At least once a week for the past four months, my inbox has gotten some variation of this press release: X Brewery is partnering with Y athlete to launch Z low-calorie (or low-alcohol) beer. It’s gone from a trend to a movement at this point. And the volume of pitches for these brews is so remarkable, I couldn’t ignore it.
On January 2—just in time for resolutions—Delaware-based Dogfish Head announced it was starting a virtual running club led by none other than four-time Olympian Shalane Flanagan. Dogfish has competition, though. That same month, San Francisco–based Sufferfest Beer Company partnered with ClassPass to do “studio takeovers” in ten cities across the country. In March, Michigan’s New Holland is launching its Lightpoint Functional White Ale with a 5K at its brewpub. Meanwhile, Devils Backbone is pitching a keto-friendly option, and Breckenridge Brewery has an isotonic offering. Platform Beer Company just went straight to the point and named its beer Gymday.
According to Market Watch, people throughout the world are spending $4.2 trillion a year on nutrition, personal-care products, fitness, and other sectors of the health and wellness industry. Brewers want a piece of it. But that’s just one part of the puzzle. There are three other factors to consider, too. First, things are slowing in the beer industry. Total sales by volume are down, says Bart Watson, economist for the Brewers Association, but the numbers look much better in dollar sales terms, i.e., Americans are drinking less beer, but when they do drink it, they’re generally drinking the more expensive stuff. Next, their most loyal patrons, millennials, are getting older. And finally, the athletic set has proven to be incredibly devoted to post-workout beer.
While craft-beer sales are still very much kicking ass, brewers are also starting to realize that the growth trend won’t be up, up, and away forever.
Which brings us to the genius of low-calorie brews. Here’s a stat that will blow your mind: the fastest-growing beer brand in America is Michelob Ultra. It’s also the second-best-selling beer in sales by dollar. The company has produced a smash hit by making a beer that’s under 100 calories and tastes better than other popular light beers, then marketing it to consumers within the health and wellness space. If you’ve participated in a big-city marathon in the past five years, chances are the race’s beer sponsor was Michelob Ultra. In August 2019, the brand unveiled partnerships with Newton Running and Alchemy Bicycles, and its most recent Super Bowl commercial showcased an extremely relatable Jimmy Fallon trying to get back in shape.
All over the country, craft and independent brewers are wondering: Could this formula work for us?
This is tricky, because craft brewing’s hallmark has been big flavors—and, often, as a result, big calorie counts—for years and years. There’s a danger of creating the McDonald’s salad effect: where the company offers a healthy option but it just doesn’t sell, because who goes there for a salad? Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head, says that has not been a problem for his company, which recently released two low-cal options that maintain the characteristics customers expect from microbrews.
While I love seeing more beers offering low-cal and low-ABV options, this feels like the time to remind everyone that alcohol will never be a health food. And don’t think that wellness can come from doing a few 12-ounce curls. However, if you’re looking for the perfect post-run slightly alcoholic beverage, here are our six favorite lighter-beer offerings.
New Holland Brewing Lightpoint Functional White Ale
It’s shocking that this only has 86 calories per can. I’d drink this as a regular beer on a hot day. The hints of honey and orange peel are just right—mostly on the nose and not at all too sweet. At 3.7 ABV, it’s perfect for a weeknight or after a run when you don’t want to get accidentally tanked off a single beer.
Platform Beer Company Gymday
Gonna be honest: the word gym does not bring to mind the best flavors. But this IPA tastes nothing like the gym smells. It’s surprisingly hoppy for a 98-calorie beer, but not in that obnoxious “we dry-hopped the shit out of this because we don’t know any other way to make beer” way. It’s balanced and easy to drink, with a perfect 3.8 percent ABV.
Dogfish Head Slightly Mighty
This is another shockingly good low-cal IPA. Brewers used monk fruit to build flavor in this beer without adding a ton of calories. It therefore feels surprisingly hefty but still comes in at under 100 calories. It’s 4 percent ABV, a fact you would not believe if the brewers hadn’t printed it on the can.
Sufferfest Beer Company Repeat
There is no beer style I like more after a workout than a Kölsch. It’s just so crisp and clean. Sufferfest’s version has added bee pollen. This one is 95 calories and has a 3.5 percent ABV.
Devils Backbone Bright
For gluten-free gym rats, this sparkling (as in bubbly) ale hits the dry notes well, though it’s definitely on the lighter side of the flavor spectrum. Hints of tangerine make this a great choice for anyone who loves fruity or tart beers. It has just 85 calories and a 4 percent ABV.
Deschutes Wowza Hazy Pale Ale
A lot of light pale ales taste, well, light. But this one never lets you forget its Northwest roots. It has plenty of hoppy bite from Simcoe, Citra, Cashmere, and Callista hops and body from the addition of chicory root, of all things. It works. With just 100 calories and a 4 percent ABV, it feels like honest-to-goodness craft beer.