Ashley Hamer was a craft-beer fiend. “Face-meltingly hoppy IPAs in particular,” says the 33-year-old, who lives in Chicago. But when Hamer wanted to qualify for the Boston Marathon, she started scrutinizing her diet. “I realized that one of my favorite beers had more calories than my lunch and left that phase behind me,” she says.
Hamer isn’t the only one. Millennials embraced craft beer in a big way early on. In 2016, a presentation at the Craft Brewer’s Conference touted millennials as the biggest weekly drinkers of small-batch stouts, IPAs, and lagers.
And then? Those carbs and calories caught up with us. It turns out they’re called beer bellies for a reason.
For perspective, a typical craft lager has about 180 calories, and a lower-alcohol ale may have just 150. But something like a Belgian tripel can have 250 to 300 calories. Michelob Ultra, meanwhile, has just 95 calories.
According to Nielsen research presented at the 2019 Beer Industry Summit two weeks ago, 66 percent of millennials are actively trying to cut down on how much they drink. Forty percent of those say that cutting back is due to wanting a healthier lifestyle. That’s pushing millennial beer drinkers back to brands with light options, namely Michelob Ultra, which is one of the few brands that has actually grown in the past few years. According to a November 2018 report in IndustryWeek, Michelob Ultra sales are up 80 percent since 2014.
Dogfish Head founder and CEO Sam Calagione wants some of that market share back. “Last year, ABI [Anheuser-Busch InBev] sold more volume of Mic Ultra than all the beer from Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, Yuengling, and Dogfish Head combined,” says the Delaware-based Calagione. But instead of just making a low-calorie ale and calling it a day, he’s using microbiology to create a light beer that tastes like your favorite IPA.
The problem with any mass-market light beer is that it tastes, well, light. “Since the 1970s, industry brewers have been using enzymes to make light beer light,” says Calagione. The enzymes break down the complex sugars traditionally left in the beer after brewing. Those complex sugars are what give a beer its body, but they imbue it with calories, too. Calagione wanted to know if there was some way to brew for heft without relying on sugars.
Dogfish Head employs two Ph.D.’s, a biologist and a chemist. Initially, Calagione hired them to work on the brewery’s Sea Quench ale, a beer designed on a molecular level to be ultra thirst quenching. It’s been a smash hit for Dogfish Head, and Calagione thought, Hey, why not get the microscopes out for this brewing experiment, too?
The team started by brewing with a fermentation technique borrowed for making champagne. Using special yeast, they made a very low-calorie base beer. But then Calagione and his team of beer nerds wanted to “build a skeleton” that the bitter hop flavors could hang on to, he explains. What to use that wasn’t a whole heaping helping of sugar was the mystery.
First they tried adding cedarwood-smoked barley. “It was not the right choice. It kind of smelled like a Band-Aid, which was not super attractive,” Calagione says. The project was put on hold until Calagione stumbled across a package of monk-fruit extract at his local health-food store. Monk fruit is becoming a popular sugar substitute because “it’s hundreds of times of sweeter than natural sugar,” he says. In other words, a tiny amount goes a really long way. But Calagione wondered if that small amount could provide the skeleton he’d been looking for, giving the beer the gravity of something more caloric.
The first batch was awful. “We thought we were being judicious, but it was still cloyingly sweet,” he says. After several more batches, they were close. On the final try, they threw in handfuls of hops and hoped for the best. “It’s the biggest sense of euphoria from a first sip of beer I’ve ever gotten,” Calagione says of tasting the last batch.
Named Slightly Mighty, the beer has 95 calories and 3.6 grams of carbohydrates, but it tastes much more like an IPA than any light beer on the market. At 4 percent alcohol by volume, it’s lower in alcohol than many IPAs. “There’s a correlation between ABV and the calories in a beer,” says Calagione, so making Slightly Mighty more alcoholic would have pushed it over the 95-calorie threshold. Is it exactly like your favorite IPA? I don’t think so. But it’s much closer.
Dogfish Head is available now in the brewery's tap rooms in the Delaware towns of Lewe and Milton, and will start shipping nationwide on April 2. Hamer is skeptical, let down by one too many bad session IPAs. Still, she says she’ll give Slightly Mighty a chance. “I’d definitely try it if it’s Dogfish Head,” she said. That’s what Calagione is hoping for, that millennial drinkers will come back to craft beer one more time—and that it will be good enough to keep them wanting more.