It’s no secret that people are drinking less beer than they used to, millennials especially. While craft beer is virtually ubiquitous (one might say inescapable) these days, the plain fact is that craft growth has slowed in the past couple of years, and will likely continue to do so.
Beer sales as a whole are flat to slightly down, while wine and spirits are trending up. If you spend a large part of your time with your head in the craft bubble, it might seem counterintuitive, but beer overall has shrunk as a percentage of the overall alcoholic beverage market, from over 60% in the ‘90s to just 47% in 2016, a period that roughly coincides with America’s second craft beer boom.
So what gives? Why more vino and hootch, less oat soda?
There’s a complicated answer to that question (more than one, actually), but as we are in the part of the young year wherein people often look to and reflect upon their health, let’s consider it through that lens for a moment.
While it’s debatable whether or not the beer market itself could currently be considered “healthy" – despite the slowing growth and downward sales trends, there sure is a lot of social media engagement! – beer in itself has not lately been associated with good health. The gradual shift away from beer has been attributed to both Gen X consumers’ desire for booze that’s nominally healthier (or at least less calorically dense, filling, and more skillfully marketed as healthier), while many under 34 prefer pot to alcohol.
But how unhealthy is beer, actually? Looking at it strictly calorically, beer is generally speaking no worse nor better than wine or spirits (especially cocktails). A 12 oz serving of a ~5% alcohol by volume lager will run you about 150 calories, while a 5.5-6% ABV pale ale, say from Sierra Nevada, clocks in only a little higher, at 175 calories.
Treat yourself to more liquid deserts, and fewer baked ones.”
There’s a direct correspondence between alcoholic strength and caloric content, so once you get into average craft beer territory of 6-7.5% ABV, you’re talking around 225 calories for that delicious Fat Head’s Head Hunter (7.5% ABV). Wine can be nearly as calorically dense as many beers, with a five ounce glass of a heavy red coming in at 150+ calories – two glasses and you’re well above the 180 calories in a 12 oz bottle of Rodenbach Grand Cru, for example.
Spirits, while seemingly “lighter,” are actually the most calorie-laden ounce for ounce, with the typical 1.5 oz pour of bourbon weighing in at around 100 calories. And once that spirit is incorporated into a fine cocktail, it’s hard to say where the calorie value of your drink ends up: add vermouth, simple syrup, esoteric liqueurs, etc., and all of a sudden you’re talking about a surprisingly high number.
Note: I am well aware that there are more components to healthful living than counting calories. That being said, in 2012 I lost 80+ pounds largely by counting calories, exercising, and regulating my alcohol consumption, and have been able to successfully keep it off since – which is not to say any of this is a recipe for success for anyone but me, but nonetheless. If you’d like a thoroughgoing consideration of carbohydrates in beer, for example, alas, you’ll need to look elsewhere.
Beer can easily fit into an overall health-conscious approach to food and alcohol.
Consider that even the most decadent beers, such as sugary stouts with lots of adding flavorings, like Jackie O’s prized Black Maple (12.5% ABV), can easily run you 400+ calories a serving. Now consider that a slice of maple chocolate cake has 500+ calories per slice.
Which would you rather have?
If you answered “both,” then I can sympathize, but if you’re looking to indulge your sweet tooth without going completely overboard, I’d go with the beer. Chocolate cake makes a pretty lousy social lubricant, anyway. Treat yourself to more liquid deserts, and fewer baked ones.
If you’ve resolved to live healthier this year, but aren’t quite ready to get completely on the wagon, beer can fit nicely into your 2018 resolutions. In fact, let’s all resolve to drink more beer, shall we? And to do it more deliberately, thoughtfully, and healthfully than we did in the year gone by. Think more about what beer you drink, enjoy it more fully, and make yourself a better beer drinker in 2018.
That’s right. The most popular dark beer in the world is lighter than basically every IPA you’ve ever had. Despite its reputation among the uninitiated as “liquid bread,” Guinness packs only 125 calories into a 12 oz serving, with very little residual sugar and a nice roasty bite along with its full creamy body.
If nitrogenation isn’t your thing, you can step it up to Guinness Extra Stout, but that will take you to 175 calories a bottle, as it’s 5.6% ABV compared to “traditional” draught Guinness at 4.2% ABV. Kind of nuts to consider that two rich, satisfying, relatively filling pints of the black stuff will be “lighter,” in real terms, than two glasses of rich red wine, but there you go. Plus those extra calories you’re saving definitely justify that order of fried cheese curds, right?
Dogfish Head SeaQuench Ale
A huge hit for Dogfish in 2017 – largely on the back of the kettle sour trend and the beer’s perceived healthiness. Heralded out of the gate by Men’s Health magazine as one of the healthiest beers in America, SeaQuench was also named 2017 “Beer Product of the Year” by Brewbound, an industry-focused online publication.
Personally, I don’t care for it – I find the combination of lactic sourness and added salt in a canned beer absolutely disgusting and a recipe for instant heartburn, but I am most definitely in the minority: this beer was a monster in 2017, driving growth for Dogfish as a company and becoming both an industry and consumer favorite.
A kettle soured gose, it bills itself as a hybrid of a Kölsch, Gose, and Berliner Weisse made with lime peel, black limes, and sea salt. At 4.9% ABV, it only runs to 140 calories per 12 oz serving, and there’s plenty of people who will tell you the extreme saltiness helps you retain water, and that’s a good thing, I guess? Next year: Bovril Ale.
Dry, refreshing, around ~190 calories per 12oz serving. Duvel is redolent of apples and spicy European hops, and the flavor of sweet, grainy Belgian Pilsner malt is balanced with a spicy dryness and slightly bitter finish. A world classic. Duvel compares very favorably with sparkling dry white wines, and will serve many of the same purposes at the table when it comes to food pairings.
Beyond calories, think about impact, as well, if impact is what you’re going for: one glass of Duvel to ease the tensions of the day as compared to, what, two to three Lagunitas IPAs? I always feel better after one glass of spritzy, dry, well-attenuated Belgian ale than I do after a couple of pints of beer laden with residual sugars.
Part of satiation is satisfaction, and part of satisfaction is aesthetic: pour Duvel into its signature bell-shaped glass and regard it appreciatively as you sip – you’ll likely finish the glass more slowly and graciously.
Columbus Brewing Co. Bodhi
Perhaps unfair to include on this list, as Bodhi only gets extremely limited distribution in Ohio, but it crept into the top 10 on Paste’s blind DIPA tasting panel this year and I love it unreservedly, so there. What’s healthy about this beer? Its hop regimen, for starters, haha, haha. But seriously, at ~250 calories a bottle, this is not a light beer – that’s more than 100 calories more than a bottle of Coca-Cola, for crissakes.
But look: good IPAs have sugar in ‘em, that’s just the way it is. This new, healthier you still demands hoppy goodness, right? So instead of passively throwing back a couple of middle of the road IPAs, defer your enjoyment and seek out something truly exceptional.
I spent most of 2017 in a new role where I no longer really even sell IPAs, and consequently drank them a hell of a lot less. It was shocking to me, after a couple days of drinking only lagers (or not drinking at all) how much a good, fresh IPA could knock my socks off.
You get accustomed and desensitized to these incredibly flavorful beers so quickly; it’s worth stepping away for a while and recalibrating your palate. When you come back for a glass of Bodhi, you’ll experience it anew, and might feel less need of a second. Maybe.