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Brian Grace, the head brewer at Thirsty Monk brewery in Denver, pours a "low-calorie ale" called Monk Lite. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

The beer list above the bar at the Thirsty Monk in Denver is a roster of classic Belgian styles: farmhouse, wit and tripel. 

One doesn’t fit: Monk Lite, a “low-calorie ale.” It’s not an actual style, but the labeling reflects one of the defining trends in the beer market today. 

More drinkers — particularly younger ones — are paying attention to what they eat and imbibe in terms of ingredients and nutritional value. The calorie-counters are discovering an inconvenient truth about craft beer: Full-flavor and higher alcohol means more calories.

The industry, led in part by brewers in Colorado, is adapting to the cultural shift with a variety of alternatives, whether its new low-carbohydrate and low-calorie versions of popular styles or lighter-body beers like pilsners and lagers. Some brewers are diversifying into hard seltzers.

The moves are designed to attract the health-conscience crowd, and make a play for fans of megabrewers like Budweiser and Coors and others who prefer wine and spirits. 

Thirsty Monk head brewer Brian Grace said Monk Lite is “marketed specifically for folks who are looking for Miller Lite, Coors Light, Bud Light.”

The beer is a Belgian blonde ale, but it clocks at 94 calories and 3 grams carbohydrate with 4.3% alcohol by volume, which is roughly on par with the light lagers that dominate the market. It is “actually aiming for that specific market, people who like CrossFit and all of that,” said Grace, who brews at the Denver location of the North Carolina-based brewery.

The transition comes as sales of craft beer are moderating and “unlikely to return to the meteoric growth levels seen over the past decade,” says Bart Watson, an economist at the Boulder-based Brewers Association.

The trade group even revised its definition of an American craft brewer in December to accommodate those who also make hard seltzer. It removed the requirement that craft brewers make beer with “traditional” ingredients, and now just requires them to make beer.

“The ‘traditional’ pillar became outdated because craft brewers, seeking new sources of revenue to keep their breweries at capacity and address market conditions, have created new products that do not fit the traditional definition of beer,” explained Paul Gatza, a senior vice president at the Brewers Association.

Wild Basin, the hard seltzer made by Oskar Blues Brewery in Longmont, is being marketed as a health conscious alcoholic beverage in this promotional photo. (Photo courtesy of Wild Basin)

Oskar Blues and Denver Beer Co. try their hand at hard seltzers

Longmont-based Oskar Blues Brewery says it became the first craft brewer to launch a hard seltzer earlier this year with its Wild Basin Boozy Sparkling Water. It is named after the location in Rocky Mountain National Park that is a source for the St. Vrain River, where the brewer gets most of its water.

Kyle Ingram, the vice president of marketing at Canarchy Craft Brewery Collective, the parent company of Oskar Blues and Wild Basin, said the hard seltzer idea came from trends toward lighter beverages and wellness. In other words, he said, consumers are interested in a beverage that “won’t physically weigh them down.”

MORE: Oskar Blues thinks the future of craft brewing is in the collective

Made from cane sugar and yeast, with help from an enzyme that helps eliminate all residual sugars, Wild Basin finishes at 100 calories and 1 gram carbohydrate. It comes in flavors like black raspberry, cucumber peach and melon basil. So far, Ingram said consumers are not trading their craft beer for seltzer, but instead are buying them in conjunction, typically for different occasions.

Denver Beer Co. joined the bandwagon earlier this year with its seltzer called O&A, which is short for Out & About, and other breweries in the state are doing the same, including Boulder’s UpSlope.

Denver Beer Co-Founder Patrick Crawford said he recently hired a younger brand ambassador who told him when people bring craft beer to a party, it’s still left in the fridge at the end of the night. “There is definitely a trend, and it’s with people younger than us that are drinking a lot more hard seltzer, and maybe a lot more hard seltzer than beer,” Crawford said. “If this was the wave of the future, we didn’t want to miss that opportunity.”

The craft beer crowd takes a new approach

Where hard seltzer is appealing to a new crowd less inclined toward beer, the rise of pilsners and lagers is how craft brewers are taking aim at people who traditionally drink light American lagers from the big beer makers like Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors, both of which have breweries in Colorado.

The lighter lagers are lower in alcohol, which correlates to lower calories. Bud Light began advertising its ingredients and nutritional facts prominently on its packaging, as part of a broader initiative from their industry association program that began in 2016

New Belgium and Odell, two of the largest breweries in Colorado, are making rival lagers, entering a space often snubbed by craft beer drinkers as “fizzy yellow water.”

Other prominent brewers are taking the heft out of IPAs — the most popular beer style — but aiming to keep the big flavor. Dogfish Head’s Slightly Mighty is labeled a “Lo-Cal IPA” and the 95 calories and 3.6 grams of carbs are boldly advertised on the packaging. Laguintas’ DayTime IPA is a 98-calorie, 4%-alcohol beer dubbed a “low-cal, low-alc IPA.” Other brewers, including Ska in Durango, are making Brut IPAs, which typically have lower calories.

MORE: What is a Brut IPA? An unlikely mashup of two different beer styles

Thirsty Monk’s Grace acknowledges that craft beer has a high-calorie image problem. “If you’re watching your calories, absolutely” it’s an issue, he said, particularly “with the double IPAs coming out and the big stouts, even sour beer.”

Brian Grace, the head brewer at Thirsty Monk brewery in Denver, serves a Monk Lite, a 94 calorie beer. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

One craft brewer making a direct appeal to the nutrition crowd is Sufferfest Beer Co. The San Francisco-based company made their beer at a contract facility in Denver but that ended earlier this year after the company was purchased by Sierra Nevada Brewing.

The company is targeting the athletic crowd — even sponsoring a few professional athletes from Colorado — which is territory big beer makers are trying to claim, too. Sufferfest CEO Caitlin Landesberg sees the Denver-Boulder market and active mountain towns as “our Promised Land.”

“I think the way that the craft beer movement was developed, it pigeonholed that drinker to meet a certain profile and drink a certain profile of beer — high hop, high ABV or gut bombs,” she said. But “whimsical beer,” she continued, “doesn’t appeal to our community as much, because we are regimented and we have our routines.”

More broadly, Sufferfest is out to prove lighter beer can still taste good. Its Repeat Kolsch, brewed with bee pollen, is 95 calories and 5 grams carbohydrate at just 3.5% alcohol. The pale ale and pilsner also are low in alcohol. 

“We are focused on consumers who are going in trying to make smarter choices and are more discerning about what they put into their bodies,” Landesberg said.

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.