Summer beer season is upon us, the time of year when beer lovers start looking for sips that are thirst-quenching, light-bodied and thoroughly quaffable. While some people may reach for a light beer — low-calorie light beers created by the larger brewing concerns — I’d like to steer you toward some other choices I think you’d enjoy even more.
But first, a little history: Low-calorie beers were first created in the 1950s and marketed as diet beer. That’s because during market research, breweries discovered that many people believed beer was fattening. Instead of trying to dissuade customers of that relatively false notion, they made a beer with fewer calories, and through the process of stripping out the calories, a lot of body and flavor was lost, too. It flopped. Hard.
The first diet beer with an impact was made by Meister Brau and acquired by Miller Brewing, which rebranded it as Miller Lite in 1975. Was it an overnight success? Not even close. Over the next 15 years, Miller spent millions of dollars marketing Lite beer with the now-iconic “tastes great, less filling” ads featuring sports stars and celebrities. By 1990, it had only captured 10 percent of the market. Meanwhile other big breweries, including Budweiser and Coors, loathe to miss out on an opportunity, debuted their own versions.
Today, light beer represents a significant percentage of beer sales — seven out of the top 10 beer brands fall into the light category — but it took a concerted effort to persuade people to drink them.
Why did they bother? Light beer uses fewer ingredients but sells for the same price as traditional beer. And big brewers did such a good job convincing customers that light beer is healthier, consumers ended up drinking more than they might otherwise have — the compensation effect in action — which is good for the bottom line, if not their waistline.
The 40-calorie savings conferred by a 12-ounce bottle of Bud Light, which has 110 calories and 4.2 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) rather than the 150 calories and 5 percent ABV of most regular beers, evaporates when you’re downing multiple bottles, thinking they may have less flavor, but they’re better for you.
The better option? Drink fewer bottles, but choose better quality brews. Here are five styles to quench your thirst during the summer months — and they’re delicious.
Helles: This German beer style is probably the original summer beer. Helles simply means “bright” or “light.” It’s less hoppy than pilsners but full-bodied, generally weighing in at around 5 percent ABV. There are plenty of imports available, but Heretic Lager, from Fairfield’s Heretic Brewing, is a great local example of the style.
Kölsch: One of my favorite German beer styles, Kölsch is known for its delicate flavors. Done well, the beer is smooth and soft with good balance throughout, making it very refreshing. Alameda’s Almanac Beer Co. makes a great traditional one, True Kölsch, which is available in cans by the four-pack. Many breweries also make a fruited version; one of my favorites is Cucumber Kölsch, which Lodi’s High Water Brewing sells by the four-pack.
Gose: Another German style, this lightly sour beer uses wheat malt along with salt
and coriander. Goses are similar to witbiers and hazy, but very refreshing and generally
well below 5 percent ABV. Try one from Boonville’s Anderson Valley Brewing, which
makes several varieties, including their original Holy Gose, as well as fruit versions brewed with briny melon, cherry, framboise rose and orange, all at 120 calories and 4.2-percent ABV.
Low-calorie IPAs: If you’re not ready to give up your hoppy beers just because
it’s sunny, don’t worry. You have options. Session IPAs are an obvious choice, although fewer breweries are making them these days. Instead, many are favoring what they call low-calorie IPAs. Paso Robles’ Firestone Walker Brewing makes Mind Haze Light, which is 4 percent ABV with 100 calories and still quite juicy and delicious. Other good choices include Petaluma’s Lagunitas Brewing and its Day Time IPA (4 percent ABV, 98 calories) and Napa and San Diego’s Stone Brewing and its Features and Benefits IPA, which is gluten-reduced in addition to being 4 percent ABV and only 95 calories.
Guinness or other Irish dry stout: Most people probably don’t think of Guinness as a summer beer, but its 4.2 percent ABV and 125 calories, put it in line with most light beers. Despite its dark color, it has a surprisingly light body that makes it ideal for a hot day, especially if you’re craving malt flavors rather than hops.
Contact Jay R. Brooks at BrooksOnBeer@gmail.com.