Drink Beer, Lose Weight? The Low-Carb Phenomenon
When it comes to spotting trends, I have a secret tool not available to big-time market forecasters. As the editor of All About Beer Magazine and its related website, I answer the random beer questions that web-surfers type into the ether. So, about four years ago, when the most common question from women correspondents switched from “How many calories does a beer contain?” to “How many carbs does a beer contain?” I had forewarning that low carb was going to be big.
Breweries must have noticed the same shift, and it must have scared them. Because, whatever beer has been through its history—all natural, inherently kosher, an invalid’s food, safer than water—it has never been low in carbohydrates.
Over the past two years, the savviest breweries saw that an opportunity existed for new brands to ride on the coattails of a growing trend: an unorthodox, twenty year-old weight-loss regimen that was unexpectedly gaining momentum.
The Low Carb Phenomenon
In 1972, Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution was published, to limited enthusiasm and much professional skepticism. Cardiologist Robert Atkins built his weight-loss program around the premise that carbohydrates, not calories, were the culprits in obesity.
A meal heavy in carbohydrates (starches and sugars) triggers a sudden spike in blood sugar (glucose) in your bloodstream. This, in turn, results in a corresponding spike in the hormone insulin. Insulin’s role is to mobilize the uptake of blood sugar into your cells for energy, with the excess stored as fat. Following the two spikes, blood sugar drops abruptly, leaving you hungry once again for another “fix” of carbohydrates.
Atkin’s idea was that a diet low in carbohydrates would prevent the roller-coaster swings of blood sugar and insulin levels, and force the body to metabolize its stores of fat. In practice, the diet strictly limits carbohydrate intake to 20 grams per day during the early phase: breads, pastas, and any foods prepared with added sugar are strictly off limits, and even many fruits and vegetables are restricted. Controversially, the diet permits fairly large portions of high-fat/high-protein foods.
The medical establishment derided a program that turned conventional nutritional wisdom—which advocated a low-fat/high carb diet—upside down.
Ironically, Robert Atkins died last spring of a head injury, just as his approach to weight control—lifestyle, his adherents would say—was gaining a measure of scientific credibility.
After his death, studies in scientific journals, including The New England Journal of Medicine, reported that subjects on low carbohydrate diets lost weight and—more surprisingly—showed lowered cholesterol levels. Skeptics suggest that the ultimate effect of such a skewed diet is lowered caloric consumption overall and, hence, loss of weight. Supporters maintain that a low carb diet forces the body’s metabolism into ketosis—the process of burning stored fats for energy—which accounts for weight loss.
By now, the public doesn’t care why the diet works. Whether you are following the Atkins diet, or the handful of similar programs—The South Beach Diet, The Carbohydrate Addict’s Diet, The Neanderthin (read “caveman”) Diet—carbs, not calories are the important numbers to count.
And that’s bad news for beer.
Beer, by definition, is a fermented grain beverage. Barley is the grain of choice in the Western European brewing tradition; rice is the basis of Asian beers; sorghum for African beers; corn for native American. We sensation-hungry humans have fermented just about every sugar-rich—that is, carbohydrate-rich—plant material available in our quest for the pleasures of alcohol.
The carbohydrates in grain, the basis of beer, are more complex than the carbohydrates in fruit, the basis of wine. This means that the yeasts that ferment carbohydrates (in the form of sugars) have a slightly harder time converting grain to alcohol than fruit.
As a result, beer has more residual sugars (carbs) left after fermentation than wine, more raw material that the yeast couldn’t turn to alcohol. The good news: beer is a dilute, quenching beverage that delivers a good dose of energy. The bad news: if you’re counting carbs, a serving of beer contains about 12 grams, compared to wine’s four or five and a bracing zero carbs from a measure of distilled spirits. (Since the process of distillation involves the boiling off and collecting of pure alcohol, distilled spirits leave all residual carbs behind, a fact now enthusiastically marketed by the distilled spirits marketing board.)
Suddenly, the term “liquid bread” for beer was not a happy connection.
The Big Guys Respond
Between 24 and 30 million Americans are now eating low carb. The phenomenon has affected every niche of the food industry. There are books galore, special menus at restaurants, websites and chatrooms, new lines in the frozen food department, and an upheaval in the lucrative diet business. In particular, foods that are inherently high in carbs are taking a beating. Bread and pasta producers, formerly the dietary good guys, are scrambling to come out with low-carb varieties, or to mount a defense for the “good” carbs their products contain.
Beer had adapted fairly well to the new, health conscious affect of the American consumer. Light beers—which generally contain two-thirds of the calories of their brewery’s premium brands—moved from market dud to huge success once Miller found a way to make light beer manly (“Tastes great; less filling”). The fitness fad of the eighties and nineties moved them to center stage.
By the new millennium, light beer had already grabbed nearly half the US market, becoming more of a taste preference than a method of systematic calorie control. (Hence the unintended ridiculousness of customers ordering a light beer and a plate of double nachos.) The biggest-selling brand in the United States is Bud Light, and light beers are four out of ten top-selling brands (Information Resources Inc., Nov., 2003).
However, though low in calories, the light beers were still high enough in carbs to put them on the taboo list for low-carb dieters. Some low-carb regimens permit alcohol; others do not, but a handful of breweries determined that—for those dieters who wanted to consume alcohol—there would be a beer alternative.
The first brewing company to act on its hunches and launch a low-carb beer was that giant of marketing expertise, Anheuser-Busch. In 2002, A-B chose its specialty beer division, Michelob, to be the home of a high-end, low-carb beer, Michelob Ultra. In a period of economic uncertainty and market loss for beer, the phenomenal success of Michelob Ultra became the only industry news worth talking about by 2003.
Michelob Ultra achieved about one percent of the total U.S. beer market. To put that into perspective, the entire domestic specialty beer segment amounts to between three and five percent of the market. Ultra’s one percent was huge.
Miller Brewing Company, perpetually behind the curve in recent years, realized too late that their flagship Miller Lite, the first successful light beer, was coincidentally low-ish in carbs. (Light beers are low in calories, but not necessarily low in carbs: see sidebar.) Their initial market response to Ultra’s success sounded whiney, but in recent weeks, Miller Lite’s we-were-low-carb-all-along campaign has paid off in increased sales. Consumers snapped up the old beer for a new reason.
Adolph Coors, the smallest of the Big Three, had the biggest challenge. Coors Light is the company’s best-selling brand; a low-carb Coors beer couldn’t help but cannibalize its big brother. But with A-B and Miller set to gobble the low-carb market in proportion to their overall market shares, Coors couldn’t sit back. So this spring, Aspen Edge will debut in ten states, before a national roll out by the end of 2004. Like it or not, Coors had to play.
The Smaller Players Move In
A few regional brewers have introduced low-carb styles: interestingly, they are almost all from the ranks of the country’s established, or “heritage” breweries: F.X. Matt, Gluek, Latrobe, and Pittsburgh. (Pittsburgh’s IC—Iron City—Light is actually 25 years old, another example of a light beer that fortuitously happened to also be low in carbs.)
“The enthusiasm for this category is just over the top,” said Fred Matt, vice-president of F.X. Matt Brewing Co. of their newly-released Accel. “I think my expectations were higher than was realistic, but now we’re looking at the steady growth that goes with building a new brand.”
F.X. Matt has never had a light beer, so there was no risk of splitting consumers between low cal and low carb choices. “A-B was fortunate to have a separate brand [Michelob] where they could put their low-carb beer,” said Matt. “They’ve really done a very impressive job with Ultra.”
Certainly, Anheuser-Busch has the marketing muscle to support Michelob Ultra, along with the raft of light A-B beers that already have a loyal following.
Carolina Beer and Beverage Co. took another approach and reformulated their low-cal Carolina Light, shaving off the carbs. “We were determined that, if were going to make a low-carb beer, ours would be distinguished by being the lightest of all,” said president John Stritch. At a scant 2 carbs and only 70 calories, Carolina Light indeed holds the record as the lightest light. It may be possible to make lighter beer, but it may not be worth it.
Rolling Rock discontinued Rock Light, its light beer, in favor of Rock Green Light, which is both low carb and low calorie. Rock Green Light has shipped one million cases in less than three months since its launch, a sign of real success.
Even brewpubs have gotten into the act. At Top of the Hill Brewery and Restaurant in Chapel Hill (where my husband is a partner), head brewer John Withey developed a low-carb draft beer to give an alternative for both patrons and brewpub employees who were trying to take off the pounds.
The cheekily-named Kuralt Ultra Low Carb is part of an entire low-carb dining menu. Assistant brewer George Dusek describes it as “alarmingly popular, for the beer that it is.” At 2.7 carbs and around 100 calories, its numbers compete with the larger commercial brands.
Here Come the Imports
It may be that the first low carb beer was DAB’s Diät Pils from Germany, developed many years ago for diabetics, not dieters. Several other traditional German breweries, including Paulaner and Freiberger, brew brands termed “diät,” but only DAB has reached these shores, renamed DAB Low Carb at the behest of American authorities.
Bitburger is another venerable German beer brand that is trying the U.S. market with a light/low carb beer.
A third German beer, however, was developed exclusively for export, Rhinebecker Extra Low Carbohydrate Bräu. Joe Heller, president of Heller Highwater Imports, couldn’t find low carb beer he enjoyed in the U.S., so approached Karlsberg Brewery to create a low-carb beer that conformed to Reinheitsgebot standards.
And the 246 year-old Martens Brewery in Belgium has also been enlisted to brew a low-carb beer solely for Americans. Eric Marvin, of Elite Brands, the importer bringing Martens Low Carbohydrate into this country, describes the beer as being similar to the Martens pilsner. “We feel it will become established as a low carb beer, then stay as a quality import.” says Marvin, “The advantage is that it’s Belgian, and Belgian beer has huge appeal to consumers.”
The Challenge—Carbs, Flavor and Perception
How can a brewer create a beer that is low in carbohydrates? Several methods can be used in combination. First, the brewer may adjust the amounts of grains and other sources of carbohydrates in the initial recipe.
Next, the mashing temperatures are adjusted and the conversion rest extended to make sure as much of the complex carbs as possible are broken down into simple sugars that yeast can convert to alcohol.
Then, the brewer allows sufficient fermentation time, so that the yeast has every opportunity to work. Jim Kuhr, brewmaster at F.X. Matt Brewing Co. uses a “double fermentation—sort of a krausening process,” by which freshly fermenting wort is added to re-start fermentation.
Finally, although many breweries use their house yeast, others use particularly efficient strains of yeast.
The goal is to let the yeast gets to the carbohydrates before you do. Most low-carb beers have an alcohol content comparable to standard, full-carb beers, but with lower calories and very little residual sugar, which makes them relatively thinner in texture, or “mouthfeel.”
Consumer perception is as important as any other variable in the success of a light beer. The public expects a low calorie or low carb beer to be perceptibly “thinner” than the same brewery’s premium beer. For the mainstream breweries, whose non-diet beers are already made lighter with the addition of adjunct grains (corn or rice), it is a challenge to lighten the recipes still further.
“You choose your ingredients based on the color and body you want in the finished product,” says Kuhr. “We use a little caramel malt, otherwise the beer would be practically clear. The barley gives good head retention, but we don’t make an all-malt beer, although I guess you could. It wouldn’t fit with what people expect the drink to be.”
Top of the Hill’s Withey has more latitude in his low-carb beer. Operating at a brewpub where his usual rotation includes some very assertive beers, Withey can offer a low-carb beer made with all barley and only a slight addition of sugar to boost fermentation. It’s all relative.
Overall, it is unlikely that low-carb beers will recruit more consumers to beer drinking, so the question is, which sector of the current beer world will see market share cannibalized by the low-carb newcomers?
The most likely converts to the ranks of low-carb are those already drinking light beer. In that case, light brands: beware. Other who may switch to low carb brews are likely to be premium beer drinkers who opt for a low carb diet for a limited period of time.
Are we likely to see fans of specialty beer drawn to this new beverage? That seems unlikely. Bob Skilnik, a beer historian who shed 75 pounds on a low carb diet, managed to find a way to include a small amount of his favorite, full-flavored beers into the latter stages of a successful weight loss program, which he described in his book Drink Beer, Lose Weight.
It seems probable that specialty beer connoisseurs will do the math and conclude that one Sierra Nevada and a ripe peach will be a more satisfying way to use up a day’s carb allotment than several low-carb brews.
Beyond personal dieting decisions, for brewers and drinkers of specialty beer, any development in the beer world of the magnitude of low carb beer is worth cautious attention—what will happen to shelf space if there is a proliferation of new brands? Will tap handles be lost? It would be a pity if low carb beer on draft supplanted a full-flavored, full carb product. We’ll keep watching.
One thing is worth mentioning in all the hubbub about diet, health and weight loss. Beer lovers shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that beer—unadulterated, full-strength, full-carb beer—is a healthful beverage, low in calories and high in essential nutrients. It has a good dose of carbohydrates—that used to be its virtue—but it can still be incorporated into any healthy diet. Let’s not let the rush to deliver new, lighter beer products cast the original beverage as the bad guy. Beer, in its full-strength form, is a good guy.
Julie Johnson Bradford is the editor of All About Beer magazine. She anticipated the low-carb trend, but spectacularly failed to make any money off it.