craft breweries don’t typically produce “light” beer. Though other exceptions include Samuel Adams Light from Samuel Adams brewery in Boston; the 81-calorie Bikini Beer from Evil Twin Brewing in Brooklyn, New York; the reformulation of the DayTime IPA by Lagunitas Brewing Company in Petaluma, California; and Fig Mtn Light Lager from Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company in Buellton, California.

“Fig Mtn Light Lager was introduced back in 2016,” says Cambria Griffith, Figueroa Mountain’s director of marketing, “and while that’s really not too long ago, it was received very differently than light craft options are today. When I started with the company a year ago, it quickly became my favorite go-to beer, so I was pretty surprised to hear our team had seen lukewarm reception on the concept initially. Fast-forward to September 2018, and we had the highest shipping month for this brand that we’ve ever seen. So that certainly signals a change, and yes, we’re seeing it gain traction.”

And while big brands like Bud Light, Coors Light, and Miller Lite are starting to lose market share, Michelob Ultra, a low-calorie, low-carb beer, has been skyrocketing, becoming the sixth best-selling beer brand in America (Beer Marketer’s Insights reports its 2017 sales at $1.6 billion domestically; Euromonitor reports the 2017 international figure to be $4.68 billion).

Calagione points out that Dogfish Head’s Slightly Mighty will have the same caloric value as Michelob Ultra and just a single gram more carbs. But, he says, the new IPA is made with truly flavorful craft beer—a draw for the “active-lifestyle indie craft consumer.”

Defining Style

Putting aside the growing consumer interest in health and wellness and lower-alcohol libations, this new enthusiasm for lower-calorie craft beer may also have been prompted by brewers’ ability to reduce the carbs in beer by using amyloglucosidase, a fungal enzyme that’s the defining ingredient in Brut IPAs. This enzyme has taken the beer industry by storm.

Craft brewers started using it, casually at first, as a means to break down malt’s complex sugars—the residual sugar that’s typically found in high-alcohol beers such as imperial stouts and triple IPAs. By late 2017, it had become the prominent component of the Brut IPA style. That’s because, in tandem with brewer’s yeast, it causes beer to ferment to dry, thus eliminating all sweetness and consequently lowering the beer’s calories and carbohydrates.

So the brewers who scrambled to hop aboard the Brut IPA bandwagon during the last couple of years also inadvertently ended up creating IPAs that the segment’s more health-conscious consumers have been looking for. The Brut IPA style tends to contain about a fourth fewer calories and a third less carbs than the West Coast or the New England IPA styles.

Veronica Vega, the brewmaster at Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon, explains her inspiration for adding a light beer to the brewery’s offerings. “All craft beer drinkers have an occasion to drink a light lager,” she says, but Deschutes didn’t have a lower-alcohol beer that was occasion-based. “At the same time we started playing with Brut IPAs, we realized you can hold onto that great malt character through the enzyme. There really is a market for people who are counting carbs and looking at the backs of their cans for that information.”

Deschutes launched Da Shootz this year; it’s not an IPA but a pilsner, with 4% ABV, 4.2 grams of carbs, and 99 calories. And it’s made from 100 percent barley malt without any adjuncts like corn or rice—adjuncts that craft drinkers tend to dismiss.

Slightly Mightly and Da Shootz!
Left: Slightly Mightly, courtesy of Dogfish Head. Right: Da Shootz!, courtesy of Deschutes.

For Slightly Mighty, Dogfish Head uses monk fruit extract as a sugar source. The extract is significantly sweeter than sugar, so Dogfish Head only needs to use a little bit. It results in fewer carbs and calories in the beer and makes the use of  amyloglucosidase unnecessary.

The irony is that although today’s craft brewers are going wild for amyloglucosidase and its ability to deliver an ultra-dry IPA, it’s the same secret ingredient that was used in 1967 when a brewer at Rheingold, a now defunct brewery in Brooklyn, formulated Gablinger’s Diet Beer. Although marketing the product as a diet beer failed for Rheingold, the recipe was eventually—through a fortuitous series of events—acquired by Miller Brewing. A new incarnation of that diet beer became Miller Lite.

Despite the growing consumer interest in light beers, “light” has historically been a turnoff for craft beer consumers, even the ones who may not want a lot of calories or carbs, because they do want a lot of flavor. In the past, they had to take the bad with the good, but today brewers are increasingly discovering new ways to serve full-flavored craft beer with lower calorie and carb counts for a growing base of health-conscious consumers.


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Brian Yaeger is the author of Red, White, and Brew and Oregon Breweries. A Cicerone Certified Beer Server since 2009, he contributed to The Oxford Companion to Beer and writes for several industry publications. He earned a Master of Professional Writing degree (with a thesis on beer) in 2007 from the University of Southern California.

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