Getting the skinny on low calorie beers

This article was first published in issue 38 of Ferment Magazine in April 2019.

The best thing about a workout is the feeling afterwards: the warm glow in your muscles, the sense of achievement, the peace of mind restored. Maybe even that hint of smugness; it would have been so easy to stay on the sofa watching Netflix but instead you got out of the house and put in the work. That deserves a pat on the back. And perhaps a pint before heading home? 

Beer has long had links to exercise. Sometimes the associations have not been great. Rugby tours and their reputation for excessive drinking, for example. But sometimes the relationship can be healthier, promoting the enjoyment of beer as part of an active lifestyle. Mikkeller for instance has 230 chapters of its club across the globe. And beer yoga has tempted fans to taprooms to combine double dry-hopped DIPAs with their downward dogs.

Rise of the ‘sporty’ beers

Lots of us these days care about what we put into our bodies. As we approach 2020, low/no alcohol beers are shaping up to be one of the beer world’s biggest trends. Allied to this is another subcategory: beers for people who like to get up early on a weekend and suffer in some mud. Ultra light, low carb, low calorie beers that are aimed at drinkers living an active, healthy lifestyle — and those who wish they did.

Michelob Ultra is perhaps the best known example. When it was launched in 2002 this beer was initially intended for older drinkers who were following a low-carb Atkins diet, but Anheuser-Busch execs soon found sales coming from an unexpected demographic of 20- to 30-something fitness freaks. By 2004 the company had pivoted its marketing to address these consumers. Now Michelob Ultra is one of the fastest growing beer brands in the USA, perhaps the world.

In its wake, more sporty beer brands have rushed out of the starting blocks trying to capture some of that same momentum.

When Skinny Brands launched its lager in 2018 the company leant heavily into the lifestyle marketing angle, recruiting professional sportsmen (but no women so far) to act as its ‘skinny ambassadors’. The beer is vegan, gluten-free, and low in calories but does all this while retaining an ABV of 4%. On the Skinny Brands insta feed you will find pictures of muddied, post-exercise athletes drinking from bottles and rousing hashtags like ‘earn it’. 

Then there’s Fitbeer, a low-alcohol lager that also promotes a healthy image. Buzzword bingo fans will score here for vegan, folic acid, 100% natural ingredients, isotonic, vitamin B12, and hydrating. The marketing contains allusions to subtle hops balanced with pleasant malts, and a 500-year-old Bavarian brewery thrown in for good measure. (I asked but they wouldn’t tell me which one.)

The problem with a lot of these types of beers, from a Ferment reader’s point of view, is that they often don’t taste very good. In an online survey of people who had tried low calorie beers nearly 60% said they would not seek them out again having tasted them. I tried Michelob Ultra for myself while researching this; it tastes of self-denial and disappointment.

Surely we can do better than that. Where’s the craft beer in all of this? Well thankfully there are a few examples out there that, while not necessarily marketed as sporty beers, still stack up well when you look at their calorific content. I compared about 30 beers for this article, and BrewDog’s Nanny State had the lowest calories per 330ml of the lot. Nirvana’s Karma pale ale and Infinite Session American Pale Ale came close behind. Interestingly, every one of these has significantly fewer calories per 330ml than Fitbeer, Michelob Ultra, or Skinny Lager.

And then there’s Mikkeller, a brewery with real craft beer cred that’s been putting down deep roots in one sport in particular: running. This isn’t just a marketing-driven lifestyle grab. The brewery’s founder Mikkel Borg Bjergsø is a former elite runner and sees the sport as an important part of his brewery’s growing profile. In March this year Mikkeller sponsored the world cross-country running championships in Aarhus. Alongside its involvement in the sport itself, Mikkeller produces a number of low- and no-alcohol beers, some of which are directly associated with its running club. Two examples are Energibajer and Racing Beer — the latter sits between Nirvana and Infinite Session for calories per can.

How the options measure up

BrewDog Nanny State0.5%263.3g0.2
Nirvana Karma pale ale0.5%304.6g0.2
Lucozade Sport Low Cal0.0%336.6g0.0
Mikkeller Racing Beer0.3%338.6g0.1
Infinite Session APA0.5%3610.9g0.2
Mikkeller Energibajer0.0%5312.2g0.0
Heineken 0.00.0%7015.8g0.0
Michelob Ultra3.5%732.0g1.2
Krombacher Low Alcohol0.5%8919.5g0.2
Skinny Lager4.0%893.0g1.3
Lucozade Sport0.09221.5g0.0
* All figures are per 330ml

Beer after the burn

This begs the question: is beer really any good as a post exercise drink? There are signs to suggest some beers can be. Rather than reaching for a bottle of something sugary after exercise, many Germans opt for a nonalcoholic beer instead. Nonalcoholic beer is often marketed as a sports drink in Germany. Heineken 0.0 is sold in gym vending machines, and in 2017 Erdinger distributed its nonalcoholic wheat beer at the finish line of the Berlin Marathon. In 2018 the German Olympic ski team even had 3,500 litres of nonalcoholic beer specially flown in by Krombacher during the PyeongChang winter olympics so that they could enjoy a few frosty ones in the athlete’s village. (It’s worth noting they also had 11,000 litres of regular beer flown over too.)

While the team’s doctor, Johannes Scherr, didn’t actually prescribe this drink to the team, he was pretty chill about his athletes choosing a nonalcoholic beer rather than an isotonic sports drink. In 2009, Scherr had conducted a double blind study to test the impact of nonalcoholic beer on endurance athletes’ recovery. He gave marathon runners a beer every day for three weeks before and two weeks after a race, and found those who received the nonalcoholic beer suffered less inflammation and fewer upper respiratory tract infections after the race than those who had received the placebo. And in 2016 Chilean researchers found that drinking nonalcoholic beer before a game kept football players more hydrated than either regular beer or water. Both of these studies were published in respected, peer reviewed scientific journals.

Examining those health claims

To find out whether these claims were credible, I spoke to Matthew Cole, Senior Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Nutrition at Birmingham City University. He was cautiously optimistic about the results of the two studies, stating there was enough evidence to merit further research. But he pointed out sports drinks might not be as important as the research implies.

“The marketing and the way things are being pushed is that everyone thinks they’ve got to have a sports drink, it’s kind of become the default and the norm,” Cole said. And while it’s true that people do need to rehydrate and replace some salts if they’ve been sweating heavily, there’s no need to do so right away with a dedicated beverage. Water is fine. The rest — salts, carbs, etc. — can be replaced perfectly well from your diet. “Most people who consume sports drinks probably don’t really need to,” Cole said. 

There are of course other reasons to drink beer post exercise. The social side of sport is a huge part of why people engage in exercise. Cole says a pint in the clubhouse bar after an hour’s running session is not going to have any significant impact on your body. “I’d argue it could even be beneficial in some instances. The social benefits of doing that would outweigh the nutritional implications anyway. Particularly if it’s low or moderate intake.”

Keeping it real

Looking at beer for its nutritional value is not the best idea in the first place. Beers like Skinny Lager and Michelob Ultra are certainly no worse for you than other alcoholic beers, and if you want to watch the calories you’re consuming then they can serve a purpose. But to pretend that they’re somehow sportier or healthier than other beers is wrong.

Matthew Curtis sums it up well: “I think it’s great that low cal beer like Mich Ultra exists for those who like to check the calories they’re consuming, but the reality is the majority of beer is highly calorific and it’s unwise to spin beer as a low calorie product for the health conscious.”

These low-carb, moderate-ABV beers fall between two stools. They’re not actually all that low in calories compared to the low-ABV and nonalcoholic beers. Nor are they all that tasty compared to a regular, alcoholic beer. If you’re going to drink after exercise then nonalcoholic beer may be a good choice. Having a low ABV is more important in this respect than low calories, but with nonalcoholic beers you generally get both of these benefits anyway. And as long as you’re drinking in moderation, then enjoying a regular beer is perfectly fine.

It’s important to remember that all of the supposed benefits of a beer after exercise pale into insignificance next to the very real downsides of overconsumption. We know too much beer is bad for us. There can be no arguing against that. We know too that exercise is good for us, even if we’d rather stay under the duvet. So here’s my post-match analysis for you: move around more and enjoy a beer if you like, but don’t have too many and don’t kid yourself that it’s healthy even if it’s marketed that way.

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