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Can you go low-carb and still drink beer?

I’m a beer writer on a low-carb lifestyle – what could possibly go wrong?

Well, so far, not too much because I think I’ve cracked the secret – and breweries are waking up to it as well.

I decided to go low-carb – let’s call it sugar-free – for many reasons, but mainly I was sick of being tired. My energy levels would flag every afternoon.  I knew how the insulin cycle worked – have known for years, after all I got a degree in physical education – but couldn’t bio-hack my own life. Or rather, was too lazy.

In an unhappy cycle of “eat carbs, feel good, feel tired, eat carbs” I decided to go cold turkey on it after the holidays. All those sugar-dense foods I loved: burritos, baked beans, tomato sauce, cereal, bread … all thrown out of the pantry.

I started to lose weight, I felt stronger at the gym and my energy levels stayed high through the day.

But beer? I write about beer. I judge beer. I love beer. At the start of this low-carb lifestyle (I hate the word diet) I took time away from beer – but I couldn’t avoid it forever.

Beer is a relatively carb-heavy product, thanks to what are called “residual” sugars – or dextrins – sugar that has not been fermented into alcohol and which helps balance out bitterness. A big IPA of the kind I enjoy has heaps of carbs and for a while I just told myself it was OK, what I saved by ditching process foods I could spend, sugar-wise, on beer.

Along came Brut IPA – the ultimate low-carb beer

But then along came Brut IPA.

Brut IPA is a new take on your normal India Pale Ale, with Brut referring to the champagne-style dryness that comes from low levels of residual sugar. A naturally occurring enzyme is used in the brewing process to breakdown complex sugars and make them more fermentable. The result is a surprisingly light-bodied, higher alcohol IPA where the perception of sweetness is created by alcohol and the clever use of low-bitterness hops that create aromas and flavours similar to tropical fruit salad.

For carb-counters, a standard IPA could have 20 grams of sugar per 330ml bottle.

A Brut IPA has all the flavour a regular IPA without all that sugar, but it took me while to figure out just how little sugar. It’s hard to get technical data on these beers from smaller craft breweries as they don’t have the lab facilities of big breweries so I figured: why not talk to a big brewery about how they make low-carb beers.

New Zealand beer companies have started heavily promoting low-carb beer as an option to Kiwi drinkers.
New Zealand beer companies have started heavily promoting low-carb beer as an option to Kiwi drinkers.

Dave Eaton is a Heineken Master Brewer at DB Breweries, where he’s brewed for 28 years. He knows all about low-carb beer and confirmed my thoughts around Brut IPA, which uses the same enzymatic process big breweries use to create their low-carb beers.  

Eaton’s expertise, coupled with my home brewing knowledge, allowed me to make a rough calculation that 100ml of Brut IPA could have as few 1.5g of carbs – meaning my go-to 440ml can has 6-7g of sugar in it.

I must stress we’re only talking carbs here, not calories. Alcohol still has calories – but as far as carbs (or let’s be frank, sugars) go, I’ve got faith that a well-made Brut IPA is going to satisfy my beer love and keep my sugar intake down.

As an aside, if you are calorie counting don’t go thinking low-alcohol always means low-calorie – I tried some Heineken 0.0 (zero ABV) recently and was shocked to discover it had 15g of carbs in single bottle – that’s a lot, trust me!

The enzyme used to make Brut IPA is what the big breweries also use to make the low-carb beers that are on trend around the world. Eaton is wary of using the word “enzyme” in case people think “chemical” but I’ve got a packet of said enzyme in my fridge and will use it to make my next home brew – it’s one of a range of enzymes that occur naturally in malt and which help break down sugars for fermentation. It’s not a bad thing.

Low-carb all the range in the US

New Zealand is just cottoning on to low-carb beer, but it’s all the rage in the US. The biggest growing beer brand there is Michelob Ultra – a low-carb beer that has 2.6g of sugar per 330ml bottle. It’s been marketed as a beer for runners, cross-fitters, golfers and outdoorsy types. In New Zealand, both of the big breweries are chasing this market, but it hasn’t yet shown the growth seen in the US.

Speight’s Summit Ultra (0.5g of sugar per 100ml) has been around for a while, as has DB Export 33 (which has 33 per cent lower carbs), but the big breweries are now pushing more low-carb beers, with Lion launching Steinlager Pure Light (2.5 per cent ABV, 1.5g/100ml) and DB trumpeting DB Export Low Carb which has sugar levels down 0.5g/100ml.

But I also know of smaller breweries who specialise in “Brut” beers are being approached by Keto dieters looking for a craft beer they can incorporate into their lifestyle.

Dave Eaton is a Heineken Master Brewer at DB Breweries.
Dave Eaton is a Heineken Master Brewer at DB Breweries.

The intriguing thing for me is that the process of searching out low-carb beer options took me full circle as it were: I discovered many traditional beers, such as sour and farmhouse-styles from Belgium, are naturally low in residual sugar.

One of the country’s leading exponents of this style, North End Brewing, confirmed a number of their sour and farmhouse-style beers all finish with what beer geeks call “low gravity” – meaning very little residual sugar.

Now, for Keto-dieters, who are more extreme about this carb business than me, the big question is how alcohol effects ketosis. The science of that isn’t entirely clear, but the general rule of thumb is that the liver will process alcohol before other dietary fats – converting booze to triglycerides, which can in fact lead to increased ketone production.

FIVE BEERS TO TRY ON A LOW-CARB DIET

Urbanaut Copacabana Brut IPA – This has been my go-to beer over the summer months. Data suggests around 4-6g of carbs per 440ml can. Superb fruit salad flavour and great mouthfeel.

North End Petit Luna – This 2.5 per cent hibiscus kaffir lime sour beer is zesty, tart and refreshing – finishing very dry and with barely a sugar crystal in sight. Spritzy and refreshing.

DB Export Low Carb – Surprisingly not that far off the traditional DB Export with good balance and a clean finish. A hint of green apples and finishes so dry it almost evaporates in your mouth. A minuscule 0.5g/100ml.

Deep Creek Droptop Chardonnay Brut IPA – An addition of chardonnay grape juice helps make this one super-dry and low in residual sugar.

Speight’s Summit Ultra – The best of the mainstream low-carb beers. Decent whack of flavour thanks to 4.2 per cent ABV but only 0.5g/100ml. Very drinkable.

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