Drinking Beer in a Post-Beer-Belly World

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 37, Issue 1
March 1, 2016 By Bryan Roth

Neal Coffey is a man of habit.

He doesn’t eat breakfast—never has. For lunch, he’ll find a local fast-food restaurant for a 6-inch sub or a salad with lean protein. For dinner, he likes to grill year-round, preparing meals like kielbasa with grilled squash and corn on the cob or steak fajitas.

It’s part of a daily march toward a calculated amount of 1,400 calories, with each choice logged into his MyFitnessPal app. If he’s been meticulous enough, charting his daily meals to hit just the right number, he’ll work in a treat at the end of his day: a beer or two.

He likes pale ales and wit beers, but finds it hard to turn down an English barley wine or stout like Oskar Blues’ Ten Fidy. “Styles that are very rich and high in alcohol are attractive to me,” he admits.

Which can be problematic for a guy counting calories, especially when his favorite stout has an estimated 315 per 12-ounce can.

“There was a time when I pushed up over 250 pounds, and I’m 5-9, so it’s not appropriate for my height at all,” says Coffey, a Point Pleasant, New Jersey, resident who weighed 215 pounds at the end of September with a goal of dropping about a pound a week. “I literally felt like my body was physically dragging me down.”

But Coffey, like a growing number of health-conscious drinkers, didn’t want to give up his passion for beer to meet his weight-loss goal, which is to ultimately get to 160 pounds, a “healthy” weight for his height, he notes. Contrary to a stereotype once widely held for the prototypical brewer or beer lover, members of the beer community are no longer sedentary, pot-bellied or indifferent to their physical well-being. They are not Norm Peterson from “Cheers” or Barney Gumble from “The Simpsons.”

“I ended up getting fat because I didn’t pay attention to what I was taking in,” Coffey says. “It hit a head because it wasn’t just a number. I stopped feeling comfortable in my own body and wanted to do something about it without giving up a passion.”

He’s not alone in that thought. Increasingly, drinkers are running, practicing yoga or tracking caloric intake to make sure a love of beer doesn’t mean a bloated waistline and time lost filling their lives up with passions, just like their pint glass.

Ska Brewing Yoga Classes
Employees at Ska Brewing Co. participate in free, weekly yoga classes at the brewery. (Photo courtesy Ska Brewing Co.)

Burning Calories

“It’s the yin and yang of life,” says Adam Avery, president and brewmaster at Avery Brewing Co. in Boulder, Colorado. “As you get older, you find reasons to do the things you love, and with beer, it’s about calories in, calories out. You need to burn those calories so you can live a fun lifestyle.”

At 49, Avery is very aware of what that means for him. At just over 6 feet tall and 205 pounds, the bicyclist and rock climber tailors his weekly schedule to match his beer intake, especially since he actively tries to avoid hitting a cap of 215 pounds, which can creep up on him in the lull of winter. Luckily, he’s surrounded by inspiration. Among his brewery staff, he counts employees who are marathon runners, Ultimate Frisbee champions, ice climbers and bicyclists.

Tour De BoulDurango Day 3
Staff from Ska Brewing Co., Avery Brewing Co. and other breweries ride in the Tour De BoulDurango, an annual 426-mile bike ride. (Photo by Darin McGregor)

To battle his own bulge, Avery tries to rock climb outdoors or at the gym three or four days a week and rides a minimum of 30 miles on his road bike each time he puts on his spandex cycling outfit. He never drinks on Fridays so he’ll have a clear mind and prepared body for a weekend of working out.

“After a stressful day, it’s so easy to walk over to your bar and get shit-faced,” Avery says. “But a couple beers can turn into more when your employees show up, and you can get sucked in real easy to down those calories.”

It’s something that can’t be ignored, says Dr. Rosalind Breslow, an epidemiologist in the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s Division of Epidemiology and Prevention Research, who has studied connections between alcohol intake and weight gain. In a 2013 report published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Breslow found that drinkers generally have poorer diets on days of alcohol intake. As the “least satiating macronutrient,” alcohol’s calories aren’t recognized by the body and simply add up along with extra food consumed around drinking sessions. In men, days of drinking added about 430 extra calories, and women saw an increase of about 230.

Most notably, men ate significantly more meat, potatoes and fat, “which sounds suspiciously to me like it could be burgers and fries,” Breslow says.

“The lesson here is to think before you drink because you’ll think before you eat,” Breslow says. “Poor food choices on days you drink can contribute to longer-term health problems.”

So what’s the best approach when it comes to pairing beer with a healthy routine? For Lauren Grace Updyke, a certified personal trainer through the American College of Sports Medicine, it’s an easy math equation.

“One way to think about it is roughly for every mile you exercise, you can burn about 100 calories,” Updyke says. “If you were to run 4 miles, you burn 400 calories, and that would allow you to have two beers.”

Another approach Updyke recommends to her clients is her “Monday to Thursday rule,” which focuses on exercise and diet during those four days of the week without alcohol intake. Over the weekend, practitioners can have at it—in moderation, of course.

“It demonstrates balance,” she says. “Best of all, it’s perfect because the exercise and beer communities are so social, they go hand-in-hand.”

Which may help to explain why exercise groups have quickly become so common at breweries and bars across the country. Once confined to roads, sidewalks and tree-lined dirt paths, sweaty runners decked out in spandex and polyester shorts have become as ubiquitous in America’s taprooms as the India pale ale.

Running for Beer

An activity that was first popularized in 1938 by the international beer and running group Hash House Harriers has spread all over, including to a club in Philadelphia known as the Fishtown Beer Runners. Started in November 2007 by friends David April and Eric Fiedler, the club averages about 125 runners a week rain or shine throughout the year, gathering in the city’s Fishtown and South Philadelphia neighborhoods, which sit along the Delaware River. After separate groups break up to run 3 to 5 miles, all participants reconvene at a local bar or brewery to raise a glass to their effort and a shared source of inspiration: Manuel Castillo, a professor at Spain’s University of Granada School of Medicine.

The Fishtown Beer Runners
The Fishtown Beer Runners gather weekly in Philadelphia to run 3 to 5 miles and drink beer. (Photo by Douglas M. Bovitt)

In 2007, Castillo presented findings that consuming beer in moderation after exercise wouldn’t have negative impacts. After April and Fiedler chatted about the research one day, it became clear Fishtown Beer Runners found their credo. Now they thank “The Professor” after every run by hoisting their pint and have even traveled to Spain to meet their muse.

“We’re runners first, but as beer enthusiasts, I felt we could easily combine these things,” says April, who started running in 2007 to train for his first 5K and has since run 11 marathons. “It was something that made running a little more enjoyable and was so much fun, I wanted to share it with the world.”

The key to the group’s success, April says, was the connection people make between physical exertion and beer. Just like he might yearn for a beer after a tiring day of yard work, he saw a natural finish line after running a few miles: a bar or taproom.

“I wanted to be somebody that promotes the idea that beer is part of a healthy diet and lifestyle,” he says. “People come to our club all the time expecting big frat guys drinking beer, but instead they get a lot of courteous, healthy young professionals focusing on the social aspect of what we do.”

But April’s running friends aren’t the only ones to believe it. In 2015, Mikkeller started a series of running clubs in the brewery’s home of Denmark and all around the world, with groups popping up in Bulgaria, Japan, England, the U.S. and more. 

‘Social, Active and Healthy’

The cross section of beer and activity has been building for years with one of the fastest-growing beer brands in the country and the start of an otherwise slumping portfolio of beers by Anheuser-Busch InBev.

In the five years from the start of 2010 to the end of 2014, Michelob Ultra—the beer whose 2.6 grams of carbohydrates and 95 calories per 12-ounce serving influences its slogan as the “superior light beer”—grew by just over 1 million barrels. The 27.9 percent boost in production during that time had Ultra with 4.45 million barrels at the end of 2014 and no signs of stopping. Through the first eight months of 2015, volume was up 17.6 percent over 2014, according to market research company IRI.

“Historically, Michelob Ultra sponsorship focused on professional athletes and pro sports, but we learned recently that drinkers don’t think of working out in order to win championships; they want to work out to be social, active and healthy,” says Edison Yu, vice president marketing, value & premium light brands at Anheuser-Busch InBev. “Today’s drinker cares about well-being, which has been an overarching trend in the U.S.”

This fall, Ultra doubled down on that belief, partnering with the American Hiking Society to create the “Superior Trails” program, which provided two $25,000 grants to improve, maintain and protect trails at state and national parks across the country. Voted on by the public, the effort provided an opportunity to promote a lifestyle with growing popularity among beer lovers.

“It’s better for the public and the environment, but also because of where attitudes now stand for health,” Yu says.

Balancing Act

Of course, that feeling extends from consumers to brewers, too. Like his Colorado counterpart Adam Avery, Ska Brewing Co.’s co-founder and president Dave Thibodeau puts great emphasis on his own health, which has been punctuated over the years by snowboarding injuries and aches and pains brought on by hauling kegs throughout the brewery’s hometown of Durango and its surrounding area. After he needed two vertebrae in his lower spine fused in 2007—two others naturally fused in recent years, too—Thibodeau knew he had to change the outlook on his fitness for long-term health, but he wanted to encourage others.

That meant cutting down an average night of drinking to one beer or two and weekly runs with his wife and Ska’s head brewer, Thomas Larsen. He’s encouraging his other employees to get in the act, too.

Ska hosts free weekly yoga sessions for both staff and customers, and Thibodeau will cover entry fees for employees to participate in running and biking races. He’s even crafting an employee wellness program that will include discounted memberships at local gyms and help paying for shoes or bikes to get staff moving.

“If you’re almost going to be drinking beer as a living, you have got to balance it out,” says Thibodeau, 47, who’s eaten a vegetarian diet for almost 30 years. “It’s important to put some thought about what we put into our body because it’s our responsibility to always be doing the best thing long term.”

In 2009, Thibodeau and Avery put that to the ultimate test, creating a five-day, 426-mile bike ride known as the Tour De BoulDurango.

Tour De BoulDurango
Adam Avery (far left) of Avery Brewing Co. and Dave Thibodeau (third from left) of Ska Brewing Co. created the Tour De BoulDurango in 2009. (Photo by Darin McGregor)

A cooperative effort with brewers and owners from four other Colorado breweries, the event became an annual tradition to celebrate beer, camaraderie and, of course, wellness. Bikers would have to be in good shape to handle the event, which includes rides of more than 100 miles on some days and hitting elevated peaks of about 12,000 feet.

Thibodeau says the effort reflects one of the more important issues today facing beer lovers, who are more conscious about what they eat, drink and do to maintain healthy lifestyles. Twenty years ago, Thibodeau saw people solely focused on enjoying beer. Now he sees that interest crossing over into all other aspects of life.

“The consumer has evolved over the past 10 years, because they definitely weren’t thinking about all this when we started,” he says. “Healthy people are happy people, and there are a lot of happy consumers these days.”  

Budweiser Select 55

ABV: 2.4%
Tasting Notes: With a thick, thick, creamy, marble head, propped up by a slightly amber, clean liquid, the nose is vaguely herbaceous, like fresh hay. Carbonation dominates the mouthfeel, and the flavor has a suggestion of orange, with bright tanginess lingering. –Daniel Bradford

Miller 64

ABV: 2.8%
Tasting Notes: With an initial aroma of mown grass, this is a bright, light golden beer with robust carbonation. A tight head dissipates quickly. The lager finishes with a subtle doughlike flavor lurking in the background and an overall sparkle. –DB

Dr. Jekyll's Bio Beer

ABV: 6.5%
Tasting Notes: It’s a one-note IPA in a different kind of way. Blue spruce, not the natural kind, but the aroma found on air fresheners and sprays, dominates throughout the whole experience. It’s not unpleasant, and in many ways helps mask some of the metallic and medicinal undertones present. Hazy orange with excellent head retention and lacing, it finishes with more sticky pine that leads into tealike dryness. –John Holl

Bryan Roth
Bryan Roth is a North Carolina-based writer. Find him tweeting about beer at @bryandroth.