Thinking about “light beer” brings up distasteful, albeit fun, memories. Long nights in college spent pouring cans of Keystone into red plastic cups; fly-fishing with grouchy uncle Roy, paddling around with a cooler full of Molson; going to that barbecue last summer that only stocked bottles of Bud Light Lime. (Talk about an ice bucket challenge.)
Why do low-calorie beers taste bad?
It’s simple. Calories in beer come from carbohydrates in the grain, most of which are converted into alcohol by yeast during the brewing process. Usually, a bunch of flavorful carbs are left over post-brewing. But beers marketed as low-calorie add a special enzyme to remove those extra carbs.
Carbs taste good. But to lower the calories, you have to lower the carbs, i.e. flavor. The stronger, sweeter, or more alcoholic your beer is, the more calories it is likely to have. A 5 percent ABV (alcohol by volume) beer usually measures about 150 calories.
But don’t fret — there is a middle ground between bold, bloated brews and low-calorie swill. If you’re a beer drinker watching your waistline, my advice is to avoid beers marketed as “Light.” Look instead for beers with a lower-alcohol content — pilsners and session IPAs are two great examples. That way, you don’t have to sacrifice flavor along with those extra calories.
Here are my top 10 picks for “light beers” that are well worth drinking. Calories are listed per 12-ounce serving.:
Guinness (125 calories) Let’s start with the most misunderstood beer in America. When poured alongside our mass-produced see-through lagers, Guinness looks thick, dark, rich, and hardly low-calorie. But it is. It tastes roasty, and feels uncommonly creamy on your tongue, but at 4 percent ABV, it is often the lightest beer on tap.
Harpoon Summer Beer (148 calories) Light in color but solid in flavor, this offering from one of our better Boston breweries has a nice full-bodied grain taste, touched with honey and lemon. It’s nothing magical, but it’s a refreshing option for those afternoons when you’ve finally finished mowing the lawn and want to kick back on the porch for a bit.
Firestone Walker Pivo Pils (150 calories) This California lager is an especially robust blend of the light-and-grainy German pilsner style with an American emphasis on big hop flavor. For a beer that tastes strong and punchy — it’s 5.3 percent ABV — this pils is pretty gentle in the calorie department.
Founders All Day IPA (147 calories) If you’re a calorie-conscious hophead, session IPAs are the way to go. These are, simply put, IPAs brewed to be less strong. One of the best is All Day IPA — brewed by Founders in Grand Rapids, Michigan — which is thick, sharp, flavorful, and everything an IPA should be, minus the extra weight.
Boulevard Pop-Up IPA (139 calories) Here’s another session IPA that packs a ton of flavor. Brewed in Kansas City, Missouri, this hazy-gold prizewinner delivers a vigorous blend of pine and citrus flavors. It’s only 4.2 percent ABV, but for a light-end beer, it’s quite lively.
Stone Levitation Ale (132 calories) This California brewery is so well-known for its strong, aggressively flavorful ales that I almost forgot to include its Levitation, a lighter variety that stays true to Stone’s lip-smacking legacy, but is also light enough to qualify for our list. At just 4.4 percent ABV, it still packs a bold, slightly sweet punch.
Jack’s Abby Framingham Lager (135 calories) A shout-out to brewers a bit closer to home: last spring Jack’s Abby put out a lower-calorie lager in honor of its three-year anniversary of business in the town of Framingham. This variety isn’t available year-round, but try it if you get the chance. It’s simple, well-made, and a little tart — a great way to beat the summer heat.
Anchor Steam (158 calories) Anchor, based in San Francisco, began brewing Anchor Steam in 1896, so it has had plenty of time to perfect this smooth, deep-amber ale. This is the kind of satisfyingly rich beer people sometimes refer to as “bready,” but at 4.9 percent ABV, it doesn’t go overboard on the carbs.
Yuengling Lager (140 calories) I know, I know. Yuengling is hardly craft beer. But the satisfying light-amber lager this historic Philadelphia company churns out is still better than imported lagers like Heineken, and it’s miles ahead of Anheuser-Busch.
Sam Adams Light (119 calories) Let’s close out this list with a choice that is something of an oddity — the only nationally-known light beer distributed by a craft brewery. Does it break the “Don’t buy Light” rule I set earlier? Yes. Should we have expected this move from a company the size of Sam Adams? Of course. Is it any good? Meh. It’s fine, but it mainly tastes like a weaker version of its Boston Lager. I’m including it here as a not bad low-cal choice that your local package store carries in no short supply.
• Small Town Brewery in Illinois just got a big-time break: its specialty line of brews called Not Your Father’s Root Beer will be distributed in the United States by Pabst Brewing Company. This soda-inspired craft line is growing quickly in popularity, and it is seriously potent stuff. It comes in three variations: 5.9 percent ABV, a much-stronger 10.7 percent ABV, and a borderline-insane 19.5 percent ABV. Try it for a half-cocked flashback to your soda fountain days.
• I’m an IPA junkie, and I love the spice that comes from brewing with rye, so I’m stoked to try the new Rye Guy IPA just released this past week by Whetstone Station Brewery in Brattleboro. For now, it’s available on draft only, so swing by the restaurant and biergarten to sip something new while you watch the sunset.
• Congratulations to White Lion Brewing Company in Springfield for its acceptance into Brewing the American Dream, a business loan and mentorship program run by Samuel Adams. White Lion is currently sold at 200 establishments across the state, and now it has a sturdier financial footing on which to grow. Brewing the American Dream has lent more than $4 million to hundreds of businesses, including 17 craft brewers, since 2008.•
Contact Hunter Styles at firstname.lastname@example.org.