An incredibly-fit friend stopped by my office a few days ago. In recent years, he has discovered the joys of craft beer and truly enjoys the adventure of tasting different styles. Being very health conscious, he controls his weight through biking regularly, along with his regular fitness routine. “I really love the IPAs,” he said, “but I’ve noticed they are higher in calories than many of the other beer styles. Why is that?”
I explained to him that high alcohol beers start out with higher gravities. It is common for these high gravity beers to start-out with double or triple the malt used in beers of lower gravities. The malts provide sugars such as glucose, fructose, and sucrose which are consumed by yeast during fermentation. In the process, the yeast converts these sugars into ethanol and carbon dioxide as metabolic waste products. But that brought up other questions in my mind. Those sugars are removed during fermentation as they are converted into alcohol, so why would high alcohol beers have more calories?
As one who has finally committed to eating healthy and losing weight, I am not looking to sabotage my efforts with high calorie foods. But my love of beer, particularly those seasonal beers that spark up the holiday season, could easily set me on the path to failure. I wanted to know more.
William J. Bailey has a Masters in Public Health at the Indiana Prevention Resource Center. This group is part of the Department of Applied Health Science at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. The center assists prevention practitioners – those who work in alcohol, tobacco and drug awareness – with the improvement of services for their clients. Their vision is “to promote and sustain healthy environments and behaviors across the lifespan.”
Bailey wrote a paper for the center, Factline on Alcohol Doses, Measurements, and Blood Alcohol Levels, presented in common language, rather than in technical jargon that would sink any lay person into hybernation sleep. He explains that the scientific community has developed a Systeme Internationale that requires presentation of this information in terms of grams and millimoles per liter, cloaking this information in secrecy. Bailey, by contrast, just presents the facts.
Have you ever been confused by the difference between alcohol by weight and alcohol by volume? Alcohol weighs less than water. One pint of water weighs 16 ounces, or one pound. By contrast, one pint of pure alcohol weighs about 12.8 ounces. If you fill a container with 1 pint of water and 1 pint of pure alcohol, you have 50% alcohol by volume.
If you decide to weigh it out, one pound of water is about the same weight as 20 ounces of alcohol. That is a total of 36 ounces equaling 50% alcohol by weight. In the USA, the potency of alcohol in beer and wine is measured as alcohol by volume, while that of distilled beverages is measured as proof. Keep in mind that the calories that live within a gram of alcohol may surprise you.
Defining this further for beer, a dose of alcohol is measured by the number of ounces x the ABV. Although grams of alcohol increase with the ABV, the grams of carbs, fat, and protein may be decreasing to make room for the alcohol. It would be easy to trick ourselves into thinking that low carbs equals low calories. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily the case.
Calories per gram of alcohol are nearly double the level as calories per gram of carbohydrates. They are not quite at the level of fat, but close:
1 gram of carbohydrates = 4 calories
1 gram of protein = 4 calories
1 gram of fat = 9 calories
1 gram of alcohol = 7 calories
If you only drink Bud/Miller/Coors/Heineken, it is easy enough to look up calories on any number of websites that focus on beers produced by high volume beermakers. But if you are a connoisseur or fan of craft beer, you find thousands of beers are available. Do you rely on a mobile app that will give you the stats? Consult any number of websites with calorie counters? Check the ABVs at beeradvocate or ratebeer?
If you are a detail hound like I am, you will find wide variability between these numbers. As artisanal breweries come out with new releases for each season, it would be impossible to keep this information updated. It is critical that you devise a method that will deliver a measure of consistency, yet be accurate within reason. Good balance between food calories and Holiday beer calories allows you to enjoy seasonal beer without compromising your health. Although a professional beer analysis is most accurate for measuring residual sugars and calories in beer, this analysis is not available to the average imbiber for most new beers rolling onto the scene.
ABV can vary batch-to-batch, year-to-year. What is reported as 5.4% ABV at BeerAdvocate, may be listed as 5.8% at the brewery website. Last year’s beer may have been 5.4%, but the recipe may have changed, the supplier may have brought in a more robust yeast, or the grain may be more plumped-up that the previous year.
On his website at wordpress, John Lemasney of BeerCritic has devised a clever formula for calculating calories in beer. It is not 100% accurate, but if you use it consistently, it is reasonably close. John has lost over 100 pounds, and is very focused on keeping his weight down.
His calculation uses the following control factor: an average12 ounce beer at 5% alcohol = 150 calories
This is how it works: His calculator uses the number of fluid ounces consumed multiplied by the alcohol by volume. This gives you a potency factor. Since the potency factor of the average beer (noted above) is 60 (12 x 5), you would divide the “calculated” potency factor by 60 (the potency factor of the average beer). This gives you a factor that is either higher or lower than the average beer. Multiply that factor by 150, the calories in an average beer. The calories in your beer will be within about 10 calories of accuracy.
Confused yet? In simple terms, the formula is:
Ounces consumed x ABV = calculated potency factor/60 = potency factor x 150 = calories in your beer
Molson Golden – 12 oz. bottle – 5% ABV:
12 x 5 = 60/60 = 1 x 150 = 150 calories
Guinness Draught – 12 oz. glass – 4.2% ABV:
12 x 4.2 = 50.4/60 = .84 x 150 = 126 calories
Surprised? Although Guinness Draught is a dark beer, it is “lighter” than Molson Golden.
Compare this to:
Leffe Blonde Belgian Pale Ale – 12 oz bottle – 6.6% ABV:
12 x 6.6 = 79.2/60 = 1.32 x 150 = 198 calories
Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout – 12 oz bottle – 9% ABV:
12 x 9 = 108/60 = 1.8 x 150 = 270 calories
In this case, the dark beer is higher in calories.
Chimay Premiere Red – 12 oz. glass – 7% ABV:
12 x 7 = 84/60 = 1.4 x 150 = 210 calories
La Fin du Monde Belgian Tripel – 12 oz glass – 9% ABV:
12 x 9 = 108/60 = 1.8 x 150 = 270 calories
DeuS (Brut Des Flandres) – 12 oz glass – 11.5% ABV:
12 x 11.5 = 138/60 = 2.3 x 150 = 345 calories
In this last example, Chimay Red is a dark beer, La fin du Monde is hazy gold, and DeuS is the color of straw, brilliant as a yellow diamond, and effervescent. Many women, in particular, would not believe that DeuS has a caloric level higher than an assertive Russian Imperial Stout, because research indicates that many women judge a beer by its color. It's important to know the facts.
So beware! When counting calories, ABV matters.