Low Calorie Beer Brewing Recipes at Home

by Brad Smith on March 10, 2016 · 4 comments

beer_friendsWhile some commercial low calorie beers have a poor reputation with many brewers, you can brew your own low calorie beer at home in a wide variety of beer styles. For those of us looking to loose a few pounds or cut down on carbs, low calorie home brewing gives us a chance to be creative, cut down the calories and still enjoy our favorite beers.

Beer Calories

An average 12 oz (1/3 liter) serving of average strength beer contains about 150 calories. A low calorie version might run 65-100 calories, with many brands closer to 100 calories. On a diet you need to consume about 500 calories less than you burn per day to just drop 1 lb (just under 0.5 kg) per week. So while low calorie beer might help, it is probably not going to lead to easy weight loss unless you combine it with a proper diet and exercise.

Calories in finished beer come from two primary sources. The first is the alcohol in the beer itself. Alcohol is a pretty high in calorie content, so beers with a high percentage of alcohol are certainly going to have more calories than lower alcohol beer. Alcohol is roughly 2/3 of the calorie content for an average home brewed beer. Each percent of alcohol by volume (ABV) is roughly 30 calories in a pint (half liter) of beer. The second component is residual starches – consisting primarily of longer sugar chains that did not fully break down and were unfermentable.

BeerSmith has tools built into the recipe system as well as a standalone tool (Tools->Alcohol and Attenuation) that will estimate the number of calories for a beer given its original and final gravity.

Why Low Calorie Beer Tastes Like its Watered Down

I mentioned that low calorie beer has a poor reputation with many brewers. It is perceived as watery, lacking in body and does not have much flavor. The reason for this is that you really can’t reduce the calories without reducing the alcohol content or reducing the residual carbs. The carbs provide body to the beer, so cutting them reduces the flavor. Similarly you can cut alcohol content down but it also provides warmth and balance to the beer, and alcohol comes from fermented sugars so it is tied to the body of the beer.

The net effect of reducing both body and alcohol content is basically the same as watering down the beer. In fact as you lower the alcohol and body of the beer you also need to reduce other flavor additions like hops to maintain proper flavor balance. After you reduced alcohol content, body and bitterness you really come very close to the same effect as watering down the beer.

Further compounding this mess is the fact that many brand name beers are already very light in body and they use a large percentage of adjuncts like corn and rice to provide alcohol but not much in the way of taste. Take that light Pilsner and reduce the alcohol and body even further for a low-cal version and you get a beer with no body and no flavor.

Making Reduced Calorie Beers That Don’t Suck

For all of the reasons listed above, you are wasting your time if you want to brew something like a Bud Light or Miller Light. These are very light beers to start with, and you are better off just buying this stuff off the shelf if that’s what you want.

But lets consider for a moment what beer styles could be good candidates for low-cal beer brewing? Obviously we would like styles with a low starting gravity and low ABV, since alcohol can be 2/3 of the calorie count in many beers. Also you might want a base style that actually has some body and flavor associated with it so you don’t lose all of the flavor as you reduce the alcohol content and body.

Looking at the “Max ABV” for the 2015 BJCP style guide some interesting options come to mind. Some of the lighter alcohol styles include Scottish Light Ales, Berliner Weiss, Ordinary Bitter, English Brown, English Mild and even Dry Irish Stout. These are probably better low calorie alternatives than Pilsner as you have the opportunity to maintain some flavor.

Berliner Weiss, for example, is a low calorie sour beer that derives a lot of its flavor from the lactobacillus bacteria. If you use the method outlined here (and covered in the podcast referred there) you can brew it relatively fast, with a small grain bill and still get a flavorful beer without a high calorie count.

Because the majority of calories come from alcohol, you can also brew low calorie versions of beers like English Bitters, Milds, as well as Scottish Light ales. The trick in this case is to not only slightly lower the original gravity but also use a high temperature when mashing. Mashing at a higher temperature results in more residual starches and a more full bodied beer. This also reduces the fermentability which will leave less alcohol for a given original gravity. Using English Ale yeast which has a low attenuation also results in a higher finished gravity and less alcohol. So if done carefully we can brew a low gravity beer that still has some body and flavor, but not a huge number of calories.

Finally a beer like a Brown or Irish Stout is also a good candidate for low alcohol beer. These beers have substantial body and flavor from the use of dark malts and adjuncts. The classic Guinness has a starting gravity as low as 1.036 for the native version, and lowering it just down to 1.032 gives a beer with an estimated ABV of 3% and calorie count of around 104 calories for 12 oz (1/3 liter). Again we’ll mash in at a higher temperature and use a low attenuation yeast to minimize the alcohol content and maximize the body.

Other Low Calorie Styles?

Certainly the possibilities for low calorie home brewing don’t stop with Irish Stout or Browns. Quite a few continental and American styles can be done in a low calorie version. The trick is to pick a beer style that has some real flavor and body to it to begin with, lower the OG of the beer, mash at a higher temperature to preserve body but reduce alcohol content, and ferment it out with a low attenuation yeast. Along the way you also will need to adjust the hop schedule down to maintain the proper hop/malt balance and also manage your adjuncts and other ingredients.

Those are some of my thoughts for brewing a lower calorie beer. If you have your own tips, leave a note below. Thanks for joining me on the BeerSmith Home Brewing Blog. You can grab a trial version of BeerSmith from BeerSmith.com. Be sure to sign up for my newsletter or my podcast (also on itunes…and youtube…and streaming radio station) for more great tips on homebrewing.



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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Martin Charlton August 13, 2019 at 3:06 pm

Hi. Thanks for this blog which is interesting, but not quite what I was looking for.
I eat a low carb high fat, or ketogenic diet, and can have as many calories as I like.
(If you are interested it’s based on the relationship between blood glucose and insulin, which is the hormone which instructs the fat cells to take in fat. In a low insulin state you can’t lay fat down even if you have excess calories.)
So I’m looking to brew a higher alcohol, low carb beer. Should I just ferment it till it is really dry, and what style would be suitable for this approach?

mark mathis February 25, 2020 at 4:57 pm

I am with Martin. I am looking to take your Irish stout idea, but mash at lower temps and maybe add glucoamylase to end up with higher ABV, but lower carbs. I am hoping the stout might retain more flavor and interest than a pilsner with this approach. Do you have any thoughts about this? If it is tenable, can you suggest an Irish stout recipe to accomplish it?

Sidney Patin December 12, 2020 at 12:47 pm

Thank you for your article about low calorie beer. As a “pre” diabetic (almost diabetic but not over the line yet), I am advised to keep the carbs very low, which probably means low alcohol as well. It is unfortunate because I just love and enjoy good hearty IPA beers of all kinds, but that has to change with this diagnosis. So my question is what recipes can I use to make some good home brew that keeps the carbs down, something that doesn’t taste like watered down beer? Thanks.

Dwain December 18, 2022 at 6:56 pm

Look into Non Ezymatic Mash (NEM). It is supposed to keep the body but reduce the ABV to as little as 1+%.

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