The Lite Beer Blight—Make Your Own!
New York’s Rheingold Brewery produced the first light beer, Gablinger’s Diet Beer, in 1967, but it was a failure (didn’t sell). It had an original gravity* of 9 degrees Plato (1036 British), 4.6 percent ABV (alcohol by volume), but with almost no dextrin sugars at all (0.1 percent), which are what gives beer its flavor. Dextrins make their major contribution by increasing the good taste of beer itself. Gablinger’s had 107 calories per 12-oz bottle, almost all of them (93) from alcohol. By comparison, Budweiser (itself not particularly taste-enhanced) is a normal beer (about 150 calories) with that same alcohol content, but with 3.8 percent dextrins and it is much more flavorful and satisfying.
The first successful light beer was an offshoot of Meister Brau Lite out of Chicago, also unsuccessful in 1967, but which Miller bought, then somewhat reformulated and introduced as Miller Lite in 1972. The rest, as they say, is history.
In my research, one of the most interesting aspects of light beer turned out to be the reaction of one brewer out of that era. Joe Ortlieb, Ortlieb Brewing of Philadelphia, offered a recipe for Do-it-Yourself Light Beer Kit using his beer as a base:
Contents: One case Ortlieb Beer plus Ortlieb’s Sparkling Water.
Directions: Take glass pour 2 parts Ortlieb Beer, 1 part Ortlieb Sparkling Water. Stir gently. Drink immediately.
Joe’s comment was, “that’s all it takes to brew your own light beer.” Another time Ortlieb told people how to make light beer with an even simpler recipe: just add ice cubes to his beer!
Alternatively, the reader may wish to try the Fred Eckhardt Lite Beer method, which is simply to consume the water separately before, or even after, you drink the beer, thus avoiding having to drink such swill in the first place! Fred Lite gives you all of the benefits of light beer and none of the negatives. You get the full, rich taste of your favorite craft brew and, better yet, you feel fuller and hence, have less inclination to overindulge. Adding the water early is nice because it gives you the full feeling of drinking without altering the great aftertaste of a really fine brew. If only our president understood that, he could have revolutionized beer drinking in his 2009 so-called “Beer Summit.”
The Truth About “Light/Lite” Beer
Let me briefly summarize the brewing science involved in the production of light beer.
If one requires fewer calories, one can simply add water to the end product before bottling it (or even before consuming it, as suggested earlier for brewing Fred Lite in one’s own inner brewery). This appears to be what Anheuser-Busch did to produce Michelob Light—they probably added 20 percent water!
Or, one can adjust the original ingredients of the beer. According to a Schwartz lab report in 1954*, “97.2 percent of the calories from the fermented wort are retained in the beer … the calorie value of beer should be closely related to the calorie value of the original wort.”
Therefore, if the brewer desires reduced carbohydrates and a relatively normal alcohol level, she must produce a wort that has a greater degree of fermentability than is normal for beer, that is, by encouraging most of the carbohydrates to be converted to alcohol, leaving few, if any, dextrins (unfermentable carbohydrates) remaining in the beer.
Dextrins are the natural product of the enzyme action needed to produce fermentable sugars in beer wort during the mashing process. To reduce the levels of dextrins, one can use an enzyme other than what is natural to the beer-making process: something like amyloglucosidase, a fungal enzyme that will convert dextrin to fermentable sugars. This requires careful brewing techniques that are closely supervised to avoid infections.
Just for the fun of it, let us take a close look at where the calories in beer actually originate. Each gram of alcohol contributes 7.1 calories. For example, take a standard pale ale at 5 percent ABV. Since another measure, alcohol by weight, is easier to work out with our figures in this case, translate ABV to ABW (ABV x 0.796 = ABW; 5 x 0.796 = 3.98 percent ABW—call it 4 percent). Thus a 12-oz bottle (355-ml for calculation ease) gives us 4 percent of 355 ml, or 14.2 g of alcohol. Multiply by 7.1 calories per gram and this equals 100 calories derived from alcohol.
But wait! There are other calories in that bottle, in the form of carbohydrates that didn’t ferment into alcohol. We can estimate that the original gravity of the wort for a beer of this style would be about 12.5 degrees Plato (1050 British), a good approximation of the beer’s actual original gravity. (These calculations are possible using standard published tables, including those from Balling’s 19th century calculations.)
To continue our speculation, we can assume that our terminal gravity—to have produced that 4 percent alcohol content after fermentation—would have been about 42 percent of that figure. Forty-two percent of 12.5 (the original gravity) would give us a terminal gravity that would yield about 5.25 percent unfermentables.
That in turn would give us a guess at the terminal gravity: i.e., about specific gravity 1.0283 or 7.1 degrees Plato, from which we can conclude that there are about 7.1 percent remaining unfermentables in the beer—that would be our carbohydrate content. Thus 7.1 times 4 gives us 28.4 calories from that source. Total so far, (100 + 28.4) about 128 calories. And we also know that there is about one gram of unfermentable protein remaining in the beer, yielding another four calories: Total 132 calories. Not particularly accurate, but a fairly close approximation nevertheless.
Now in Fred Lite, we’re drinking equal parts water and good beer in alternation, so there are now 66 total calories per 12 ounces consumed, which is actually lower than most light beers, which come in around 90 or so total. So we’re right on target in Fred Lite. Still too many calories? Just add more water before or after the fact. Fred Lite will improve your life because it also helps control your alcohol intake, whilst still enjoying the good taste. And the extra water inside you is good for your system.
Why Do We Drink?
Colin Dexter’s hero, Inspector Morse in the PBS series by the same name, put the whole thing in perspective when he said, “Light beer is the invention of the Dark Prince.” Light beer gives us alcohol but little flavor.
Do we drink only to get drunk? If so I recommend Everclear at 95 percent alcohol. A couple of glasses should do the trick. But if we have some other reason to drink (taste? enjoyment? conversation?) then beer, ale, sake and even wine are my choices. All have taste to enhance one’s enjoyment and generate conversation.
We really do need a lighter beer, one with about 3.5 percent ABV (or less) to drink over a two- or three-hour period and preferably one with flavor. Color might be welcome, too. The now defunct Grant’s Brewery once brewed Celtic Ale, just such a beer. In the British style known as “mild,” it had only 99 calories, in deference to those who fear they’d drink themselves into obesity. The alcohol content was 3.4 percent ABV. It had good color at 25 SRM, but it was also very flavorful with 3.95 percent dextrin!
The brewery no longer exists, and this wonderful beer didn’t sell because Americans are simply not interested in a beer type called mild. Moreover, American ale drinkers definitely go for the alcohol. Pity, that. Of my friends who drink “light” beer, most consume it by the six-pack while watching football on TV. Not much weight control there. Let me suggest that if weight control is a problem, drink less, but drink better. Self-brew your own Fred Lite!
*Original gravity measures the amount of fermentable and unfermentable materials dissolved in wort (the sweet liquid that will become beer) before fermentation.
**Earl Stewart, Schwartz Laboratory, in the now defunct American Brewer, April 1954.
Fred Eckhardt lives in Beervana, Portland, OR, a city with 35 or so breweries and brewpubs inside the city limits. He’s sure that none of them brew light beer.