Low cal and local: A guide to Memphis craft beers that won’t wreck your diet

Wiseacre's Tiny Bomb American Pilsner on the packaging line

When Davin Bartosch first brewed the recipe for what, years later, would become Wiseacre Brewing Co.’s award-winning Tiny Bomb American Pilsner, he was working at a Chicago brewpub.

Visitors to Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery would tell him how much they liked the taste of craft beer, but thought it was too heavy. So Bartosch made a beer with a “tiny” amount of alcohol and calories, but a “bomb” full of flavor.

Wiseacre’s Tiny Bomb, which won the 2014 Great American Beer Festival bronze medal, clocks in at just 129 calories and 4.5% ABV for a 12-ounce can.

For comparison, Miller Lite, the beer that spawned a million “tastes great, less filling” commercials in the 1980s, has 96 calories per can. Michelob Ultra has just one less calories at 95 calories per can. Meanwhile, many craft beers will easily set you back 250 or more calories.

Kellan Bartosch, who co-founded Wiseacre with his brother, Davin, said drinkers of good beers should try to think about calorie content a little differently. 

“Because of decades of messaging in marketing, most consumers think of low cal or light beer as being 95-99 calories or below, but a lot of craft beer can be in the 250-plus range. For somebody watching what they eat, they would never only order food on a 5-calorie variance, so we are considering any of our beers under 150 calories as lighter,” Bartosch said.

“It’s not the same as portion control for food, but a consumer can consider the calories in these beers — with lower calories than most craft beers — and how great they taste, when making a decision about what to drink.”

Wiseacre’s year-round, low-cal beers

Tiny Bomb is one of five year-round beers under 150 calories from Wiseacre, which has its own lab to monitor things like caloric content. In addition to Tiny Bomb, Wiseacre’s other lower-calorie, year-round options include Irusu Rice Lager (99 calories, 4% ABV), Beach Within Reach Berliner Weisse (139 calories, 4.2% ABV), Air Bath Session IPA (149 calories, 5% ABV) and Memphis Sands Helles Lager (149 calories, 5.1% ABV).

Wiseacre low calorie beers

Some local brewers don’t see much of a demand from customers for low-calorie options and don’t offer these types of beers.

Most craft beer aficionados don’t tend to associate craft beer with lower calories, since fuller-flavored beers have added sugars and more alcohol.

To many, even the concept of a light beer seemingly flies in the face of what craft beer is all about. Craft beers stand out because they’re so different from the watered-down, “macro” beers your grandfather used to drink.

Wiseacre is one local brewery trying to change that perception.

“So the first beer Wiseacre ever made was a 129-calorie lager (Tiny Bomb), but we make plenty of others, and we do so for a lot of reasons,” said Kellan Bartosch.

“Low calories and low ABV aren’t exactly connected, but they generally go hand in hand. We’ve made British bitters and Dry Irish Stout and many others that are 4% (ABV) or below besides the five or so we have that are below 150 calories currently. I think a lot of craft breweries might make lower-calorie options or even lighter styles of beer just to pander, but we make them because they taste really good. One can also drink multiple beers without as much concern, which is important because beer is a social beverage, in our opinion.” 

Brewer Davin Bartosch said sugar content and alcohol are the only variables to manipulate when trying to control calories. 

“Sweetness, in the form of unfermented malt sugar, is an important part of the flavor profile of any beer. With these beers — and most of the beers at Wiseacre — we really strive to get the most flavor impact out of our ingredients, while keeping the final sugar content as low as possible,” he said.

“This involves carefully dialing in bitterness, carefully selecting high quality malts and hops, and controlling fermentation and aging. There are occasions where we really want very little yeast character to allow the malt and hops to shine (Irusu), and there are occasions where the yeast character is part of the prime package of flavors (Air Bath).”

While Wiseacre is at the forefront of Memphis breweries successfully crafting beers that are lower on calories, it’s not the only local brewery with beers that won’t leave you bloated as summer arrives.

High Cotton Brewing’s answer to hard seltzers

Can of High Cotton's Razz Wheat

Ross Avery, co-founder of High Cotton Brewing Co., said High Cotton’s Razz Wheat (110 calories, 4% ABV) was brewed in response to the rise of hard seltzers.

“It’s a very refreshing seasonal beer, although we produce it through the hot months in Memphis, which is a lot,” he said.

Avery said it’s possible to create lower-calorie beers that don’t skimp on flavors, but it’s always a challenge, especially with session-type IPAs.

“Low calories and ABV can still be flavorful. We think we hit it well with our session IPA. But if you drink our River King IPA or Ctzar IPA right after, you will definitely notice a big punch of flavor up from a session IPA,” Avery said.

Grind City Brewing makes pair of beers that are ‘more approachable’

Grind City Brewing Co. serves its beers in 16-ounce cans. But if you use a 12-ounce serving as a benchmark, two Grind City beers are low-cal, said Hopper Seely, Grind City’s president.

Can of Grind City Brewing's Poppy's Pils Pilsner
Can of Grind City Brewing's Thaddeus Amber Lager

Grind City’s Poppy’s Pils (110 calories per 12 ounces, 4% ABV) and Thaddeus Amber Lager (114 calories, 4% ABV) are the lightest beers packaged by Grind City. Both are year-round beers that are widely available around town.

Seely said Grind City intentionally brewed these “to be more approachable” to beer drinkers.

“We wanted to have a very flavorful beer that isn’t too heavy on the finish. Something you can drink any time, any place,” Seely said.

“That was our goal, and as a result, we made two beers that have all the flavor of a craft beer, but just as light as your go-to, easy drinking macro beers.”

In fact, all of Grind City’s flagship beers are approachable, Seely said. 

“We love all types of beer, but for our flagships, we want beers that you can drink more than one of and not get full or bloated,” he said.

Natch is Hampline Brewing’s lowest cal beer

Hampline Brewing Co.’s head brewer Wes Osier said Hampline doesn’t really consider calories when putting together recipes, but does consider ABV, which generally correlates. 

Hampline’s lowest calorie beer is Memphis Natch Lager (120 calories, 5.8% ABV). Like Grind City, Hampline serves its beers in 16-ounce cans, and 120 calories is an estimate from Osier for a 12-ounce serving.

“We use only high quality pils malt for Natch and noble hops, either Saaz or Hallertau Mittefru,” Osier said.

“It is possible to amp up the flavor of low-cal beers by using only malted barley with no adjuncts like the macro breweries do and upping the aromatic hop additions. … Some macro breweries also use enzymes in the mash to further reduce unfermentable sugars, which allows the brewer to create more alcohol using less starches. This process also dilutes flavor.”

Hampline is slowly expanding its distribution and hopes to get its beers in more stores and restaurants as the brewery increases capacity. For now, Natch is available at Hampline’s taproom, as well as Joe’s Liquor, Busters, and select craft beer-centric bars like Hammer and Ale. 

Ghost River Brewing prepping for July release of lighter beer

Next week, Ghost River Brewing Co. will brew a new session beer that will be lower on calories and alcohol.

The goal is to create a beer that’s under 150 calories and close to 4% ABV. The challenge, said head brewer Mark Crum, is trying to make sure the beer tastes good and isn’t “super thin.”

Crum said the beer’s recipe will be pretty much a cross between Ghost River Gold and Grindhouse Cream Ale.

“I kind of worked between the two malt bills and combined them into what I think is going to work for a good flavor. I punched up the wheat a little bit to help get it some chew and some mouthfeel. I’m hoping that it’s going to turn out well,” Crum said.

“I’m pretty excited about getting something that is going to be both pleasing to people that are looking for a little local alternative and also have a little more flavor than your standard light beer.”

The beer will be brewed in the seven-barrel brewhouse at Ghost River’s Beale Street location, and will be available on tap in both the Beale Street and South Main taprooms in early July. At this point, Crum said Ghost River isn’t planning to can the new beer.

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