What's Behind The Rise Of 100-Calorie Craft Beers?

The official tagline debuted in 1974, and since then, Americans have been on a quest for a beer with great taste that's less filling. For much of this time, light beers were exclusively the domain of large brands like Budweiser, Miller, Coors, and the like. Recently, Michelob Ultra has been white-hot, overtaking Miller Lite to become the third largest beer brand in America in terms of dollar sales this year. The top four beer brands in America right now are lower-calorie, lower-carbohydrate beers—and that's saying nothing of the hard seltzer rocket ship. Now even craft breweries can't ignore the fact that some drinkers want lower-calorie options.

Enter the 100-calorie craft beer. Most are IPAs, most weigh in between 95 and 120 calories, and most have debuted within the past two years. Hard seltzers and light beers drew the caloric line in the sand at roughly 100 calories, and now some craft breweries have found themselves in a race to market beers that fit this mold.

"It's no secret we've been watching the health and wellness trend cascade into beverages in general," Phin Demink, cofounder of Southern Tier Brewing in Lakewood, New York, tells The Takeout. Southern Tier released Swipe Light, a 110-calorie hoppy light beer, last year. "Especially with the boom in seltzer, the decline in domestic premium light beer, and the continued growth in craft beer, we saw that there's a trend here. There are consumers that are more concerned with their waistline when they're enjoying themselves."

Brooklyn-based Sixpoint Brewery, owned by Artisanal Brewing Ventures, the same company that owns Southern Tier, this year introduced the Jammer Session Pack. It's a mixed package of 15 cans of Sixpoint's Jammer, a style of tart wheat beer called gose, in flavors that include Berry, Ruby Grapefruit, Tropical, and Citrus. Right there on the packaging: 125 calories. (Sixpoint also introduced Trail Haze, a 99-calorie hazy IPA, this month.)

While some breweries say the seltzer trend wasn't the impetus for their 100-calorie offerings, they can hardly ignore the threat seltzer poses for breweries. Whether they're buying seltzer or not, drinkers who see the calorie counts on those packages start to wonder: How many calories and carbs are in my favorite alcohol brands? Bump Williams Consulting Company told the beer industry site Brewbound earlier this year that 10 of the top 25 growth brands in beer advertise a wellness benefit: fewer calories, lower carbs, less alcohol, or gluten-free ingredients.

Longtime craft beer pioneer Dogfish Head of Rehobeth Beach, Delaware, has three beers in its lineup that it refers to as "active lifestyle brands." SeaQuench Ale has 140 calories and Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione boasts it's the most thirst-quenching beer "on a molecular level" that Dogfish Head has ever brewed. The brewery first released that beer in 2016, and has followed it up with another lower-calorie offering, Slightly Mighty session IPA, at 95 calories and 3.6 grams of carbs. The final beer in the trifecta is SuperEIGHT, a gose brewed with eight "superfruits."

"Honestly if Slightly Mighty's growth trajectory stays on pace, I could see it within two to three years being Dogfish Head's best-selling brand," Calagione tells The Takeout.

He says anecdotal conversations with Dogfish Head drinkers indicat Millennials and Gen Z are driving the interest in those beers, having come of legal drinking age in the era of lower-carb and lower-calorie options.

"They're choosing upfront that they want to try flavorful beer, but they're wellness-oriented, so they say, 'I'm only going to focus on beers that I've researched [and know the calorie counts],'" Calagione says. "They're drinking Truly and White Claw and Slightly Mighty and SeaQuench or vodka tonics because they're choosing their alcohol starting with those calories."

The appeal of low-calorie beers is so great that some breweries that already brew beers under 150 calories per 12-ounce serving might consider retooling those recipes slightly to reach that coveted 100-calorie mark. One of the largest examples of this is Petaluma, California-based Lagunitas Brewing Co., which reformulated its DayTime session IPA in January to reduce it from 130 to 98 calories per 12-ounce serving—and you'd better believe the calories are right there on the can. Max Wertheimer, senior public relations manager for Lagunitas, says DayTime filled a gap in Lagunitas' hoppy lineup, which on the booze-free side includes Hoppy Refresher, a non-alcoholic, hop-infused sparkling water; and on the stronger side includes SuperCluster, an 8% ABV IPA. Lagunitas, more so even than other long-standing craft breweries, built its reputation on big, in-your-face flavor. Does the idea of brewing a low-calorie, lighter IPA fly in the face of that, and risk alienating certain drinkers?

"All credit to our brewers, we found a way to brew a low-calorie beer that is super tasty," Wertheimer tells The Takeout. "I think that most consumers would rather know more than less when it comes to nutrition and the products they're enjoying. I don't think [calorie counts] hurt; I would say it helps."

Brewing a lower-calorie beer, brewers will admit, takes special consideration. Beer derives calories both from carbohydrates and from alcohol. Pure alcohol contributes seven calories per gram, while carbs only contribute four. It's why most breweries' 100-calorie IPAs fall right around the 4% ABV mark; anything more alcoholic than that would require some engineering wizardry. But simultaneously reducing alcohol and carbohydrates in a beer (mostly by cutting down on the level of malts used to brew it) risks creating a beer that feels thin and weak. We've heard the canoe joke, and craft brewers know they've built their reputations on creating beers with more flavor than mass-production beer.

When developing the recipe for LoCa, a tropical blonde ale from Miami's The Tank Brewing that will debut in roughly two weeks, head brewer Moh Saade says he held this 96-calorie beer to the same quality and flavor standards as any other beer he'd brew.

"My test for it has been giving it to people not telling them what it is, and they can't tell it's low-calorie," Saade tells The Takeout. "This beer's flavor compounds are derived from hops and its esters are derived from yeast, and those don't have calories associated with them."

Saade also used oats and highly kilned—meaning highly toasted—Vienna malts in the recipe for LoCa to add both body and flavor. This will be the first South Florida-brewed, low-calorie craft beer, and Saade is hoping it resonates with athletic, beach-going, looks-conscious Miami drinkers. Plus, he notes, with the tropical hop aromas imparted by dry-hopping, beer nerds won't turn their noses up at it either.

Dogfish Head has its own methods for achieving the texture and body of a regular beer in a lower-calorie package. It brews Slightly Mighty with monk fruit extract; monk fruit is a Chinese fruit whose extract gives the beer a bit of oomph—what Calagione calls "phantom body"—without adding any fruit flavors. He says it cost the brewery plenty of time and money to get the ingredient recognized by the U.S. government for use in beer, but that extract combined with special brewing enzymes make Slightly Mighty taste like "a full-flavored IPA, but with the calories of Michelob Ultra."

While Dogfish Head and other breweries from Oskar Blues to Harpoon to Boulevard have rolled out deliberately lower-calorie beers, not every craft brewery is ready to chase the 100-calorie white whale. Some may fear it risks alienating drinkers who view craft beer as a reward, and not necessarily a healthy one. Others worry it could draw attention to how many calories are in higher-alcohol craft beers. And still others just aren't sure it's a trend worth pursuing yet. Noting that low-calorie beers have to come in at a relatively low ABV, brewmaster John Gillooly of Drake's Brewing Co. in San Leandro, California, points out that many drinkers deliberately choose higher-ABV craft beers.

"Session beers are a niche, and they're a niche we do pretty well with in our tasting room but not in package," he tells The Takeout. "[Our 4.3% ABV IPA] Kick Back sells well, but it's not like a giant category."

Kick Back has 140 calories, and Gillooly says Drake's focus on drier, less sweet beer styles often means its beers have fewer calories than some people might think. Still, unless a beer comes in below 100 calories, he doesn't see the point of marketing it as low-calorie. Though, he admits, the brewery's marketing department has recently asked to know the calorie counts on some of Drake's other beers.

"There are definitely cans I wouldn't put that number on. I'm pretty sure a 12-oz. can of Denogginizer has like 300 calories. I think if we had something all the way under 100 calories we might have slapped something on there, but we think that the triple-digit mark is the line worth touting," he says. "We're not just going to slap a number on a beer we're already making, but I do expect to see more people jumping into it."