Craft breweries are taking on big beer with great-tasting, less-caloric beers.

By Mike Pomranz
May 15, 2019
From left to right: Harpoon Brewery, Dogfish Head Brewing, Southern Tier Brewing

In a modern beer scene defined by a decade-long explosion of craft breweries, it’s easy to point to trailblazing products like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Samuel Adams Boston Lager, or even contemporary classics like The Alchemist’s Heady Topper as the most game-changing beers ever brewed. But as far as the beer industry as a whole is concerned — especially financially-speaking — the most important development happened back before craft beer was even a glimmer in homebrewers’ eyes. In 1975, Miller Lite made its national debut, introducing the idea of “light beer” to the masses. Today, nearly half (around 45 percent) of all beer consumed in the U.S. is of the light variety: a pretty impressive swing from the zero percent of 44 years ago.

That such a significant sea change could happen again seems unlikely, however, one area where the beer industry is once again growing is — surprise, surprise — even more health conscious beers. One major difference this time around, however, is that craft breweries are able to jump in on the fun. And believe it or not, if you’re looking for a low-calorie lawnmower or beach beer that offers plenty of flavor (and even complexity) some recent craft releases are making the summer of 2019 look particularly exciting.

Late last year, Delaware’s Dogfish Head Brewing introduced Slightly Mighty — a “lo-cal IPA” that arrives with its own stat line: “only 95 calories, 3.6g carbs, 1g protein and 0g fat per 12oz serving.” If this kind of marketing looks familiar, it’s no coincidence: Almost all of these new lo-cal beers — craft or not — are chasing Michelob Ultra (stats: 95 calories, 2.6 carbs). The Anheuser-Busch product which launched in 2002 is one of the few mass-produced American beers that’s actually seeing major sales growth at a time when beer consumption overall is slipping. Though the thought of craft breweries chasing a Michelob product might sound absurd, Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione laid out the logic. “Anheuser-Busch came onto our territory by buying out craft breweries,” he told me. “I think it’s fair we go after them.”

Meanwhile, just like in sports, the stats don’t tell the whole story. Whereas Michelob Ultra is simply a standard light lager, Slightly Mighty works overtime to deliver on taste. Granted, this lo-cal IPA doesn’t come close to the aforementioned Heady Topper, but the addition of monk fruit buoys the beer’s mild tropical notes to make this an enjoyable warm weather sipper.

Even more impressive is the unfortunately-named Swipe Light from New York’s Southern Tier Brewing. Launched in Michelob Ultra-like slim cans in March, this beer may be short-sighted with its Tinder-referencing moniker, but the so-called “refreshing ale” has all the makings of a long-term hit. The calories and the carbs are a touch higher (110 and 6.5 grams respectively), but they translate to bigger taste. Swipe Light drinks with a fruity pop and a solid mouthfeel that isn’t overly fizzy. And the hop complexity really shines for such a supposedly subdued beer: I definitely got a touch of the edginess you’d hope for from Mosaic hops.

Even more on-trend, and equally enjoyable, is Rec. League from Massachusetts’ Harpoon Brewery which takes a kitchen sink of functional innovation and tosses it into a beer you don’t actually need to wrap your head around. Based on the popular hazy IPA style, Harpoon explains that this new 2019 release is “brewed with unique ingredients like buckwheat kasha, which provides important minerals and B vitamins; chia seeds that are high in fiber, Omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants; and Mediterranean sea salt that offers a powerful source of electrolytes.” But my take was far simpler: Judged on its own merits, Rec. League is incredibly enjoyable — a relatively full-flavored, light New England-style pale ale with only 120 calories and a super-sessionable 3.8 percent ABV.

Concurrently, another low-calorie craft trend continues to emerge, not entirely in the Michelob Ultra mold, but also attempting to crossover to more health-conscious drinkers and further appeal to the “thirst-quenching” crowd: craft hard seltzer. One brand in particular really surprised me — in part because it comes from a brewery I associated with awesome beers: Colorado’s Oskar Blues. Their 100-calorie, 5-percent ABV Wild Basin Boozy Sparkling Water left me feeling like I was having an out-of-body experience. I’ve spent decades searching for the world’s best beers, ciders, and wines, and here I was grabbing for another can of Wild Basin because it just tasted really nice on a long walk. The flavors were crisp, the finish was clean, and the alcohol was dangerously undetectable. The refreshing Cucumber Peach variety was the star of the show while the strange Lemon Agave Hibiscus grew on me with every scrutinizing sip.

Related: 10 Refreshing Craft Beers to Drink This Summer

Overall, competing on big beer’s turf is a mostly new phenomenon for craft beer producers. The craft market was forged from exploiting styles and techniques that big brewers had abandoned, leaving the big guys to play catchup by acquiring IPA makers. Though the recent movement the other way may seem counterintuitive, larger craft brewers’ ability to bring their dedication to innovation back to the mainstream is actually proving fruitful for beer lovers. Don’t get me wrong: Lo-cal IPAs are no summer substitute for enjoying the sunshine outdoors at your favorite local brewery taproom. But if you’re looking for lighter options for a day at the beach or after a long cornhole session, the options this year are more flavorful than ever before.

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