Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries

February 3, 2007

Home Brewin’:

Low Carb Beer?

Say goodbye to crappy macro light beers by brewing your own low-carb frankenstein.
by Jug Dunningan

Jug Dunningan is just here for the beer.
Contact Jug»
As disgusting as low carb and light beers sound, there has been a bit of a demand for beer with less carbohydrates by today’s dieters. Bud Select, along with a slew of other crappy macros, is a direct result of this demand.

But are light and ultra light “beers” (using the term extremely loosely here) not for you? Join the club and read on. It is possible to create drinkable, lower carb beer, but some compromises have to be made along the way.

How It Works
Carbohydrates in beer are technically starchy carbohydrates, more commonly referred to simply as starches. Starch molecules are just long chains of glucose—otherwise known as sugar—molecules. These occur naturally in barley (and other beer adjuncts such as corn or rice) and, hence, in beer. Starches are pretty much unfermentable, so during the brewing process brewers must make use of diastatic enzymes to break them down into two components: maltose (basically, two glucose molecules attached to each other), which is very fermentable; and dextrins (a chain of four or more glucose molecules, and still a carbohydrate) which is not fermentable. Controlling these starch conversions is, in effect, the “art” of brewing. Brewers can control the amount of dextrins (carbohydrates) that are not broken down into glucose with the proper amount of heat and brewing times, depending on the character of the beer they are aiming for. Fermentation consumes the glucose and results in alcohol and carbon dioxide. The dextrins remain intact.

But why leave dextrins? Why not convert them to glucose and ferment them into alcohol? Because dextrins contribute a lot to the beer’s body and to the perception of its sweetness. Basically, dextrins are responsible for the “maltiness” of a beer. And the dextrins are where the low-carb compromising comes in.

Let’s take an example. I home brewed a batch of Belgian Tripel. This finished with a specific gravity of 1.014, resulting in 8.1 percent alcohol, approximately 290 calories and 12.42 grams of carbohydrates per 12 oz. serving. After the primary fermentation was complete I added a crushed Beano tablet. Beano is an enzyme that breaks down carbohydrates, thus making them fermentable. Because of this new shot of fermentable sugars being created, a secondary fermentation started and was completed within a week. The result from this second round was a specific gravity of 1.005, 9.2 percent alcohol, approximately 284 calories, but only 4.43 grams of carbohydrates per 12 oz. serving, cutting the carbs down by 64 percent. This is actually fewer carbs than Bud Light (6.6 grams of carbohydrates, 110 calories). Notice the calories changed only slightly. This is because alcohol itself is high in calories; I merely changed the carbohydrates into alcohol.

There was a noticeable impact on the Tripel’s taste, however. My pre-Beano batch was rich and malty, with a medium-full body to it. The “low carb” Tripel had noticeably less body, much less residual sweetness, and a hint of hot alcohol flavor. But, all things considered, if carbohydrates and not calories was my main concern, I’d much rather enjoy the “low carb” Tripel over any commercial light beer out there.

This was a fun experiment and one with pretty interesting results. Maybe I’ll try this again if a demand or curiosity for it arises, although I would spread the test out over a variety of beers and not just a single monster Tripel. This technique is also something “non-brewers” could do at home to reduce their favorite micro brew’s carbohydrate count. You will, however, have to start with a beer that is unpasteurized and contains no sulfites. Ideally the Beano addition would take place in a growler. Watch it, though, since the secondary fermentation could result in the growler, well … exploding. You have been warned.

There are a few other procedures that can lower the carb count in home brew that are worth mentioning:

• Replace your crystal, caramel, and Munich malts in a given recipe with a chocolate malt or roasted barley. Crystal, caramel, and Munich malts contain more unfermentables that are intended to add flavor and enhance the body of a beer—but that means they’re also rich in carbohydrates. Chocolate malt and roasted barley will contribute almost no carbohydrates but still allow you to enhance your brew.

• If you like honey beers, replace up to 30 percent of your barley with honey. Honey is extremely fermentable and won’t add carbs to the finished product.

• Mash at a lower temperature—146 degrees for up to 90 minutes. This will convert more dextrin to glucose.

A combination of all of the previous ideas is probably the best route for the carb-watching home brewer to take. It may demand some experimentation to find the best result for the carb count you’re looking for, but that’s the driving force behind us zymurgists. Just make sure to send your successful recipes to old Jug.


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