How Low Can You Go?

Updated: Jan 10, 2020

Can a beer be low-cal and delicious? We think it can. —INGRAIN, Winter/Spring 2020

STORY / Beau Forbes

I saw her walking down Bourbon Street on a Sunday morning in New Orleans. She looked haggard, dusty, and worn. The shirt she had on was black; the text, stark white: The Internet Never Forgets.

A man was passed out flat on his face in the street in front of me, a Hand Grenade (New Orleans’ most powerful drink, served in a plastic hand grenade with a tube) on the ground next to him. Worn out myself, I staggered into a brunch place for beignets and café au lait, desperate to fend off the rapidly growing hangover I had earned the night before. The image of that shirt impressed itself on my mind, repeating itself over and over.

All across America, young people are drinking less. A generation ago, craft beer prided itself on being big and bold, with slam-you-in-the-face alcohol levels and flavor intensity that boggled the mind. The Double IPA (DIPA) wars came with 100-plus IBU palate rippers and alcohol levels approaching schnapps. Bourbon barrel–aged Russian Imperial Stout rose to ascendency, and 15% ABV (alcohol by volume) became common. Even the wine world saw skyrocketing alcohol levels as global warming kicked into high gear, with grapes spending more and more time ripening on the vine (riper = higher sugar levels) and wines giving up finesse for raw power. Bourbon came back, then rye; even absinthe was legalized again. In the U.S., everything was going big, big, BIG… And then a new generation of drinkers began to reject this.


The interest in lower-alcohol beverages began to take hold. Sommeliers started promoting wines expressive of terroir rather than the alcohol hammers that had reigned. “Dry” (sans alcohol) cocktails emerged. And in the past two years in the craft beer market, low-cal IPA appeared as if by magic. Balance became sexy again, and a generation began to assert its will as consumers.

Why is this happening?

The theories that have developed in corporate conference rooms and at local brewpubs run in all sorts of directions, with price point, palate preference, health, and even political/environmental factors being considered. But a new generation of Americans has emerged that has seen jobs lost over social media posts and relationships ruined because of a drunken photo. Social media shaming is real—because the internet is FOREVER. An unconscionable thought expressed as a tweet becomes a (deserved) permanent scarlet letter. A drunken picture becomes an indictment. Social media follows us all now, from birth to grave.

Today, being openly and belligerently intoxicated is an ugly look. Americans don’t want to be defined by a sloppy picture on Facebook or an inebriated post on Instagram. Americans want to be defined by the lives they lead and the experiences they have, not by how much alcohol they can consume in a drinking session or how foolishly they behave while intoxicated. Having a few is fine as long as you do it responsibly, but it is no longer an excuse for being an asshole. And if being drunk makes a person irresponsible, it would probably behoove that person to not be drunk.


It’s not just internet shaming that is driving the low-ABV IPA movement. The American fitness fad is probably the strongest contributing factor. Beginning as an offshoot of bodybuilder culture and the rise of musclemen like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1970s, the idea eventually spread that EVERYONE should be in shape. As diabetes began to claim more and more lives and sugary sodas were pushed on children, the notion took hold that being overweight and out of shape is NOT OKAY. Exercise and diet became integral facets of Americans’ lives.

In this emerging culture of fitness, light beer first appeared. Officially known in the Beer Judge Certification Program style guidelines as American Light Lagers, these beers with nearly all of the body-filling and calorie-boosting carbs devoured by enzymes became the most popular beer style in the world. (Read that sentence again.) “Tastes great, less filling” became a mantra. Americans gradually became attuned to the idea that fewer calories and little flavor were always good things. Concurrently, the craft beer movement rose up in opposition to a specific part of this mind-set: that less flavor was better. (And thus setting us on the path toward those brewpub DIPAs and barrel-aged stouts.)

How does a beer lover navigate this Brave New World? Between the rise of a responsible drinking environment, Instagram culture, and the burgeoning fitness movement, a new beer style has risen to the forefront: low-cal IPA.


Lower alcohol and calories need not necessarily be inextricably tied to lower flavor. In just the past few years, the craft beer movement has finally begun to acknowledge that less, in fact, can be more. (And remember, IPA became THE craft beer style when some consumers rejected the low-cal lager monoculture.)

The problem wasn’t the calorie content or ABV of these lagers; it was just the sameness of them. Want to enjoy a few (good) beers with friends and still be able to hit the gym guilt-free? Low-cal IPA. Want to party (responsibly) but avoid the hangover? Low-cal IPA. Want to live your life to the fullest and serve a beer most people in the room will also like? Low-cal IPA.

Turns out, those big-flavor craft consumers are perfectly fine with lower ABV and calorie levels. Guinness is arguably the greatest example of a beer with lots of flavor in a low-calorie and low-alcohol package. The nitro version of Guinness emerged as one of the most popular beers in the world during this very same fitness-focused time period. And with a new generation wanting “everything you could ever want in a beer...and less,” what they really wanted less of was booze, and what they wanted more of was flavor.

What we are talking about here is a beer with less than 4% alcohol and less than 100 calories (ideally), whether from the use of additional enzymes (à la light beer and other “dry” beer styles) or just excellent fermentation management and a perfect yeast and mashing regimen. These beers typically finish dry and are packed with crisp and bright hoppy flavor. Almost always light in color, they go down easy and finish smooth. And because the alcohol levels are typically even lower than in light lagers, they leave the average beer drinker refreshed while still giving the craft consumer the flavor they crave.


Low-cal/low-ABV IPA is about to become the next craft beer superstar. The surprising fact is that “diet beers” aren’t even a new idea. After World War II, the U.K. abandoned the super-high ABV beers they had been drinking and bellied up to the bar for the Best Bitters in the 3% to 4% ABV range. Pilsner is known as the most popular beer style in the world, but what most people are drinking in Pilsen itself is a version that is 4% ABV. Low-cal/low-ABV IPA IS NOT A NEW IDEA. It is merely a refined version of an old idea. “A place for everything and everything in its place,” they say, and low-cal IPA has a place in your fridge. Sure, it’s not a hugely predominant style—yet. But it’s about to be.

Speaking of your fridge, what should you eat with this type of beer? Low-cal/low-ABV IPA is built for long drinking sessions with friends at the bar or a house party, relatively speaking. A classic Chicago Dog with peppers and relish is a great companion. The fruity notes of the IPA meet up well with the spicy notes of the sport peppers; meanwhile, the acidic herbal weight of the relish fills in the gaps of flavor the IPA might miss. Pair them up while watching a baseball game on a sunny summertime day. Fries on the side add a complementary body-filling salty note as well, further enhancing how well this beer and food pairing works together.

Ready for some taste testing? We put together a list of six low-cal/low-ABV IPAs to try.

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