First, let’s get the thing that needs to be said out of the way: These beers come with an asterisk. They are what they are. And what they are is low in calories and low in carbohydrates.
If you want big, flavorful beer, this generally isn’t the place to look. If you want beer that doesn’t pile up quite as quickly at your waistline while tasting better than most options ending in “light,” this is indeed the place to look.
Spurred by the continuing success of Michelob Ultra Light and the hard seltzer category — both of which grow at phenomenal rates — craft beer low in calories and carbs was already emerging as the industry’s biggest experiment of 2020.
Coronavirus has made it surprisingly timely.
If your gym is closed, and if you’re following a stay-home order, you’re probably not getting as much exercise as during those golden prepandemic days. Lower-calorie and lower-carb options may therefore be arriving just in time.
The good news is that we’re no longer restricted to the one-note blandness of the biggest beer brands. Dozens of craft brewers have joined the low-cal sphere, hoping to carve niches that succeed on two levels: recruiting beer drinkers new to craft while offering additional options for those more likely to reach for an IPA than a PBR.
Low-cal craft beer is generally defined as 110 calories or fewer per 12 ounces. Carbohydrates can vary widely — from fewer than 3 grams per 12 ounces to more than 9. (By comparison, one of the nation’s most recognizable craft beer brands, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, has 175 calories and 16.9 grams of carbohydrates per 12 ounces.)
The key to enjoying these beers is to dial down expectations. None will supplant the joy of a 300-calorie double IPA or stout. But they’re not meant to. At their best, they’re something else entirely: light, bright refreshment.
At least 18 low-cal craft beers are available in the Chicago area, almost none of which were in the market — or even existed — a year ago. In recent weeks, in the depths of the COVID-19 stay-home order, we tried them all. Below are our rankings, divided into three tiers, with beers in each group listed alphabetically. Nutritional information, which is all per 12-ounce serving, was supplied by the breweries.
THE FANTASTIC FIVE
Black Rice Ale (nut brown ale, Anderson Valley Brewing)
97 calories, 8 grams carbohydrates, 3.8% alcohol by volume
Black Rice Ale doesn’t look low-cal: It’s nearly pitch black. But dark beer can indeed equate to fewer calories; 12 ounces of the legendary Guinness Draught has a modest 124 calories. Black Rice Ale’s body is thin, but the flavor and aroma make it a counterintuitive gem: roasty and nutty with light, fruity esters. Interesting, refreshing and, yes, low-cal. (Current packaging doesn’t include Black Rice Ale’s calorie count, but the information will be added in a redesign.)
Da Shootz! (pilsner, Deschutes Brewery)
99 calories, 4.2 g carbs, 4% ABV
There’s nothing showy about this beer; it’s just a satisfying take on a light lager. But it has just enough heft in its hazy body, accented with a touch of soft fruitiness, to make it both tastier and better for you than, say, Bud Light (110 calories, 6.6 g carbs) or Coors Light (102 calories, 5 g carbs).
Good Behavior (IPA, Odell Brewing)
110 calories, 7 g carbs, 4% ABV
Odell is quietly one of America’s great breweries, so it’s no surprise that Good Behavior lives up to its billing as a “crushable IPA.” Most low-cal beers are one dimensional sippers; lush, fruity hops character makes this drink like a fully realized beer, low-cal or not. “There’s plenty of 100, 95, even 80 calorie options in the market right now … we realized we weren’t going to sacrifice the flavor and body for 10 calories,” Odell’s COO Brendan McGivney said in a press release when Good Behavior was launched last fall. “We think your taste buds will agree.” Mine sure do.
Hop 99 (IPA, Abita Brewing)
99 calories, 2.7 g carbs, 4.2% ABV
A crisp and refreshing home run with bright, lemony character followed by a welcome dry finish. Tastes particularly good on a warm day. Hop 99 is very light, but that’s exactly what Abita was after, even calling it a “light IPA” on the can. Only a limited amount of Hop 99 has made it to the Chicago market so far.
Lightpoint (wheat ale, New Holland Brewing)
86 calories, 2.3 g carbs, 3.7% ABV
New Holland calls this beer, which was released in March, a “functional white ale.” It’s a particularly creative effort, made with coconut water, raw honey and orange peel. Those ingredients are deployed well in this modern take on a Belgian-style witbier, creating a layered, fruity beer that’s all the more impressive as the lowest-calorie, lowest-carb option here.
Daytime (IPA, Lagunitas Brewing)
98 calories, 3 g carbs, 4% ABV
The flavors aren’t quite as clean as the IPAs ahead of it on this list. But there’s not a lot to complain about.
Lager (lager, Ballast Point Brewing)
99 calories, 3.5 g carbs, 4.2% ABV
Reminiscent of the major light beers, but also an improvement: lightly fruity, lightly grassy and no unwanted flavors. Crisp quality backyard refreshment.
Light Hearted (IPA, Bell’s Brewery)
110 calories, 8.7 g carbs, 3.7% ABV
Bell’s may have done itself a disservice by branding this beer as an extension of its revered Two Hearted IPA. This low-cal version does little to evoke its well-regarded cousin, but still makes for a decent low-cal option. It’s darker than most IPAs on this list, nicely balancing malt, piney hops and light bitterness.
Mural Agua Fresca Cerveza (fruit beer, New Belgium Brewing)
110 calories, 9 g carbs, 4% ABV
This collaboration with Mexico City’s Primus Microcerveceria comes in three flavors: mango-orange, berry-guava and watermelon-lime. All have their merits — watermelon-lime is my favorite — and each dries out enough to be recognizable as beer, despite the fruity additions. They’re sold as a mixed 12-pack, which makes it easy to try them all.
One-y (hazy IPA, Oskar Blues Brewery)
100 calories, 5 g carbs, 4% ABV
Low-calorie hazy IPAs are mostly a bad idea. (Keep reading.) This is one of the better attempts. Nicely fruity, and no wonky flavors.
Slightly Mighty (IPA, Dogfish Head Brewery)
95 calories, 3.6 g carbs, 4% ABV
Dogfish Head employs monk fruit extract to amp up a beer that is among the lowest in calories and carbs. Not many of these beers can be called balanced, but Slightly Mighty pulls off that neat trick.
The Stonewall Inn (IPA, Brooklyn Brewery)
95 calories, 3.5 g carbs, 4% ABV
This beer doesn’t pull off the “light IPA” motif as well as Hop 99; the hop character isn’t as dialed in. But Stonewall is bright and lean with no flabby flavors.
Flyjack (hazy IPA, Firestone Walker Brewing)
96 calories, 5 g carbs, 4% ABV
One of the nation’s great breweries comes up with a surprising swing and miss. Flyjack is muddled and confused, with a thin, unpleasant finish and hop character veering toward vegetal.
LightSky (wheat beer, Blue Moon/Molson Coors)
95 calories, 3.6 carbs, 4% ABV
A massive orange aroma that veers curiously into Tang territory is a warning for the false orange flavor that follows on the palate. Once past that overbearing orange character, LightSky offers a reasonably crisp finish. But the intensity is a deal breaker; in this fruity vein, I’d sooner opt for Lightpoint or the Mural beers.
So-Lo (IPA, Goose Island Beer Co./Anheuser-Busch)
98 calories, 9.4 g carbs, 3% ABV
These beers are thin by nature, which means the best of them are crisp and refreshing; this one is flaccid and flabby with an unpleasant, woody finish. Though branded a Goose Island product, this beer is made by its parent company, Anheuser-Busch, in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Wowza! (hazy pale ale, Deschutes Brewery)
100 calories, 4 g carbs, 4% ABV
Drinks one-dimensionally, and it’s not a pleasant dimension. Like Flyjack, the hops character veers toward vegetal.
For an industry built on more flavor rather than less, skepticism about low-cal craft beer comes easily. But after several weeks of tasting and retasting these beers (and then tasting them gain), I was surprised how many had merit. These beers are largely the domain of veteran breweries that have practices dialed in. The successes outweigh the failures.
Consumers will decide whether there’s a place for low-cal craft beer. These breweries have done an admirable job of creating the category — provided we accept the beers for what they are.
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