Since the dawn of the craft beer era, the mantra has been "Flavorful, complex beers are good. Fizzy, mass-produced yellow lagers are bad."
And yet the best-selling beers in America continue to prominently feature the words "Light" or "Lite" on their labels. Meanwhile, Anheuser-Busch's No. 2 brand is no longer Budweiser but instead Michelob Ultra, which boasts about minuscule calorie and carb counts on its packaging. While Bud Light, Coors Light and Miller Lite all posted sales declines in 2018, according to market research firm IRI, Michelob Ultra did not - its 15.9% sales increase translated to about $1.9 billion.
It would be impossible for other brewers not to notice these trends, especially as craft beer's growth slows. "People are paying attention to caloric intake and carbs," says Jeremy Marshall, the brewmaster at Lagunitas since 2013. "It's no secret that millennials are more alcohol-averse. Craft beer traditionally has a higher ABV [alcohol by volume], and it has more stuff in it. It's on the list of things a dietitian would tell you to avoid."
This year has seen brands such as Lagunitas and Dogfish Head, known for their potent, head-spinning IPAs like the Waldos' Special Ale (11.7 percent ABV) and 120 Minute IPA (between 15 and 20 percent ABV), respectively, try to pack a large amount of flavor into a thinner package, and copy the leading brands by printing calorie and carb counts right next to the ABV.
When Lagunitas first released its DayTime IPA in 2010, the 4.6 percent ABV, 130-calorie brew "got lumped into the session IPA craze," Marshall says. The decision to rerelease DayTime in cans earlier this year led Marshall and his team to change it into something similar but slightly different. "We kept the hops the same, changed up the mashing to dry the beer out" so that there wasn't as much sugar for yeast to ferment, dropping it to 4 percent ABV and knocking the calorie count under 100.
"The biggest contributor of calories is alcohol," Marshall points out. But that does affect the flavor: "Once you get around 4.2 percent alcohol, it can be perceived as watery." Well, duh, Marshall says: "There's more water in there taking the place of what used to be alcohol. If we keep the knob on the hops turned up really, really high," that's supplying more guava and pine notes to attempt to balance out the missing body.
For Dogfish Head, the crossover between craft beer and healthy lifestyles goes back more than a decade, founder Sam Calagione says. The company began hosting 5K and 10K Dogfish Dash races at its Milton, Delaware, brewery in 2005, followed by Pints & Poses yoga sessions a few years later. The headlines came in 2017, after Men's Health magazine named the then-new SeaQuench - a tart, refreshing ale made with sea salt and black and sour limes - the "Best Low-Calorie Beer" in America, a feat the best-selling sour repeated the following year.
SeaQuench has 140 calories and 9 grams of carbs, low by craft beer standards, but Calagione had his eye on different competition. When developing Slightly Mighty Lo-Cal IPA, which hit taps and supermarkets earlier this year, "we targeted a goal of hitting the same calories per 12-ounce serving as Michelob Ultra while still tasting like a full-bodied IPA," Calagione says. The result: 95 calories, 3.6 grams of carbs.
With more big-name craft breweries striving to make the skinniest IPAs possible, we rounded up staffers from The Washington Post for a blind taste test of five low-calorie ales. There were three rules for selection: no light lagers, which are trying to compete with Miller Lite on its own terms. We wanted something different. (Sorry, Southern Tier Swipe Light, Ballast Point Lager and Deschutes Da Shootz.)
Second, the beer had to be widely available. (That meant no Brooklyn 1/2 Ale, which is export-only.) And it had to be close to 100 calories. Four of the five slipped under this count; one went all the way to 120, which is still 25 fewer than you'll find in a bottle of Budweiser. Tasters sipped the beers from red Solo cups, as they might at a friend's barbecue, and rated them on flavor as well as how refreshing they found the beer.
Yes, we know that only three of the five beers here are considered craft - Lagunitas (Heineken) and Kona (Anheuser-Busch InBev owns a significant stake in the Craft Brew Alliance) don't make the cut - but they all offer hoppy, flavorful alternatives to the 280-calorie craft IPAs lurking in the coolers at your next cookout.
- - -
Kona Kanaha Blonde Ale
Crucial details: 4.2 percent ABV, 99 calories
Flavor rank: 5th
Refreshment rank: 3rd (tie)
This brewery was founded on the Big Island of Hawaii and uses surfers and waterfalls on its labels despite being brewed in New Hampshire and the Pacific Northwest. (It recently settled a lawsuit alleging that it defrauded consumers.) The Kanaha Blonde Ale is brewed with mango, and some tasters noticed "a whiff of tropical fruit on the nose, but none in the taste," while others said it had a "very light, barely there taste." Its effervescence was noted by multiple tasters: "It seems very fizzy and crisp," said one, summing up the overall apathy. "I don't really like it, but it's refreshing because it's so effervescent."
- - -
Boulevard Easy Sport Ale
Crucial details: 4.1 percent ABV, 99 calories
Flavor rank: 4th
Refreshment rank: 5th
The drinking man's alternative to Gatorade, Easy Sport is brewed with electrolytes - sea salt, potassium and magnesium - and has more electrolytes and tangerine peel added at the end of fermentation. The goal is to improve and maintain hydration and assist in recovery after exertion, even if your exertion involves standing around a grill. The tartness and saltiness threw a few testers. "This beer tastes confused, like it doesn't know if it wants to be a light or a sour beer when it grows up," one said. "Gives me frat party vibes." Easy Sport "comes in like a sour, leaves like a Keystone," another offered. "Too much citrus on this one, with kind of gross mouthfeel," read one damning verdict. Still, it wasn't all bad news. "Doesn't have a strong taste, but not very offensive," opined a different reviewer. "It seems like a beer that could have appeal."
- - -
Dogfish Head Slightly Mighty Lo-Cal IPA
Crucial details: 4 percent ABV, 95 calories
Flavor rank: 3rd
Refreshment rank: 2nd
Dogfish Head's newest low-cal offering proved divisive. "I really like this one," wrote one. "It's not too watery, but also feels like you could pound a few of these while getting sunburned and be okay. A way better balance of flavors." Another disagreed: "Not a lot of body. Hops are what's keeping it from being a Miller Lite-ish beer." A fan loved the flavor, describing it as "effervescent. Citrusy and bubbly and definitely refreshing," while other detractors called it "kind of stinky" and wrote that they "don't like the aftertaste." Perhaps the most neutral view was that of the reviewer who noted, "I'd recommend this to someone who only drinks Keystone to get them to drink better beer."
- - -
Harpoon Rec. League
Crucial details: 3.8 percent ABV, 120 calories
Flavor rank: 2nd
Refreshment rank: 3rd
Harpoon IPA was a staple in the early days of the craft beer movement, but the Boston brewery isn't as well-known as it used to be. That could be changing, if the raves for Rec. League are any indication. The heavyweight of this blind tasting at 120 calories, Rec. League also had the lowest ABV, at 3.8 percent. That differential allows this pale ale to have a little more color and body than the competition. "Good aroma for a light beer - kind of juicy," noted a tester. "It tastes like a low-cal IPA, which is the point, right?" wrote another. "It's thin, but there's some body and it's actually pretty hop forward." Others used descriptors you might not expect for a beer in this tasting: "pretty heavy on the palate" and "more bitter" than the competition. As another noted: "It's a little one-note, but a nice session IPA. I can get down with this." A few testers even suggested Rec. League was more than a low-cal option: It "would be a good IPA for people who like to taste some hops in their IPA, but don't want a hop bomb."
- - -
Lagunitas DayTime IPA
Crucial details: 4 percent ABV, 98 calories
Flavor rank: 1st
Refreshment rank: 1st
The panel was very clear on its preference for Lagunitas's dry, hoppy IPA, naming it the most refreshing and best tasting of all the beers. "Pretty crisp taste throughout, while still keeping decent flavor," noted one tester. "It's very light, but you can still taste that happiness," marveled another. (A detractor noted "minimal hops, but they appear on the finish.") An appealing amount of carbonation "made this seem light." Other tasters noted "citrus" and "très banana-y" flavors, while suggesting that "I think this would be really good with grilling or outdoor parties." "This is a little heavier than I'd like for outdoor drinking, but I think it still works," one taster said. Another summed it up for the group: DayTime "might be the most drinkable [of all the beers]. Very pleasant."