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.
Aecht Schlenkerla Helles: 129 Calories
Drinking low-calorie beers means you need to choose beers with relatively low quantities of barley malt. What it doesn't mean is that you have to sacrifice malt flavors entirely, as you'll find in Helles-style beers. Helles beer rules Munich's famous beer halls and is an easy-drinking golden colored lager that features grainy malt flavors.
One of our favorite Helles lagers comes from Bamburg, Germany. The area is famous for producing intensely flavored rauch or "smoke" beers and the Schlenkerla brewery is the most notable practitioner of the style in which the malt used in the beer is smoked over a wood fire - typically beechwood. Shlenkerla's Helles lager has a light smoke flavor and aroma that gives it a touch bacony smoke depth. It has 4.3 percent alcohol by volume and we're estimating a mere 129 calories per 12 ounce bottle.