July 1, 2016 -- For anyone who likes to knock back a beer at the end of the day, options abound in ever-increasing numbers. India pale ales (IPAs), stouts, porters, hefeweizens, barley wine beers, and many others make up the spectrum of what are widely known as craft beers.
Their popularity has more than doubled in the last 4 years, and they now account for 12% of the beer market. At least 4,269 craft breweries operate in the U.S., the highest number in our history, according to the Brewers Association, a craft beer trade group.
But these beers may have higher alcohol content and calories than mainstream beers, which can affect your waistline if you’re not careful. And of course, drinking any booze may raise your risk for abuse and dependence.
Here’s what you need to know before you sip.
What Is Craft Beer?
A craft brewery operates independently, follows traditional brewing methods, and makes no more than 6 million barrels of beer a year, according to the Brewers Association. But most of these breweries make much smaller amounts.
Also, 1.2 million people brew their own beer at home, according to the American Homebrewers Association.
While standard American lagers and light lagers, such as Budweiser, Michelob, and Miller Lite, are brewed with barley, rice, and corn, most craft beers are made from 100% barley, though some contain wheat, says Paul Gatz, director of the Brewers Association.
These ingredients -- along with hops -- are what give cold ones their flavor. And how brewers manipulate those ingredients determine the different tastes you enjoy in different beers. For example, darkly roasted malts yield beers like stouts and porters, while IPAs get their bitterness and citrusy flavors from an abundance of hops, a type of flower.
How Are Craft Beers Similar to Mainstream Ones?
These ingredients do give beer some healthy aspects. Both types boast similar nutritional content: B vitamins, fiber, protein, antioxidants, prebiotics (which promote healthy intestinal bacteria), and bone-strengthening silicon. The alcohol in beer -- in moderation -- may protect the heart.
But beer is not a health drink. Registered dietitian Jim White of Ocean City, MD, says if you don’t drink it already, don’t start.
“If you do drink beer, it can fit into a healthy diet, but if you don’t drink already, don’t start drinking in order to get those benefits,” he says.
“Of course, beer is not a well-balanced diet in its own right," says Charles Bamforth, PhD, Anheuser-Busch endowed professor of Malting and Brewing Sciences at the University of California, Davis, "but in moderation, it can be part of a healthy diet.”
Alcohol in Craft Beers
The average craft beer contains 5.7% alcohol by volume (ABV), Gatz says. By comparison, most mainstream beers have an alcohol volume ranging from 4% to 5%.
But just as they come in all sorts of styles, craft beers vary dramatically in alcohol levels. A tart, refreshing Berliner Weisse may have an ABV of 3.5%, while an imperial IPA’s could be as high as 10%. Some can be higher, but it’s rare.
“It’s almost like two mainstream beers to one imperial IPA,” says White, a spokesman for the Academy of Dietetics and Nutrition.
Lower alcohol examples of craft beer are out there. Radlers, for example, clock in around 3%. And so-called "session" beers have alcohol in amounts similar to mainstream American lagers and light beers. Don’t let the lower alcohol content give you license to drink more that you should, though.
Drinking in excess ups your immediate and long term health risks -- think drunk-driving accidents and alcoholism, respectively -- so moderation with high-alcohol beers is crucial.
For that reason, it’s important to know the alcohol content before you drink. Often, the can or bottle will note a beer’s alcohol volume. If it doesn’t, look up the drink in question on the Internet. If you’re drinking beer on tap at a bar, you also can ask your server.
“It doesn’t take a lot to build up a tolerance or develop an alcohol dependence,” says Scott Krakower, DO, a psychiatrist and substance abuse specialist at Zucker Hillside Hospital. “And overindulging negates the nutritional content of beer.”
If the beers you like measure higher than 5% alcohol, White recommends that you limit yourself to one every couple of days because of the alcohol and calories. And be sure to stay hydrated, he says.
“Drink a glass of water with every beer, and go slowly,” White says. “Your liver needs time to filter the alcohol.”
With their complex flavors, craft beers encourage drinkers to sip and savor, and Gatz says most people drink one to two craft beers rather than two to three mainstream beers in a given evening. But you should set limits before you start.
“Be mindful that many of these beers have double the alcohol content of what you’re used to,” Krakower says.
Calories in Craft Beers
As the alcohol volume goes up, so do the calories. A 12-ounce barley wine beer with 10% alcohol has about 300 calories. That’s twice the calories in an average 12-ounce mainstream beer -- and much more than calories in some candy bars.
While the barley and other grains used to make beer account for some of the calories, most come from the alcohol, says Bamforth, author of the book Beer: Health and Nutrition.
“People don’t often look at the alcohol content or think about the calories,” White says. “But I guarantee if they knew that their IPA was 275 calories, they’d second guess themselves before drinking two.”
That’s another good reason to research the alcohol volume before you order. Here’s one more: The more alcohol you drink, the more likely you are to eat and drink more than you should, White says.