Discussing Low Carb Beers; A Fireside Chat w/ Chris White

Category : General
Date : May 24, 2024
Author : Chris White, Ph.D
Note to readers: This is not about beer and health but more about the history and future of beer and how keeping the sugars in balance has advantages for many people. Creating a lighter beer with great flavor also has market advantages as the popularity of these styles continues to climb.  

Health and beer in the United States are two things that we rarely put together and talk about. Since there is alcohol, which is considered a negative, the anti-healthy side of that is valid. But you can make any product healthier. Unfortunately, most of the products that proclaim health benefits are deceptive. As a juvenile (Type 1) diabetic along with my twin brother, we have seen these claims throughout our lives. What matters for people like us is sugar, so for us, healthier beer means lower carbohydrates.

What Does Low Carb Mean To You? 

When Miller Lite was introduced nationally in 1975, it was not marketed to diabetics in the United States. It was marketed as a low-calorie solution. However, the idea of using enzymes to break down carbohydrates and obtain a lower final gravity and lower carbs was created and invented for diabetics. It became a bedrock American style for so many people, one that is still relevant today for craft beer, which I’ll get to shortly. 

We train doctors and nutritionists to focus on calories, but that does not really mean much for diabetics, in our personal experience. It is all about sugar, which indeed turns into fat. With the popularity of the Atkins diet, the public became more aware of the importance of limiting carbohydrate intake. We in the diabetic community knew exactly what it was and its benefits. It was a diabetes diet, where if you eat fewer carbohydrates, you don’t increase your blood sugar as much, and you will be thinner and potentially healthier. It is hard to argue that, in most cases, thinner is better than obesity. 

Carbohydrates are long-chain sugars. Our body breaks them down into glucose, increasing blood sugar levels and creating insulin to help combat them. Sugars are then packed into fat to be stored for later. 

Lager Fermentation Tips and Tricks Guide

What Came After Atkins? 

For the diabetic, this Atkins trend created categories that became more available in stores and in restaurants. We have moved on to new terms and trends that have captured popular interest, even though they are classic diabetic protocols. Take keto, for example. Chances are you have friends or family members who have dived into the keto lifestyle and are now thinner and most likely healthier. I do. One of my best friends adopted this diet after COVID-19 and is now in his best physical health ever, even as he gets deeper into his 50s.  

Yet, we still use the same language, and publications provide you with different, sometimes illogical answers. We all want to be thinner, but we have different ideas on how to get there, and some of this comes from industry folks with vested interests. For instance, the term glycemic index is popular. What does a diabetic know? We do know because most of us are hooked to devices that always let us know our estimated blood sugar levels. Whether it takes ten minutes or twenty minutes to get into your blood, it’s still sugar. It is not as if it will take until tomorrow before it gets into your system. 

Unfortunately, most craft beers raise my blood sugar. Most people can’t measure how much insulin their bodies are releasing, including the great majority of diabetics designated as Type 2 or adult-onset, who generally are not prescribed insulin. 

So whatever we call them—diabetic beers, low-calorie beers, or low-carb beers—they could apply to everyone to some degree at one point or another. 

What Does This Mean For Beer and Other Alcoholic Beverages?

With the complexity of enzymes, from amylase enzymes in our mouth to the microflora in our body, we can break down almost everything. Yeast can’t break down the branched dextrins, which are what we consider carbs and heavier mouthfeel in beer. But if we consume beer with those dextrins, we will break them down into sugar in our bodies.

White Labs carries an enzyme called Ultra-Ferm, which we suggest using to make an American light lager. The enzyme, an amyloglucosidase, converts dextrins into fermentable glucose for the yeast. 

Brew with Ultra-Ferm Now 
Ultra-Ferm Tech Sheet

It is mainly used in the mash, or it can be used when you pitch the yeast if you’re not repitching the yeast. Depending on how dry you want to go, you could go all the way down to potentially no carbs. Typically, carb levels can only get as low as maybe 6 or 7 grams of carbs per serving. Using Ultra-Ferm, carb levels as low as 2 to 3 grams per serving can be achieved.

This exchanges the “body/carbs of the beer” into fermentable sugars the yeast will use to produce alcohol, carbon dioxide, and flavor, creating a crisp, dry lager that doesn’t compromise taste.
White Labs Brew Co American "Light" Lager Beer Data/Blog

Where Do We Go From Here? Follow Your Customers 

I feel the term low-calorie will change dramatically in the future, just like metrics put the imperial system into the wastebin for most of the world. There is something better; as I’ve noted, it’s “low-carb.” 

Ever since Atkins started, people have realized that it worked, and more and more people understand biochemistry. They are seeking out lower-carb products. Young people want lower carbs. It’s been that way for a long time, and craft beer hasn’t been associated with it. That being said, large breweries have recognized this trend for a long time, with top-selling beers like Bud Light, Miller Light, Coors Light, and now Michelob ULTRA, which has experienced rapid growth. 

Several years ago, we did have an attempt with the style called Brut IPAs, many of which were using Ultra-Ferm or other enzymes, but they fell out of favor for many reasons. Brut IPAs were made with an application of enzymes like Ultra-Ferm to make the fermentation more complete. We can get back to thinking of low carb, not just for certain styles but for almost any style, if we embrace Ultra-Ferm and other enzymes that help reduce the large-chain carbohydrates. 

The inroads beyond beer are mostly associated with lower-calorie, ‘healthier’ options. One of the secrets to the success of non-alcoholic (NA) beer among young people is that the new generation of NA beers is lower-calorie than the past. While NA beer is still small overall, this category represented one of the few growth areas for craft beer in recent times.


Changing Demographics 

I believe we should make flavors through fermentation. You don’t have to be a diabetic to see why. Whether it is the change in demographics, with consumers in larger numbers going this direction, we still have time to make our places a comfortable environment for those seeking low carb. You can call them by one term.  New customers.