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.
Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project Vieille Saison: 105 Calories
When you're trying to find a low calorie beer you want to key in on two factors: low alcohol levels and high levels of attenuation, a measurement of how thoroughly the yeast consumed the carbohydrates in the beer. The more calories they eat, the less they leave for you to burn off later. The ultimate low-alcohol, high-attenuation beer style is the saison. While many modern saisons have jacked up the alcohol over the years Crooked Stave's Vieille Saison is a throwback to the historical roots of the style with a twist – the addition of a wild yeast called Brettanomyces (Brett).
This yeast ravenously chews through the Vieille Saison's carbs, leaving a lean and light bodied brew with an estimated 105 calories at 4.2 percent alcohol. Brewmaster Chad Yakobsen notes that Vieille is "about as light as a beer can get without using a special enzyme." The main attraction of Brett, though, is the unique flavor and aromas that it imparts in the beer. Get Vieille Saison when it's fresh and it's slightly tart with a nice tropical note. If you're willing to cellar it for a few months to a year that touch of funk will develop and intensify.