Back in the early ’90s, a rumor began circulating that a pint of hefeweizen, a German-style wheat beer known for its cloudy appearance, contained in excess of 500 calories.
Fearing for the popularity of its flagship Hefe, born in 1986, the staff members at Widmer Brothers Brewing in Portland fought back with fliers, which they printed off and tucked into six packs.
“That kind of stuff gets started pretty easy,” recalled Doug Rehberg, Widmer’s senior director of brewing and quality. He joined Widmer in 1994, at the height of the hefeweizen hysteria. “Every now and then you have to say, ‘Oh, by the way, we want to make sure you guys understand: We love our cloudy hefeweizen, and the calorie count is this. It’s not what you thought it was.’”
That haze comes from a combination of yeast and protein, and it doesn’t add calories to the beer, for the record, Reh-berg said. Today, a 12-ounce bottle of Widmer’s Hefe contains 154 calories.
To be sure, most beer lovers are going to imbibe regardless of calorie content, but increasingly, there is a subset of consumers clamoring to know what’s in their beer.
Large manufacturers are capitalizing on the trend by sharing not only calorie content, but also carbohydrate, protein and fat as well. The Beer Institute, a trade association for the U.S. brewing industry, recently announced all of its members have agreed to voluntarily post that information on their product labels and ingredients on websites by 2020.
That includes some of the country’s largest beer conglomerates, Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors, which already post that information online. Although best known for hallmarks like Budweiser and Coors, those massive operations also include the likes of Blue Moon Brewing Co., Beck’s, Crispin Cider Co., Michelob and Leinenkugel’s, among others.
Bend’s 10 Barrel Brewing Co. is among the breweries that will post calorie and other information on its labels by 2020, although representatives declined to provide that information for this article. Anheuser-Busch bought the brewery in late 2014.
On the other hand, small craft brewers said providing such information would not only be overly burdensome, but unnecessary, since they say none of their loyal drinkers are asking for such information. Most local brewers contacted for this article declined to provide calories and other information about their beers.
Ty Barnett, co-owner and managing partner at GoodLife Brewing in Bend, likens it to restaurants. By Dec. 1, the federal government is making chain restaurants in the U.S. feature nutrition information, including calories, fat, sodium and sugar, directly on their menus. You wouldn’t expect that at, say, a local restaurant like Brother Jon’s, Barnett said.
“The same thing can apply to small, craft breweries,” he said. “Larger breweries like Budweiser and Miller will pursue this to look at gaining market share, where people who drink our beer drink it because they like drinking it, because it tastes good.”
Indeed, the calorie content on a bottle of Coors Light — 102 — or Miller Lite — 96 — pales in comparison to a heartier craft beer, like Obsidian Stout from Bend’s Deschutes Brewery, which rings in at 220 calories.
In general, the rule of thumb is that the higher a beer’s alcohol content, the more calories it will have. Craft brews typically tend to have higher alcohol content than Coors Light or Miller Lite, which both contain 4.2 percent alcohol by volume. Obsidian, by contrast, contains 6.4 percent ABV.
Each gram of alcohol contains seven calories, said Jim White, a Virginia Beach, Virginia, dietitian and spokesman with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Ciders tend to have more calories and sugar, White said. They contain roughly 200 calories and 20 to 30 carbs per serving, White said. A can of Smith and Forge Hard Cider, for example, has 220 calories and 26 carbs.
“I just think people are going to be really shocked by seeing how many calories are in some of their beers,” he said. “I think people don’t really think about it. Once they see they’re drinking an IPA or a stout that has 250 calories, they might be like, ‘Whoa.’”
The federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans defines moderate alcohol consumption as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. A serving of beer is defined as 12 ounces of a 5 percent ABV beer.
“So these beers that are 8 or 9 percent that everyone’s drinking, that’s almost like drinking two beers in one,” White said.
At that point, people who are budgeting their calories might consider cutting their food intake to avoid weight gain, he added.
“Beer does count,” he said. “We have to really consider that when we are having a number of drinks every single week.”
Not only that, White said, a high alcohol intake can negatively affect the body’s fat burning process, harm the liver, cause dehydration, deplete the body’s vitamin stores and lower one’s inhibition around eating unhealthy foods.
The Washington, D.C.-based consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest has long pushed for calorie labels on not only beer, but also wine and liquor. Michael Jacobson, the group’s co-founder and president, praised the Beer Institute’s announcement that its members would put the information directly on labels, since “one out of a million” consumers actually visits the companies’ websites.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which regulates alcohol in the U.S., proposed a measure in 1993 that would have compelled manufacturers to post nutritional information on their products. Only 20 percent of the 55 comments the agency received were supportive of the measure, according to the ATF. Most were submitted by or on behalf of manufacturers. Ultimately, the agency decided posting the information would be “unnecessary and unwarranted.”
CSPI has never supported listing carbs, protein and fat on alcohol, as that might lead people to believe beer is healthy. Most beers are very low in protein and fat.
White said he agrees those listings might not be very useful.
“It’s almost like you see on bread ‘cholesterol free,’ and there is never cholesterol in bread,” he said.
Jacobson said he thinks the Beer Institute should go a step further and have companies post ingredients on labels rather than just on websites. Some people would be surprised to know that beers are allowed to contain preservatives, artificial dyes, foam enhancers and artificial sweeteners, he said. (It’s unclear whether some beers actually do contain such ingredients and, if so, which ones.)
“I think it’s a consumer’s right to know, even if the ingredients are perfectly safe,” Jacobson said. “People just want to know.”
Some ingredients, like dyes, could pose risks, and the artificial sweetener stevia needs more safety research, Jacobson said.
But Rehberg, of Widmer Brothers, said he doesn’t know of any beers that contain dyes; most of the color comes from malt. Fruit can add interesting colors as well. And although some ciders contain preservatives, beers typically do not, he said.
Online ingredient lists show ciders such as Crispin, Johnny Appleseed, Smith and Forge and Strongbow contain sulfites, which are used as preservatives.
In the end, whether or not breweries share nutritional information depends on whether their customers demand it, Rehberg said. More and more, he’s found people do want to know what they’re drinking.
“If they’re not concerned about it, that’s fine, but for those who are, we want to provide it so that they can make informed decisions on what they’re consuming and why,” he said. “It’s just about being as transparent as we can.”