How to Choose a Healthier Beer
If you’ve started working out again, are already fit, or are trying to lose weight, then you’re probably aware that alcohol can really screw up your progress.
I learned the hard way when my years of loving hoppy, high-alcohol beers led to a stint where I brewed my own heavier beers which led to a few glorious years working at All About Beer magazine, which, shocker, led to me brewing up a big, fat belly.
Alcohol is high in calories, and low in nutrients, so when you drink it, you’re consuming so-called “empty” calories. On the other hand, you may have heard that hops are good for you, thanks to a recent study published in Nutrition Journal that linked matured hop extract, a key compound used to give beer its flavor and bitterness, to body fat loss. But don’t start leaping to conclusions that drinking IPAs rich in matured hop bitter acids will help you lose weight. Because the amount of beer you would have to ingest to get enough hop bitter acid would be too high, not to mention the amount alcohol and calories coming with it.
But you don’t have to pour your brews down the drain. A review of more than 100 studies also found an association between moderate drinking (two 12-ounce beers — or fewer if they’re higher than 5% alcohol by volume) and cardiovascular benefits.
The Main Ingredients in Beer
Most governments restrict what you can put in the beer to just grain, water, yeast, and hops, with exceptions allowed to be made for ingredients like herbs, spices, fruit, and artificial coloring. For instance, Sam Adams’ 20 Pounds of Pumpkin also contains “real pumpkin, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice,” Abita Brewing Company’s Purple Haze has real raspberries added in after filtration, and Westbrook Brewing’s Gose is brewed with coriander and salt.
Even the famously restrictive Reinheitsgebot — a 500-year-old German brewing purity law that was originally limited to just barley, hops, and water — recently decided to allow scary-sounding substances like bentonite and polyvinylpolypyrrolidone (PVPP). These ingredients are used to make brewed beverages clearer.
For those concerned about added sugar, you can rest easy that unless you are drinking a special, sweet brew that has sugar put in after the brewing process — i.e. not your typical beers, but a lambic or beers with words like “honey” and “sugar” in the name — the sugar content of most beer is basically nil.
Sugar is added when brewing the beer (usually maltose, glucose, fructose, and sucrose) or comes from the enzymes in the barley or other grains that create simple sugars as they are heated. Sugar is essential to creating alcohol. The yeast that’s dumped in at the end of your brewing eats almost all of the sugar and converts it to alcohol and carbon dioxide during the fermentation process.
In America, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) says if you want to add other ingredients than barley, malt, yeast, water — or the 35 other exempt things like apples and cherries, or cloves and ginger and oysters — you must submit the formula to them for approval. And it can’t just be anything, the feds do specify that anything added must be “wholesome products suitable for human food consumption and comply with applicable ingredient safety regulations of the Food and Drug Administration.”
As for antifreeze? You may have heard it’s in some beers. Well, brewers do use propylene glycol, but it’s in the stainless steel lines that are used to chill beer—it’s not something ever put in on purpose. Brewers do use the similar-sounding propylene glycol alginate (made from kelp and another clarity agent) to help stabilize beer’s signature foamy head.
What’s the bottom line? All of the frightening scare stories have been refuted by multiple journalists and beer experts, and the government does regulate the quality of beer.
What Beers Are Healthier?
Since you can be confident that whatever beer on the market you select isn’t filled with toxic ingredients (besides alcohol, which is a whole other can of worms), which beers have the best nutritional profile, and which should you stay far away from? First off, to be sure you are getting the best ingredients in your brew, go for local (if you can find them), dedicated and passionate craft brewers who generally take pride in putting the best stuff in their suds.
Then take a look at the alcohol content. Since all beers start off with the same natural ingredients, the best way to figure out how many calories you’ll be drinking is to look at the alcohol by volume, or ABV, because calorie counts aren’t on the label.
The Beer Institute has created a new initiative to get brewers to voluntarily start providing nutrition labels for their products — calories, carbs, protein, fat, and alcohol by volume. They will provide a freshness date along with a list of ingredients available online. So far major beer industry leaders have all said that they will follow the standards.
In the meantime, a good rule of thumb is if the beer is higher than six to seven percent alcohol, the calorie count can get prohibitively high as more alcohol means more empty calories.
Here’s a big picture look at four of the most popular styles (and greatest-tasting) beers in each of the four major categories. (For you beer snobs: We know that all beers are either an ale or a lager, but we’ve broken it down a little further.)
How to Estimate How Many Calories Are In A Beer
If you’re out at a party or a bar and you don’t want to look up how many calories are in a beer, there’s a pretty easy way to estimate it. Simply multiply the ABV by 2.5 to determine the calories in each ounce. Let’s use the Sierra Nevada Otra Vez Gose listed below as an example. The ABV is 4.5%, so if you multiply 4.5 x 2.5, you get 11.25. Multiply that by 12 to get the approximate calorie count for one bottle. In this case, it works out to 135 calories, just four calories off of 139.
A Look at Four Beer Styles
Ale: Ales are fermented at warmer temperatures and with the yeast on the top of the tank. They taste more full-bodied and fruity and average 4–7% ABV.
- Sierra Nevada Otra Vez Gose (ABV 4.5%) — 139 Calories, 11g Carbs
- Founders Brewing Co. All Day IPA (ABV 4.7%) — 144 Calories, 12g Carbs
- Blue Moon Belgian White Ale (ABV 5.4%) — 162 Calories, 12g Carbs
- Westbrook One Claw Rye Pale Ale (ABV 6.0%) — 185 Calories, 18 g Carbs
Stout: These dark beers are made with roasted ingredients and are considered an ale. Though they are often low in ABV at around 4%, be vigilant when choosing one as some craft brewers make them with up to 25% ABV.
- Brooklyn Brewery Dry Irish Stout (ABV 4.7%) — 117 Calories, 13 g Carbs
- Guinness Draught (ABV 4.2%) — 125 Calories, 10 g Carbs
- Victory Donnybrook Stout (ABV 3.7%) — 125 Calories, 18 g Carbs
- Murphy’s Irish Stout (ABV 4.0%) — 144 Calories, 13 g Carbs
Lager: Lagers are fermented with the yeast on the bottom of the vat and they are matured in lower temperatures. They are generally said to have a crisp flavor and commonly range from 2.5–6.0% ABV.
- Uinta Black Baba Black Lager (ABV 4.0%) — 120 Calories, 11 g Carbs
- Abita Amber Lager (ABV 4.5%) — 144 Calories, 12 g Carbs
- Brooklyn Brewery Brooklyn Lager (ABV 5.2%) — 170 Calories, 18 g Carbs
- Samuel Adams Boston Lager (ABV 4.9%) – 180 Calories, 19 g Carbs
Pilsner: A type of pale lager, this style is medium to light-bodied and usually has a range of 3–6% ABV.
- Pilsner Urquell (ABV 4.4%) — 156 Calories, 16 g Carbs
- Oskar Blues Mama’s Little Yella Pils (ABV 5.3%) — 159 Calories, 15 g Carbs
- Sierra Nevada Nooner (ABV 5.2%) — 161 Calories, 12 g Carbs
- Victory Prima Pils (ABV 5.3%) – 165 Calories, 15 g Carbs
*Calorie and carbohydrate counts are estimates based on the most recently available information.