Your perfect beer is the perfect blend of barley, hops, yeast and water. A light beer is the result of compromise.
Anheuser-Busch InBev is betting American beer drinkers will compromise and make Bud Light Next, a zero-carb beer, a winner. Interestingly, it still has a lot of calories. The premise of this bet is that a segment of beer consumers want to reduce calorie intake by reducing carbohydrates. At 4% alcohol (ABV) the effort is a little confusing. After 130 iterations and a decade, Anheuser-Busch believes it has reached the Holy Grail by reducing carbs in its new beer.
“Bud Light Next is the next generation of light beer for the next generation of beer drinkers,” said Andy Goeler, Vice President of Marketing for Bud Light. The question is, are consumers focused only on low carb or low calorie, regardless of calorie source? Low to no carbs is only part of achieving a low calorie goal.
The motivation to consume beer in the “light” (low carbohydrate) or “non-alcoholic” category is mainly driven by diet issues. No matter what we consume, weight control is a function of alcohol, carbohydrates and calories from sweets/cheeses/deli meats etc. Carbohydrates and alcohol make up most of the calories in beer. For example, the Weight Watchers approach to weight control is to limit calories and the Atkins Diet approach is to specifically limit carbohydrates. Take your pick, it’s either starches, sugars or alcohol.
“Consumers today have low calorie and low carb product options, that’s another entry to having something that goes all the way down to zero carbs,” Goeler said. “It’s a big consumer trend that we see in many consumer industries.” According to Calories.info, “An alcoholic beverage made from fermented grains, beer contains calories from both alcohol and carbohydrates.”
Sources of starch/carbohydrates are attributed to bread, potatoes, rice, barley, fruit and pasta; barely specifically, when fermented, converts starch into sugars for yeast to make alcohol. Foods like peanut butter, candies, cheese, processed meats, fats and raw sugar are high in calories.
Trying to keep it simple, think of it this way: “Carbohydrates generally refer to foods high in starch or sugar. Carbohydrates always contain calories (4 per gram), but calories do not necessarily indicate carbohydrates”, as stated in the article “Calories”. against carbs.” Diffen.com. Diffen LLC.
But is the beer market becoming too segmented? Selecting a beer based on carbs, calories, or alcohol can be tricky because the calories in beer are influenced by a myriad of factors such as style. And style dictates the carbs, sugars, alcohol, and protein in the beers. All this makes a beer with great taste and aromas. Note: Residual sugars in beer after fermentation can be around 75%.
The lowest calorie beer so far was Bud Select 55 with fifty-five calories, 2.5% ABV and 1.9 carbs. (At 1.9g, that amount brings about seven calories to the beer.) So why did Anheuser-Busch go all out with another beer that’s high in alcohol, calories, and protein, but carb free ? It appears the decision was based on marketing issues.
Leaf Nutrisystem conducted a survey asking beer consumers what they look for in a beer. Taste (85%) was well ahead of price and style considerations when it came to choosing a beer. Obviously, style dictates taste. The three components of beer style that impact taste/flavor are: grain/malting, hops and yeast. This calls for questions and comments:
If consumers care about the taste of beer and grains impact taste just like hops, then why would Anheuser-Busch dive headlong into the “no” carb category? Grain is the big contributor to taste through the malted grain. If grains are a major consideration in the carbs and flavor profile of beers, why drastically mess with the grain bill (the main contributor to carbs) and not have a drastic impact on the calories?
Reducing the carbs will reduce the calories in a beer. However, one gram of carbs adds four calories to a beer, and one gram of alcohol translates to 6.9 calories. If a person is striving to consume fewer calories in their beer, while prioritizing taste/mouthfeel, it seems the only course of action is to “compromise” a recipe to juggle calories via carbs and the alcohol.
Wade Souza, a former beverage manager, comments in Quora why light beers get bad press. “Generally speaking, these light beers lack fully developed craft beer flavors and have a weak, weak taste. The use of rice and other dilutive additives in the brewing process lighten the calorie content, reduce body and alcohol but also flavor. the beers are very lightly hopped so that they are not bitter or crispy, which can add complexity to a low-calorie beer”.
If most people are only interested in the calories in their beer and not the flavors and aromas, it must be a matter of diet. Calories in beer are derived by determining calories in carbohydrates (primarily derived from sugars released from the grain during the brewing process) and calculated calories in alcohol (based on ABV). Then add them up and you have your number of calories in beer. You can only get grain alcohol when it is converted into mash and fermented using yeast. Carbohydrates are the supply of sugar to the body and reducing carbohydrates will make beer with less sugar and alcohol, so a light beer.
Wort is the result of extracting sugars from grain/barley. Not all the sugars in the wort are consumed by the yeast. What remains are carbohydrates. This event adds to the flavor and style of the beer, whether it is light ale or regular beer.
The calculation of calories in carbohydrates and in alcohol begins with the reading of the original gravity of the must and the reading of the final gravity at the end of fermentation. From this point, a formula is used to arrive at the total number of calories. Even simpler, a computer program can be used to get calories from carbs and alcohol/ABV. Nothing here involves magic or algorithms, just simple math here.
The following illustrates how manipulation of a beer recipe can influence the trade-off between calories, alcohol, and carbohydrates. I have selected two examples of light beer brands to compare to Bud Next. Note the compromises made for each style.
Becks Premier Lamp
Slightly Powerful Dogfish Head
Bud Light Next release in 2022
According to Nielsen, the beer industry grew by 8.6% in 2020, representing $40 billion in revenue. The “light” category recorded $10.6 billion in revenue with growth of 5%. This is important as the wine industry tries to adapt to changes by making “lighter” wine. Obviously, their focus is on alcohol content while preserving flavors and aromas.
Travis Moore-Brewmaster, Anheuser-Busch comments on light beer in an article by Mike Pomranz on Food & Wine: “Light lagers are definitely hard to make with a consistent, repeatable flavor profile.” (Note here that the emphasis is on flavor.) Moore continues. “All of the beers we brew have a rigorous quality control routine in place to consistently craft high quality beers in a repeatable manner…but Light American Lagers can be extremely unforgiving due to their lighter body and more subtle flavor profiles.”
There is no doubt that light beers have their place in the beer market. Light and non-alcoholic beers are here to stay judging by the large number of entrants in the category. In fact, many craft brewers are stepping up their offerings. Effort is a delicate compromise between calories, alcohol, carbohydrates and flavors. Even non-alcoholic entrants are gaining ground. The winners will be those who deliver closest to being described as full-bodied. Selections based primarily on carbohydrate and alcohol content may not be sufficient motivation to become loyal consumers.
There is a place for light beer with consumers buying for specific occasions. But the selected light beer is measured against a benchmark craft beer for body, mouthfeel, flavors, aromas and alcohol.