For years people have feared the effects of beer on their waist line, and this fear even lead to the creation of one of beer’s most sinister abominations: the American Light Lager.
But the fight against the beer belly can be best fought with knowledge, and knowing how many calories are in the craft beer you drink is the first step in winning that battle!
The issue of the caloric content of beer is a tricky one, and I’m amazed at just how much resistance there is to even discussing the issue. Based on comments to the few articles that we’ve found that dare tackle the subject there seems to still be a prevailing idea that beer is for men and only women count calories. This is sexist and insulting, and even if you’re not a “calorie counter” wouldn’t you like to know generally how much you are consuming? Until the calorie content of beer is required to be on the label (like just about every other food we consume in this country) it will always be a bit of a guessing game.
Beer is deceptively high in calories, and while I would very rarely sit down to a king-sized snickers bar (about 450 calories) in an evening I’m quite happy to toss back a couple IPAs. However, a mid-alcohol IPA, say the 6.8% Sierra Nevada Celebration, has over 200 calories in a 12 ounce bottle. Suddenly those pints of Stone Ruination at happy-hour a few weeks ago don’t sound like such a great idea.
Here’s a graphic showing a variety of beers and some indulgent snacks that are about equal in calories:
There are two reasons for beer’s caloric content. Alcohol is, of course, the major contributor to calories in beer, and every gram of alcohol present contributes about 7 calories. The other factor is the carbohydrates present in beer due to sugars left-over from the fermentation process.
Without going into the details of fermentation science, when yeast eats the sugar that was extracted from the grains in the brewing process it doesn’t eat ALL the sugar. These residual sugars provide the beer’s body and sweetness that is so important to balance the bitter hops. Naturally, beers with more residual sugars present also have more calories than drier beers of the same ABV.
Working Out the Numbers
Here’s the equation for calculating a beer’s calories that takes into account (source):
(5) cal per 12 oz beer = [(6.9 × ABW) + 4.0 × (RE – 0.1)] × FG × 3.55
The first item in brackets gives the caloric contribution of ethanol, which is determined from the ABW and the known value of 6.9 cal/g of ethanol. The second item in brackets gives the caloric contribution of carbohydrates, which is determined from the RE and the known value of 4.0 cal/g for carbohydrates. An empirically-derived constant (0.1) accounts for the ash portion of the extract. Together, these terms give the calories per 100 g beer. This is easily converted to calories per 100 ml beer by accounting for the final gravity (FG, in (g beer)/(ml beer)). In turn, 100 ml is converted to 12 oz by a scalar (3.55, in (100ml/12 oz)).
To get an accurate figure you need to know how much sugar was present in the unfermented beer (original gravity or OG) and how much sugar is left in the beer after it’s fermented (final gravity or FG), and very few brewers provide this detailed information. This is one reason why it’s tough to get an accurate picture of just how many calories are in a craft beer: without knowing the beer’s final gravity you can only estimate a beer’s caloric content.
However, you can ball-park the calorie count if you know the ABV.
The residual sugars in a beer can provide up to about 1/3 of the calories in a beer, but the difference between two brews with the same ABV, one with a very high final gravity and one that is more fully attenuated isn’t that significant. For example, a traditionally dry, highly-attenuated style, such as a saison, might have a FG of around 1.010 whereas a sweet stout could finish at 1.020 (and imperial stouts can climb past 1.040). In the saison vs stout example let’s say that both beers are around 7%ABV; this would mean the saison would contain about 17 calories/ounce where the stout would contain around 20 calories/ounce.
A difference in 15% doesn’t seem like it’s large enough to warrant much fretting, especially if you’re just after a general idea of how much time you’ll have to spend on the treadmill to burn off last night’s cerveza.
Breaking it All Down
You can certainly get more accurate figures with the above equation, but I find these estimates are accurate enough for my day-to-day tracking. In fact, I’ve taken to further simplifying my estimate of calories/ounce by simply multiplying the ABV of the beer by 2.5. You can use 3.0 times the ABV for heavier/sweeter beers, but why complicate the ballpark figure any more than you have to? The easier you make it on yourself to figure this out, the more often you’ll actually do that calculation.
Here’s a handy chart that breaks down an approximate calorie content for a range of ABV and serving sizes:
Making the Numbers Work for You
So what does this mean for staying healthy and still drinking beers? Obviously, as it is for just about everything else, moderation is the key. All but the lightest session brews have more calories per-ounce than soda, and they can add up quickly. Take a recent Saturday that involved a hefeweizen with brunch, a pils on the patio in the afternoon, a couple of pints with dinner, and a bomber of an imperial IPA while watching movies Saturday evening. Add up all the brews for the day and I had over 1500 calories (two-thirds of my daily target – and that doesn’t even count the huevos rancheros from brunch and the burger from dinner), and I hardly even caught a buzz!
The point of all of this is simply to be mindful of what, and how much, you are putting into your body. If you work-out four days per week, burning a couple thousand calories in the process, but then you drink 15 or 20 pints in a week, then you’re still in the hole by a couple thousand calories.
If you’re interested in losing weight we have an upcoming post with some more detailed tips on how to still enjoy craft beer without getting off-track on your fitness goals. Until then, I highly recommend ignoring the silly stigma attached to counting calories and starting to really keep track of everything that you eat (and drink). Just the act of recording this information, and seeing the running tally climb throughout the day was extremely helpful in my own (on-going) struggle against the dreaded beer belly.
Are you conscious of the calories in the craft beer you drink, or do you think that ignorance is bliss in this case?