Why Are Some Beers Lower in Calories Than Others?

When it comes to calories in beer, most people assume lighter-tasting beers like lagers and pilsners have fewer calories, while darker, heavier beers like stouts and porters pack a bigger caloric punch. But did you know that Guinness, a dark stout from Ireland, has fewer calories per ounce than a typical lager or pilsner? Welcome to the topsy-turvy world of beer nutrition facts.

Where Do the Calories in Beer Come From? 

Calories are a measurement of energy in food and beverages. This energy can come from four possible sources: fat, fiber, carbohydrates (carbs), and alcohol. Since beer doesn’t contain fat or fiber, you can thank carbs and alcohol for all the calories in your beer.

All beverages that contain alcohol have calories, even if they don’t contain any carbs at all. For example, a 1.5-ounce shot of vodka — which is basically just made up of ethanol (pure alcohol) and water — still contains almost 100 calories.

This is why you’ll never see zero-calorie, “diet” versions of beer on the shelf like you do with other beverages like soda pop. Unless a beer is completely non-alcoholic, it’s impossible to remove all the calories.

Getting back to our earlier example, this is also why Guinness has fewer calories than, for example, Budweiser. Guinness is only 4.2% alcohol by volume (ABV), while Budweiser is 5% ABV. Less alcohol means fewer calories — it’s as simple as that.

What Makes a Beer “Low-Calorie”?

Many people who drink beer like to keep an eye on their calorie intake, and brewers want to brew beers they can market as “low-calorie” or “light.” Since all the calories in beer come from carbs and alcohol, brewers have two options to reduce the calories in a beer: cut back on carbs or cut down the alcohol.

As you might guess, taking too much alcohol out of beer isn’t a very popular option. Imagine drinking a giant 24-ounce mug of beer just to get the same effect as a single can. However, most beers marketed as “light” do contain less alcohol than similar non-light beers, but not enough to account for the total reduction in calories. To further reduce calories in light beers, the brewers cut out carbs as well.

To reduce the carbs in light beers, brewers add an enzyme to the beer that breaks down more of the starches and turns them into extra sugars. Then, they add yeast, which turns all the sugar in the beer to alcohol. The result is like regular beer, but with a higher alcohol content (from the extra sugar that got turned to alcohol by the yeast).

Finally, to bring the alcohol content back down, the brewer dilutes the beer with water. This process is how breweries make the classic “light” lagers that dominated the beer market (and beer marketing) for many years.

Lower in Calories Doesn’t Have to Mean Lower in Flavor

The good news is that the compounds that give most beers their flavor don’t contain calories, which means low-calorie beers don’t need to be light on taste.

For example, Founders All-Day IPA from Founders Brewing Co. is a complex, citrusy session IPA that balances strong hop flavors and a clean finish. And at 4.7% ABV, Founders All-Day IPA contains only 147 calories per 12-oz bottle or can. In comparison, Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale, another popular IPA, has 212 calories in a 12-oz serving.

Get Great Beer at a Great Price in Our Stores

Whether you’re looking for something out of the ordinary or stocking up on your favorite brew, you can check out our weekly ad for great deals on a wide range of beer, wine, and more.

And if you’re skeptical that lower-calorie beers don’t have to skimp on flavor, let Founders All-Day IPA make a believer out of you. This versatile, balanced, citrus-forward IPA will light up your taste buds without making you feel full or sluggish, and it pairs perfectly with all the simple pleasures and joys in life.

Greg Vanoverloop Beer Wine Spirits Category Manager


Greg VanOverloop, Beer & Wine Specialist

  • Started in the Grocery business bagging at D&W in 1975.  Worked at D&W for 30 years in various departments.
  • Worked at SpartanNash for 11 years.  Currently the Category Manager for Wine/Beer/Spirits for SpartanNash East.
  • Have been a category manager since 1990 and a category manager of beer since 1997.  CM of wine and spirits since 2007.
  • Have traveled extensively which provided the opportunity to taste many foods and beverages from Hong Kong to Caribbean, from California to Maine.
  • Love to cook, grill, and bake, snow ski, sail, and read books.    Best baked item – a bourbon pecan pie with rum crust.  Best grilled item – salmon with blueberry onion wine sauce and goat cheese.  Best cooked item – Squash Apple soup with bourbon.  Best ski slope – Go Devil at Keystone.  Best book – Wonder.
  • 1 wife, 3 children, 7.3 grandchildren.