Better than “Light”: Seven Beers You Can Imbibe Without Blowing Your “Diet”

Strategically placed bottle: Yes, if you look like this, by all means drink Heineken. Or you could try a better, lower calorie beer from my list below!

Strategically placed bottle: Yes, if you look like this, by all means drink Heineken. Or you could try a better, lower calorie beer from my list below! Photo credit: Pinterest (that’s long form for “pint,” amiright?)

Standing in line for yesterday’s 32-mile Great Saunter hike around the rim of Manhattan, I was chatting up some other walkers when the topic of “what do you do for a living” came up. My poor attendance to this blog aside (sorry readers), I am still, in fact, making my money from writing about beer. I also noted that my attendance at the Great Saunter after an absence of five years (see? my blog posts are more frequent than my marathon-level walks!) was because my weight has gotten out of control and I need to “make some changes” to my lifestyle.

The reality is that if you’re in the beer world, you’d better have an exercise plan. There are several “universal” truths about being a beer writer:

  1. You drink too much. Whether by sheer quantity or just daily life, those of us who make our living in beer drink a lot. As in every day. As in, we do tastings in the morning. As in, no—unlike oenophiles—we don’t spit. Part of the reason why this blog has been on hiatus was my desire to cut back on my drinking. I literally can drink for free on a daily basis; not a good choice.
  2. Beer doesn’t make you fat… but calories do! I say this a lot, because there’s a bit of a public relations war vis a vis whether the carb-heavy world of beer contributes to weight gain. For whatever reason, Americans seem to think that carbohydrates are the enemy; add in alcohol (both carbs and protein weigh in at 4 calories/gram; whereas alcohol is 7 calories/gram; a gram of fat is 9 calories, meaning alcohol calories are more akin to fat than carbs) and beer can pack the calorie density of a mega-protein bar (cue Mean Girls reference here).
  3. If you’re fit in the beer world, that is due to exercise and not diet. I have seen skinny women downing bread and cheese with their beers, so it’s not about calorie control. A friend of mine who is a rep for a boutique importer spends (the warm) half of the year running and the other (cold) half of the year playing ice hockey. This is basic dietary science: burn more (or at least as many) calories than (as) you consume and you will (maintain or) lose weight. I have put on 10 pounds for each year (i.e. three) I’ve been writing about beer on a more-or-less full-time basis because I don’t burn more calories than I consume. And I, too, like bread and cheese with beer!

Back in the queue: The man I was talking to stated, “I suppose you don’t consider light beer an option,” to which I replied, “What’s ‘light’ beer?” I was being facetious, because I knew what the guy meant. Shortly thereafter, we were separated before I had the sense to recommend some “better than light” beers.

To me, “light” beer is far worse than decaf coffee. Decaf may be pointless in terms of a caffeine high, but “light” beer still packs quite the punch in terms of calories. And while there are good decaf options for flavor, beer marketed as “light” typically is a low-cal version of a better beer. The quintessential example of this is Budweiser: The full-calorie version of the beer (143 calories for 12 ounces – note: all calorie counts in this article are for a 12-ounce beer; 5.0% ABV) is better (in so far as a mass-market lager can be) than its pretty crappy Bud Light (110 calories; 4.2% ABV). At least Heineken attempts to differentiate its full-calorie beer (166 calories; 5.4% ABV) from its sister, Amstel Light (99 calories/3.5% ABV).

But all these beers run the taste continuum from “pretty bad” to “just okay.” And chances are that if you’re drinking Amstel or Bud Light, you’re gonna drink a lot more than one… pretty much negating any benefit from calorie control.

So, what can you imbibe and still watch your calories? First, let’s assume you don’t want to do a 32-mile hike or run a marathon every week to burn the extra calories that beer can put on. Second, let’s assume you want to drink “good” beer (the idea of “craft” beer is really in flux, especially as formerly defined “craft” beers are bought by huge conglomerates like AB-InBev). Third, let’s assume you have a drinking strategy:

  • Are you looking for a buzz? You might want to consider efficiency over calories. Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA packs a whopping 450 calories, but at 18% ABV, you’ll probably only need one… assuming you can stop at one.
  • Are you looking to drink all day? You are at the beach or by the pool and you just want a slow imbibe. Go for a low-ABV beer or… drink a great stout. People forget how lovely stouts are in the summer because it’s easy to think “dark beer for dark days.” However, stouts improve as they warm, so you can drink much more slowly. If you drink one Left Hand Milk Stout (180 calories; 6% ABV) an hour for four hours, you’ll be better off than drinking eight Bud Lights over the same time frame. Full disclosure vis a vis “craft” defined loosely: Guinness Stout on draught is one of the lower-calorie beers: only 125 calories; 4.0% ABV (most bars are going to do a 16-ounce pour, so expect your pint to cost you 167 calories).
  • Are you looking for flavor? A gose, lambic or Berliner Weisse will be super refreshing and full of fruity flavors. Tart, crisp and just right for warm weather drinking.
  • You either come prepared with BYOB or know how to read a label. One of the big problems with knowing how many calories you’re drinking is that very few craft beers publish their calorie counts (something the “light” beers capitalize on). However, they do typically have alcohol-by-volume (ABV) on the label. Obviously, the higher the ABV on a beer the higher the calorie count. Efficiency aside, you’ll want to slow your beer intake with lots of water to stay hydrated on summer days.

So here are the seven beers I think are “better than light.” The conditions were that they had to be roughly 10 calories per ounce or less and beers I’ve actually tried (note that the calories are “best guesstimates” based on published research). Also, on principle, I disallowed any beer with “light” in the mix (thus, Sam Adams Light isn’t recommended). If you can’t find my beers in your market, here’s a great breakdown of beers by calories, total carbs and ABV. And please share your “skinny” beers in the comments. Happy drinking!

  1. Anderson Valley Brewing Highway 128 Blood Orange Gose: 126 calories/4.2% ABV. A beautiful gose with intense flavors and amazing body.
  2. Evil Twin Brewing Bikini Beer: 81 calories/2.7% ABV. For hopheads! You’d never guess drinking this that it is so low in calories. The true poster beer for “tastes great, less filling”!
  3. Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project Vielle Saison: 126 calories/4.2% ABV. Another bright sour beer that is widely available.
  4. The Bruery Hottenroth Berliner Weisse: 93 calories/3.1% ABV. I’ll take the sour beer behind door #3! Such flavor for a beer that has fewer calories than Corona Light!
  5. Abita Brewing Amber Ale: 128 calories/4.5% ABV. The most calorie-dense beer on this list is also one of the more “efficient” beers if you’re looking to get a bit more buzz from your beer.
  6. New Belgium Brewing Skinny Dip: 110 calories/4.2% ABV. A solid blonde with solid efficiency.
  7. Telegraph Brewing Petit Obscura: 113 calories/3.7% ABV. Another sour beer you might want to try if you can find it.