Is There Such a Thing as a Healthy Beer?

Healthy Beer
Written by Jason Liebler

No question, America has a love affair with beer.

For a long time, the relationship has been with the macro-breweries — you know, the ones whose names you immediately recognize — those that produce beers such as Budweiser and Coors Light. Even today, Anheuser-Busch (with more than 100 different brands) is king with 46 percent of the market share. Add in the rest of the fab-five — MillerCoors, Heineken, Constellation Brands (maker of Corona and Modelo) and Pabst Brewing — and these big businesses control more than 75 percent of the beer market.   

But America has a couple of other love affairs.

For one, there are some — from millennials to baby boomers — who enjoy the burgeoning landscape of microbrewers and all the delectable and dynamic potent potables they offer. The other is health.

There are CrossFit enthusiasts, goat yogis, micro-nutrient counters, juicers and those of us who are just health conscious and enjoy the social, almost speakeasy style of breweries, but would rather not drink two IPAs at 8 percent alcohol by volume (known as ABVs) and 250 calories each. To burn those off, that’s probably about a five-mile run in addition to a regular workout.

So how to reconcile the two? How does the group of health-conscious people enjoy more than one six-ounce pour from a brewery without feeling as if they have to sacrifice their personal goals?

Never fear, dear, sweet reader, for I have shouldered the burden of traveling from brewery to brewery, sampling away and asking experts and beer drinkers:

What is a “healthy” beer?

The results were wide spread. Though a majority of patrons suggested the norm of low-calorie, low-alcohol beers — such as American light lagers Bud Light and Michelob Ultra — these beers don’t really exist in the brewery world. Therefore, I have compiled a small list of beers that may fit the mold of “healthy”.

Caveat: When we’re talking about “healthy” beer, we’re not saying any amount of alcohol is safe. As reported by The New York Times, a study published in the journal Lancet concluded that daily alcohol consumption increased (albeit slightly) the risk of health problems.

Whether or not there is a “healthy” amount of alcoholic beverages that can be consumed each day is still up for debate. It would seem that it is not the alcohol that is healthy, but the amount of alcohol per drink as well as ingredients mixed in that can be described as comparatively healthy. Indeed, the consumption of alcohol increases the risk for chronic disorders as well as impaired driving. Please know the limits and drink responsibly.

That said, on to the beers!

Low alcohol | Southern Nully Guanabana Berliner Weisse

Oozlefinch Craft Brewery, Fort Monroe

Traditionally to have the name “Berliner weisse,” a beer must be brewed in Berlin, but the requirement has been loosened to incorporate other breweries in Europe and North America. A Berliner weisse is a cloudy, sour beer with a unique feature — lactic acid. Added during the fermentation process, lactic acid provides not only the sour flavor of this beer but also some unique microbial benefits. Lactic acid bacteria are commonly used as probiotics, which are used to promote the beneficial bacteria processes that occur in the stomach.

Oozlefinch Brewery’s take on the German brew incorporates a wide range of fruits such as citrus and guanabana, a strawberry and apple-flavored fruit native to the Caribbean and South America. What’s remarkable about this beer is the balance between flavors of fruity tartness and beery beerness while keeping the alcohol to just 3 percent.

All-around balanced | Session Saison

Ardent Craft Ales, Richmond

Saison is a variety of Belgian ale traditionally brewed in the spring and summer months, but thanks to modern technology, this light and refreshing brew can be enjoyed year-round. These lightly hopped beers can have a lovely citrus flavor, but sometimes can drive off diehard IPA fans.

Enter Ardent Brewery’s Dry-Hopped Session Saison. This well-balanced beer hits the palate easily, brings a body of hoppy bitterness  and has a fruity finish that makes this beverage easy to enjoy on a hot summer day or a cold winter night. And because it’s only 4.5-percent ABV, it is one of the lighter-by-volume alcohol, I have found in the microbrewery market.

Gluten-removed | Mesa Table Beer

Triple Crossing Brewery, Richmond-Fulton

It’s unfortunate that the gluten-free world has become the butt of Saturday Night Live jokes. There is a rising habit of restaurant diners who prefer to claim a gluten allergy rather than reasonably research proper dieting, which probably leads to the negative stereotype.    

The truth is celiac disease is a real thing, and the Celiac Disease Foundation estimates that one in 100 people may suffer from it.

So for a long time, people with the condition or who have experienced sensitivities to gluten found themselves marking the social events at breweries relatively off-limits. 

But there are breweries attempting to bridge the gap. To make Triple Crossing’s Mesa Table Beer, brewmasters utilize an enzyme called “clarity ferm” to remove a majority, if not all, of the gluten in beer during the fermentation process. These beers are more agreeable to those with gluten intolerance (note: it is beyond the expertise in this article to suggest “gluten-removed” means “gluten-free”).

At only 4.5-percent ABV, with subtle fruity notes, this light blond ale is a pleasure to drink. And with a noticeable but not overpowering hoppy finish, it is sure to satisfy both the gluten-sensitive and the IPA-fan alike.

In speaking with brewmasters, I found a few breweries that will release seasonal or limited beers that use gluten-free substitutes for the traditional cereal grains such as rye, barley and wheat. Grains such as rice, buckwheat and even quinoa in one case can make these beers more palatable to those with gluten sensitivities. Be sure to check ahead with your favorite brewery for updated tap lists if you’re seeking this type of beer.

Antioxidants/Nutrients | Duck Faced Flower Child 

Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery, Goochland

To be honest, I am not a fan of sweeter beers. But when I put the healthy beer question to Lickinghole Creek Brewery’s co-founder Ferris Loutfi, he didn’t hesitate to suggest this variation of the rattler. Rattlers are traditionally brewed with a pilsner base, but this beer has a Belgian triple as its base which, combined with sparkling pomegranate, pineapple and blood orange juices, makes one delightful libation that finishes clean and complete.

Admittedly, it does have a comparable amount of natural sugars native to the juices used, but the fact that this unfiltered, unpasteurized beer is packed with antioxidants makes it a prime contender not only for one of the healthiest beers I encountered, but one of my favorites on the list.

Tea-style beer | Botanical IPA

Back Bay Brewing Co., Virginia Beach Oceanfront

OK, I may live in Richmond, but my heart is in the 757. And I would be remiss if I didn’t include at least one brewery from the Seven Cities. So, in my hunt for “healthy” beers I came across Back Bay Brewing’s Botanical IPA. Brewed with hibiscus, this beer caught me off guard. It’s the lowest ABV on tap right now at a paltry 3.9 percent, but it’s an India Pale Ale, which traditionally has more than 6 percent.

What’s nice about this beer is that despite its low alcohol, it is still a very full, flavorful beer. The hibiscus provides a deviously pleasant tea-like quality to the beer, which is a lovely deviation from the many citrus-infused IPAs on the market today.

It is clear that breweries along the Interstate 64 corridor are answering the call in unique ways for healthy alternatives to the high-calorie, high-alcohol beers that have saturated the microbrew market in recent years. But don’t just take my word for it.

About the author

Jason Liebler

Jason Liebler is a Portsmouth native with a more than a decade of
experience as a writer and public schoolteacher. He lives in Richmond with
his bikes and bass guitars. When not at work, he can be found behind a
book and a cold beverage.

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