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Beer: Do craft drinkers care about calories?

By Greg Kitsock
Wednesday, June 30, 2010; E05

Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale has won five medals since 1987 in Great American Beer Festival competition. But David Zinczenko and Matt Goulding say the strong ale (9.6 percent alcohol by volume) with an immense amount of malt and hops is America's worst beer.

Zinczenko and Goulding are the authors of the new diet guide "Drink This, Not That!" (Rodale, 2010). In their rogue's gallery of the 20 most calorific drinks in the United States, including smoothies, milkshakes and margaritas, Bigfoot ranks 15th.

This "undisputed beast of the beer jungle," Zinczenko and Goulding note, packs a hefty 330 calories per 12-ounce bottle, or nearly 2,000 per six-pack. "Let's hope the appearance of this gut-inducing guzzler in your fridge is as rare as encounters with the fabled beast himself."

Counters Ken Grossman, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.'s founder and president, "It's a stupid way of judging anything: like saying, 'Don't eat a pound of butter.' "

He has a point: Few of Bigfoot's fans would down more than a bottle at a time. The beer is so rich and viscous that it would fill you up before it set you on the floor. By comparison, guzzling four bottles of Miller Lite during the game of the week, hardly a prodigious feat, would cost you 384 calories.

"There are many worse beers than ours," Grossman says. "Bigfoot isn't extreme anymore." Indeed, if most of the calories in Bigfoot come from the alcohol, as Zinczenko and Goulding claim, we would expect even more potent brews (levels of 12 percent alcohol and more are common nowadays) to exceed Bigfoot's calorie count. The Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton, Del., makes several beers that exceed the 400-calorie mark per serving, led by Dogfish Head World Wide Stout, which has tested for an apocalyptic 666 calories per 12-ounce bottle. (Goulding says they omitted Dogfish Head from consideration because "we just felt that it didn't have the same national reach as Sierra Nevada.")

"Drink This, Not That!" set me to thinking: Do craft beer fans, who drink primarily for flavor, care about calories at all?

Goulding, in an e-mail, answers in the affirmative. "Millions of people fall into the category of health-conscious beer drinkers, and without companies willingly providing them with calorie and carb counts, they don't have full control of their diets because they simply don't know what they're putting in their bodies," he says.

Goulding is not anti-alcohol; he characterizes himself as "a bit of a beer nut." He and his co-author say the term "beer belly" is a misnomer. The paunch that heavy drinkers develop comes not so much from the brewskis, they assert, but from the beer nuts, chicken wings and other snacks consumed alongside.

"Drink This, Not That!" lists possible health benefits of moderate drinking (the hops in an amber ale might help lower cholesterol) and includes one piece of information that most Beer 101 books don't deliver: average calorie range per style. A typical American lager, such as Budweiser or Miller, contains 135 to 155 calories per 12-ounce serving. Wheat beers clock in at 150 to 170 calories; IPAs, 180 to 240.

Zinczenko and Goulding try to suggest lower-calorie alternatives to some of the more common brands on the market. Instead of Guinness Extra Stout (176 calories), they recommend the much lighter Guinness Draught (it contains 125 calories, and "you won't find a darker beer with fewer calories").

Not all of their suggestions are helpful. Samuel Adams Brown Ale (160 calories), touted as a less-fattening replacement for Brooklyn Brown Ale (205 calories), has been off the market for two years. The authors recommend substituting Leinenkugel's Fireside Nut Brown Ale (155 calories) for Bigfoot. But Fireside is available primarily in November and December, while Bigfoot doesn't hit stores until late January or early February, so the two aren't likely to overlap.

However, fishing around for the lowest-calorie example of a style isn't easy. Most craft beers do not list a calorie count on the label. To get that information, Goulding says, he often had to phone the brewery or consult a third party, such as RealBeer.com.

The federal Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) requires a calorie listing for any beer that calls itself "light" or "lite." Otherwise, the information is optional.

But when a beer lists calories per standard serving, it must also list the carbohydrate, protein and fat content (even though it's a rare brew that contains fat). Smaller breweries might not want to go through the expense of laboratory testing. Also, because microbrews differ from batch to batch, the brewers might be afraid of exceeding the allowable deviation, which is no more than five calories above or 10 calories below the stated amount.

What is required for labels also applies to advertising, whether it is for print, television or the Web, says Art Resnick, the TTB's director for public and media affairs. Mariah Calagione, vice president of Dogfish Head and wife of founder Sam Calagione, said that at one time the brewery posted calorie counts on its Web site, but the TTB asked it to remove the information because the site lacked a more complete nutritional breakdown.

In 2007, the TTB floated a proposal (Notice No. 73) that would require all alcoholic beverage labels to include a "serving facts" panel listing calories, carbs, protein and fat. (You can read the full text at http://www.ttb.gov/regulations_laws/all_rulemaking.shtml.) The proposed rule appears to be in a state of limbo; the comment period ended in 2008, and Resnick was unable to say when the TTB might issue final regulations.

Would a mandatory listing of calories scare away craft drinkers?

"If you are self-conscious about gaining weight, go for a run," says Sam Calagione. "Don't stop drinking flavorful beer."

Kitsock can be reached at food@washpost.com.

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