Up until the last few years, health-conscious or calorie-counting beer drinkers were stuck with one underwhelming option: mainstream light beer. Then, as interest in craft beer swelled, the focus for serious drinkers was entirely on flavor and style, with health a distant afterthought—if any thought at all. Many restaurants and bars adapted to the trend by stocking their draft and bottle selections with more craft options and fewer generic light beers.
But as younger generations focus on overall wellness and seek out alternatives to the high-carb, high-sugar diets of their forebears, a new generation of healthy beverages is surging. Craft brewers have picked up on this trend, bringing a wealth of new beer options to health-oriented bargoers while maintaining their laser focus on flavor.
Three notable trends in craft brewing include beers made with power-packed ingredients, low-calorie craft beers, and beer marketed to athletes. They’re worth more than a passing glance from restaurants working to stay relevant in an increasingly wellness-minded world.
Putting the fun in functional
Across beverage categories, from hard seltzer to kombucha to beer, there’s a growing emphasis on culinary and nutrient-heavy ingredients that are meant to add unique flavor and healthful benefits. Brewers are incorporating so-called functional ingredients like bee pollen, coconut water, chia seeds, and sea salt to appeal to beer drinkers looking for a beverage that nods toward healthfulness.
Dogfish Head Brewery makes its SeaQuench Ale with black limes and sea salt; the former ingredient, also known as loomi, is rich in potassium, phytochemicals, and folic acid while sea salt contains magnesium, calcium, and other minerals. Harpoon’s Rec League hazy pale ale includes omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. Sufferfest Beer Company brews with bee pollen, which has antimicrobial and antiviral applications, and coconut water—a drink that has risen to prominence thanks to a host of nutrients and electrolytes. (It should be noted that while scientific research has confirmed the potential health benefits of such ingredients, studies have not confirmed their impact within alcoholic beverages.)
Kombucha beer, also known as hard kombucha, is another prominent player in the space. All kombucha has some trace of alcohol thanks to the fermentation process, but the alcoholic version contains enough to elicit a buzz akin to a low-ABV beer.
As a pioneer in the hard kombucha category, Unity Vibration Kombucha won praise from Draft Magazine in 2013 when its Bourbon Peach American Wild Ale was named a top craft brew. Tarek Kanaan, who cofounded the company with his wife, Rachel, celebrates the functional and healthful character of the craft-brewed drink.
“We don’t pasteurize; we let it stay raw and living,” he says. “It has all the natural phytonutrients from the raspberry, the peaches, juniper berries, and elderberry juice. Our products contain plant adaptogens and probiotics [and] healthy compounds in plants like hops, ginger, anything that betters your body.”
The return of low-cal
Craft breweries are moving assertively to appeal to drinkers who both appreciate the full flavor of microbrews and desire lower-calorie options. Calories in beer come from the ingredients that are put into it; soluble proteins carry over a caloric content during brewing. Designing a low-cal craft beer requires starting with flavorful raw materials that translate to fewer calories and vivid taste.
“People naturally view craft beer as this heavy, hard-to-drink beer, compared to macro light-lager breweries,” says Fred Rizzo, director of brewing operations at Avery Brewing Co. “There’s an educational trend toward ‘you can have your cake and eat it too’: delicious beer with low calories.”
Avery’s Pacer IPA is a hop-forward, hazy IPA with 100 calories and 3.5 grams of carbs. Dogfish Head’s Slightly Mighty is a 95-calorie, 3.8-gram-carb IPA that packs a tasty punch. Other options in this category include 99-calorie Ballast Point Lager from Ballast Point, 99-calorie Da Shootz from Deschutes Brewery, and Harpoon’s Rec. League, which clocks in at 120 calories.
“It’s incredible to see just how quickly the category has exploded,” says Harpoon Brewery innovation brewer Tom Graham. “Two years ago, a craft brewer putting a calorie count on a can was all but unheard of. Now you can look in the craft beer cooler at almost any store and see multiple examples of great low-calorie options. It’s really becoming a great time for folks that are into craft beer but also want to maintain an active lifestyle.”
Chasing the athletes
Although there have long been examples of beers that celebrate hikers and campers—such as Long Trail Brewing Co.’s Long Trail Ale released in 1989—brews marketed specifically to athletes, such as endurance runners, are a newer phenomenon.
The most notable example is Sufferfest, which was founded in 2016 to focus solely on gluten-reduced beers for endurance athletes and other adventuresome individuals. Founder Caitlin Landesberg started the company after realizing how integral beer was to competitive running—an approach that’s exemplified in the brand’s “will sweat for beer” motto.
As Landesberg became a serious runner in her 20s, she found that at the finish line of many races, participants often celebrated with a commemorative pint of beer.
“As someone focused on a healthy and active lifestyle, I became more particular,” she says. “Is there a lot of sugar in it? Is it gluten-free? I started thinking of my favorite brands. What would Clif Bar or Gatorade do if they made a beer? That’s how that concept ignited.”
Other craft brewers are increasingly adopting similar positioning. Harpoon’s Rec. League calls itself the “Cool-Down Companion,” for example. The packaging for Avery Brewing’s Pacer IPA features a competition medal embossed with a running trail and the tagline “adult participation trophy.”