Michelob Ultra is the third-best selling beer in the United States. This is impressive, because it tastes like someone wrung out a bar rag soaked in better, tastier beer into a half-glass of flat seltzer.
The fact Michelob’s hard right turn from “1980s lager” to “beer-adjacent beverage for fitness enthusiasts” is a testament to our need for a social beer. At 4.2 percent alcohol and at a higher price point than your typical — uh — budget brews (Beer 30, Steel Reserve, anything made by Minha’s), no one is drinking Michelob Ultra to get community college wasted or put a hard day of coal mining behind them. But at 95 calories, it’s a beer you can have two or three of while more advanced drinkers hang out nearby without filling up or feeling like you’re out of the social circle.
In other words, it’s the perfect beer for awkward, small sips at a party where you only know a handful of people. Like, say, a Super Bowl party.
If you are interested in beers that actually taste like something, you can do better. In fact, plenty of craft brewers — some independent, others owned by giant brewing conglomerates — are betting on that.
Low-calorie IPAs are a thing now
There’s a massive market for light beer that doesn’t taste like light beer. Its steady rise has begun to intersect with the freight train of craft brewing. The rise of local breweries across our country has also created a rising tide of increasingly-hopped pale ales. While that trend has been stalled by the American advent of barrel-aged stouts, sours, and other adventurously-flavored brews, there’s no one type of beer that screams “CRAFT BREWERY” (often through a bearded face and ironic glasses) quite like a heavily-hopped India Pale Ale.
The problem with these beers is a high gravity double-shot that hits both on alcohol by volume and caloric content. Karben4’s Fantasy Factory is a delicious hoppy beer with quite possibly the best label in the game, but it clocks in at 6.3 percent ABV — 1.5x the volume of a Michelob Ultra — and somewhere between 180-190 calories. Elysian’s Space Dust is a juicy, bitter-ish beer that’s out of this world (I am so sorry — I don’t know what just happened) but it measures out a 8.2 percent and something like 250 calories.
Beers like these are a tough sell iff your plan is to fill out four hours of Super Bowl drinking while still either:
a) Driving home
b) Working early Monday morning
c) Speaking at a normal volume while explaining how Andy Reid seems like a pretty good dude
Fortunately, there are other options. Session IPAs have been a constant in recent years, providing the hoppy balance of a pale ale with a sub-5 percent alcohol content that makes them more appropriate for yard work or tailgates. That includes “crushable” drinks like Terrapin’s RecreationAle or Ale Asylum’s Demento. While those are less likely to make you blurt out stupid comments about Jimmy Garoppolo’s handsome face, they’ll still enact a relatively heavy toll of around 150 calories each.
There’s an in-between for that now. Breweries — typically larger craft brewers with stable financial backers — have been experimenting with light IPAs. These beverages clock in on the lower side when it comes to how fat and how drunk each beer will make you, while trying to retain the slightly bitter but still smooth hoppy-ness of their other brands. Harpoon has their Rec League brew (3.8percent, 120 calories). Lagunitas is home to the DayTime IPA (4 percent, 98 calories). Dogfish Head makes the Slightly Mighty (4 percent, 95 calories).
But, for my own experiment, I turned to Goose Island’s newest offering: So-Lo IPA, which measures in at 3 percent ABV and 98 calories.
So what’s it like?
I gave the low-cal IPA craze a Super Bowl test run in a similar situation. On the night of the 2020 Royal Rumble — one week before Super Bowl 54 — I set out with four cans of So-Lo to see how the low-cal, low-booze beer treated me at my own Sunday evening watch party.*
I started with one cold beer, swigged directly from the can. It’s a light beer, so it has the kind of hollow watery ring all light beers do, but there’s no mistaking the effort the hops have put in to differentiate itself from the pack. It’s great if you’re thirsty — but as I’d soon find out, there’s a limit to that.
The first beer went down without incident. I poured the following three into a one-liter stein to facilitate their egress down my throat.
Taken out of the can, the beer pours a much prettier pint (or, in this case, liter-plus) than your typical light lager. The head lasts a decent amount of time and the brew smells great. All in all, it’s an inviting drink.
The good news: you can drink a lot of it because it’s a light beer with as much alcoholic gravity as a wine cooler. Unfortunately like many IPAs, the bitter wears on you. One of the reasons marzen beers work so well in liter steins is because is because the flavor stays crisp and malty. When you’re dealing with a lo-cal IPA instead, you’re going to run into a bit of fatigue from the taste.
Sure, you aren’t meant to pour out 36 ounces of them into a stein and go from there, but if the whole point of a light (lite?) IPA is that you can drink three or four without worrying about having to drive or ruining your diet, that’s something worth talking about. The flavor is strong enough that you’re more likely to get sick of drinking this mostly-faithful approximation of a true IPA than you would a tasteless light beer.
And there’s the rub! The flavor is good and the end result is a relatively guilt-free experience. You aren’t going to feel awful at any point after drinking a low-cal IPA — not from hangovers (I think I wound up more hydrated than when I started, if we’re being honest) and probably not from a beer gut standpoint. Given the choice, however, I’d rather ration out two full-strength beers over the course of a Super Bowl party than continually sip my way through four half measures.
Or, to put it in Michael Scott terms:
I’m not here to beer shame anyone. Drink what you like. If Michelob Ultra is your thing, then by all means bring that six pack to your Super Bowl party.
But if you’re into mixing it up, you’ve got options. You can drink a medium amount of good beer, or a whole bunch of pretty good beer.
Have a nice Super Bowl. I love you.
*One person showed up. I blame this on the fact all my friends are both too sophisticated for battles royal and all unwilling to keep their young children awake past 8 p.m. and not the fact I am generally unlikable.