Beer isn't a health food. Even so, sometimes you have to acknowledge – maybe after your third double IPA – that many great craft beers are packed with calories. Fortunately, you don't have to turn to watery or bland brews to drink more healthfully.
Calories in beer come from the carbohydrates in the grains that brewer adds during the brewing process. Most of the carbs from the grain get eaten by the yeast during fermentation as they produce alcohol. The alcohol then contains most of the calories, but there are also more calories in the flavorful, leftover carbohydrates the yeast didn't process. "Lite" beers have little flavor because most have been treated with an enzyme that lowers those carbohydrates. Less carbs, less calories, less flavor.
There is a formula you can use to figure out the calories in your beer, but you'll still have to do some research and the equation is hardly straightforward. Luckily we can make some reasonable estimates. When alcohol increases the carbohydrates generally do too. A 5 percent ABV beer will typically be around 150 calories. You'll find most of the big-name lagers (Bud, Miller, Coors) around this mark. For every percentage point of alcohol up or down you can typically add or subtract 30 calories respectively. A 4 percent alcohol beer will be about 120 calories, for example, and a 6 percent, 180. Keep in mind that this is a ballpark estimate and that drier beer will typically feature slightly less calories and sweeter beers will have a bit more.
If you're counting your calories, instead of taking a calculator with you to the bar, you can simply use this cheat sheet.
21st Amendment Bitter American: 160 Calories
Since all the calories in beer come from the malts it's a no-brainer that beers emphasizing hops would make great low-calorie options. Just don't assume that your favorite India Pale Ales fit the bill. IPA's typically feature big malty backbones and high amounts of alcohol to balance out the intense hop assault. What you want to look for instead is a more sessionable beer that still features hop flavor without turning everything up to 11. We'd prefer to call beers in this style hoppy American Pale Ales, but the term Session IPA seems like it's here to stay.
One of our favorite beers in this category is 21st Amendment Bitter American. The beer's 160 calories are actually a little high for it's 4.5 percent alcohol, but they're still a far cry from the 250-plus calories that most India Pale Ales pack. Other sessionable hop-forward beers like Founder's All Day IPA (4.7 percent ABV and 147 calories) shave off similar amounts of calories while preserving a good dose of the citrusy hop flavor that IPA lovers crave.
Credit: Photograph by Michael Pirrocco