Beer won’t necessarily make you fat, but there is no arguing with the fact that it adds calories to your diet, from 100 or so per bottle for the lightest of beers, to 400 or more for the big thick monsters that the extreme beer craze of the late ’90s and ’00s spawned. That’s 33 percent more than a McDonald’s cheeseburger, at about 300 calories each (but beer entirely lacks the fat of a cheeseburger, so it’s not quite a fair comparison, nutrition-wise, but still). Add to that delicious pub grub that often accompanies a beer and your waistline might begin to feel the effects.
If you’re a mass market beer drinker (known as “macro” to beer geeks, to distinguish it from “microbrew”), the low-cal choices are easy: Miller Lite has about 96 calories as opposed to regular old Miller High Life or Genuine Draft, which come in at about 143 calories per can. Bud and Bud Light have a similar spread: 145 for the regular, 110 for the light stuff. Not a huge difference per can, but it can add up if you’re a frequent drinker.
But what about a craft beer drinker? With only a handful of exceptions, craft brewers don’t produce specific “lite” versions like Bud, Miller, and Coors. Sam Adams is the main exception, with a 119 calorie Light version. The signature Boston Lager weighs in at about 175 calories and the Boston Ale is 188. Their Triple Bock is a whopping 340 calories.
So what to do? Well, it turns out that watching calories in craft beer is relatively easy, because “lite” in calories roughly translates to “light” in alcohol, generally reported as “ABV,” Or “Alcohol by Volume.” There are a few other variables that complicate the calculation, such as residual sugars in the beer that give a sweeter taste but add calories, but generally speaking, the stronger the alcohol, the more the calories. That’s how the macro brewers get their light versions in the first place: they strip out alcohol and flavor compounds, which is why “Brand X Lite” generally tastes watery compared with its regular version.
The Los Angeles Times looked at this question recently and came up with a common sense suggestion: look for high-flavor, low alcohol beers, such as the sour and citrusy Berliner Weiss, or a well-executed Pilsner, which has a firm pale malt backbone and a sharp sting of bitter German hops, but not a high ABV. We have a couple of good examples of those locally, including Laguintas Pils and Hopmonk Tavern’s refreshing Kellerbier, an unfiltered version of a pilsner. Russian River’s sour beers Redemption and Little White Lie are relatively modest ABV and therefore would weigh a little less than some of the stronger offerings (4.8 and 5 percent respectively, around the same strength as a regular Budweiser).
Other area brewers are moving into lighter beers, known as “session beers” because lower alcohol means you can drink more at a sitting without getting too intoxicated. The same thing that makes it less intoxicating makes it less fattening too. Bear Republic’s El Oso amber and Nor-Cal Ale copper (both 4.5 percent) are good examples.
As I mentioned, there are several other factors to consider in judging the calories of a beer, but as a very rough guide, if you assume that all beers start at a threshhold of about 64-75 calories (at 1 percent ABV), then add 10-15 calories per 0.1 percent ABV, you’ll get pretty close. Assume the higher end if the beer is fairly sweet, assume the lower if it is dry and crisp (Note, however, that color is not a terribly reliable indicator – a pale yellow beer can have vastly more calories than a dark porter or stout, so don’t trust your eyes). A 5 percent beer should be in the 160-190 calorie range, while a big 10 percent Imperial so-and-so should be in the 290-315 range.
But basically, the drunker a beer can get you, the more it is adding to your calorie count for the day.
– Sean Scully