Small breweries sometimes make high-octane, high-calorie beers
Some can really stick to your belly
June 29, 2015
Made with America’s love affair with craft brews has become serious. We’ve moved in together, started wearing ratty T-shirts and yoga pants.
But there comes a time in every relationship for hard truths and beer bellies. We’re going to talk calories here.
It’s OK if you don’t want to read on.
One important detail from the get-go: Unless they’re aiming for a low-cal beer to appeal to dieters, day drinkers and the like, craft brewers say they don’t give two pints about calories.
They’re after flavor and aroma and other qualities that make drinking good beer worth it. The qualities of your favorite porter or citrus-forward IPA depend upon a series of ingredient choices and the complex interplay of water, grain, hops and yeast that follows.
The calories that most brewers say they never think about depend almost entirely on the alcohol content of the final product. Residual sugars not digested by the yeast can push the caloric total higher.
Calories per ounce will differ, but a good rule of thumb for judging a 12-ounce beer is to assign it 30 calories per percentage point of alcohol by volume, or ABV, said Actual Brewing Co.’s Fred Lee.
That means a 10 percent ABV imperial stout, such as his brewery’s Fat Julian, is going to put you in the 300-calorie range, 306 to be exact. They put fat right in the name and threw an elephant on the label in case you need a visual cue.
“If you sign up for an imperial stout, you know you signed up for a slice of pie,” said Jonathan Carroll, brewer and CEO at Actual.
“You signed up for dessert in a glass,” added Zach Harper, who tracks quality at the brewery and keeps a daily log of each beer’s specific gravity during brewing. That helps him keep tabs on what’s going on in the tanks, including the alcohol level. Starting gravity and final gravity tell you how much sugar turned into alcohol and how much stayed in sugar form, producing a sweeter brew.
A higher grain-to-water ratio from the start is going to produce more sugar, which leads to an end product with higher alcohol and calories.
The Actual crew is down with science. They have a lab and insider-geek references on their labels.
Harper, for example, can tell you exactly how many calories are in each of the beers they tap, though he’d not given it much thought until a buzz-kill reporter stopped by for a visit.
“We don’t actually give a crap, normally,” Lee said.
The one exception is the brewery’s Photon Light (a beer designed for the person who doesn’t want to sip and stop at one, maybe two). It clocks in at 96 calories for 12 ounces.
“I like American light lager. It’s a great style of beer, and you can drink more than three of them and not be” obnoxious, Lee said.
Alcohol has 7 calories per gram, compared with 4 per gram for carbohydrates and proteins. Only fat has it beat, with 9 calories per gram.
But beer, wine and spirits aren’t governed by the Food and Drug Administration and don’t have to comply with nutrition-label rules that ensure you know that an 11-Dorito serving equals 150 calories.
Instead, craft brewers and giant brewers alike fall under the purview of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, part of the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
“The TTB doesn’t care (about calories) because they are most concerned about tax revenue,” said Jason McKibben, brewmaster at North High Brewing.
Aside from calorie-dense alcohol in the beer (the byproduct of yeast digesting sugar), not all sugars created in the brewing process (or introduced into it) are gobbled up by yeast. That can make a beer more dessert-like and predictably more caloric.
“That’s why porters and stouts, they taste sweeter. There’s more sugar in them,” said Smokehouse Brewing Co. owner Lenny Kolada.
But don’t let the hoppiness of your IPA confuse you into thinking you’re getting by with fewer calories than your milk-stout-loving friends, he said. All that bitterness needs sugar for balance.
Kolada said that until this month, he’d never fielded a question about the calories in his brews.
He takes pride in transparency. He lists the ingredients in every beer he brews on his website. “ We brew for flavor characteristics.
“It’s like fine dining. You’re not going to eat three steaks. You want a good steak as opposed to going to Sizzler and getting … just something,” Kolada said.
Smart craft-beer drinkers know that moderation is part of the deal, said Alan Szuter, co-owner of Wolf’s Ridge Brewing.
“Our St. Francis Quad, which tips the scales at 11 percent, we serve that in an 11-ounce (stemmed) tulip (glass). We serve that as a sipping beer,” he said. “I have never once had a customer ask me about calories.”
Many people, especially beer novices, assume that darker beer means more booze and calories. Not so, Szuter said. Darkness comes from the roast of the malt, not from sugar.
Guinness? At 4.2 ABV, it’s 125 calories for 12 ounces.
North High’s McKibben said he doesn’t worry about calories in the beer he brews, but he acknowledges giving the size of his pants a thought or two.
“Beer is such an important part of my livelihood. I’ll cut other things first before I’ll cut beer,” he said. “It’s pretty eye-popping when you look at those imperial-level beers. If I’m thinking about lunch and I think I could have a burger or a salad, I’m thinking I probably should really have that salad.”
One more, bartender.
Beer calorie estimates: Breweries are not required to list calories on their beers. Using a formula based on about 30 calories per each percentage point of alcohol by volume, and using a 120-calorie Gose-style ale as our benchmark, we calculated how much of each style of craft beer you can drink to stay at that 120-calorie level.
4.2% alcohol by volume
About 120 calories per 12 ounces
5.8% alcohol by volume
About 174 calories per 12 ounces
8.3 ounces = 120 calories
India pale ale
7% alcohol by volume
About 210 calories per 12 ounces
6.8 ounces = 120 calories
Imperial American stout
8.5% alcohol by volume
About 255 calories per 12 ounces
5.6 ounces = 120 calories
10% alcohol by volume
About 300 calories per 12 ounces
4.8 ounces = 120 calories