Beer Bottles Will Soon Include A Reality Check: A Calorie Count

Jul 21, 2016
Originally published on July 22, 2016 1:46 pm

Since calorie labeling on most alcoholic beverages is voluntary, it's often hard to know how many calories are in your favorite brew.

And — perhaps — ignorance is bliss. But ignoring those liquid calories is about to get a lot tougher. Soon, calorie counts may be staring you in the face.

The Beer Institute, a trade group that includes the biggest brewing names, such as Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors and Heineken USA, has announced a new initiative aimed at transparency.

Brewers will list calories, carbs, alcohol by volume — ABV — and other nutrition information right on their bottles and cans.

The group says participating brewers will also include a freshness date and an ingredient list, which consumers can access by a QR code or on secondary packaging, such as the box or carton.

Beer Institute CEO James McGreevy says six leading beer companies — which produce about 80 percent of all the beer sold in the U.S. — have agreed to follow the new standards.

"We've seen poll after poll that indicates ... consumers are interested in knowing calories and other information," says McGreevy. He points to a recent Harris Poll that found 72 percent of beer drinkers "think it's important to read nutritional labels when buying food and beverages."

"We're proud of this initiative," says McGreevey. And he urges wine- and spirit-makers to follow suit.

Not all brewers will add labels right away. The Beer Institute is planning a three-year implementation period.

Craft Brew Alliance, a publicly traded company based in Portland, Ore., that markets brands including Redhook and Kona Brewing, says it is still working out how it will comply.

"We are 100% committed to disclosing this information for all of our brands, but are still evaluating where the information will be located," Andy Thomas, CEO of Craft Brew Alliance, told us by email. For instance, the information could be posted on secondary packaging or the packaging could reference a website link.

The Brewers Association, a trade association for craft brewers, says don't expect all small breweries to label calories on their bottles.

"The Brewers Association supports transparency in labeling," the association's Paul Gatza told us in an email. But "the approach the large brewers have taken may not be feasible for smaller brewers, many of whom offer dozens of small scale, seasonal products every year."

A recent analysis of beers by the Center for Science in the Public Interest finds that calorie counts vary greatly.

Who knew that a bolder-tasting stout or IPAs can have double, or in some cases triple the number of calories compared with lighter beers.

"I was surprised," says Lindsay Moyer of CSPI. "Surprised to see how high in calories some of these craft beers can get."

A 12-ounce can of Budweiser has 145 calories. Compare this, says Moyer, with a Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA, which has about 240 calories.

And what about the higher-end beers?

"Brooklyn Brewery Chocolate Stout Beer has 320 calories," says Moyer. "Beers like the [chocolate stout] tend to be both higher in alcohol and carbohydrates." And the general rule of thumb is that higher-alcohol beers are also higher in calories.

So if that one beer you planned to drink becomes two — because hey, who's counting? — "You're looking at upwards of 500 calories, easily!" says Moyer.

And remember, these calorie estimates are for 12-ounce cans. If you order a draft pour in a bar or restaurant, the serving size — and yes, the calorie count, too — goes up.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Bottles and cans of leading brands of beer will soon be sold with some information that you might or might not want to know, the number of calories you are about to drink. Unlike rules that require food companies to label their products, calorie labels are not required on most alcoholic drinks. But in a push to be more transparent, leaders in the beer industry say posting calories is the right thing to do.

Here's NPR's Allison Aubrey.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Light beer has long bragged about its low calorie count.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You may wonder how we pack all that great taste into just 96 calories.

AUBREY: Miller Lite once featured women in bikinis to popularize its well-known tagline.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Taste's great.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Less filling.

AUBREY: But when it comes to disclosing calories in beer, light beer has been the exception to the rule. Most beer brands have left us guessing. So who knew that, say, bolder-tasting stouts and IPAs can have double or, in some cases, triple the amount of calories compared to lighter beers?

Lindsay Moyer of the watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest analyzed the range of calories in different beers.

LINDSAY MOYER: I was surprised. I was surprised to find how high in calories some of these higher alcohol craft beers can get.

AUBREY: For example, a 12-ounce bottle of Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA has 240 calories. Compare that to the 145 calories in a regular Budweiser. And the calorie counts go even higher.

MOYER: Brooklyn Brewery Chocolate Stout beer, for example, has 320 calories. And beers like that tend to be higher in both alcohol and carbohydrates.

AUBREY: So if that one beer you plan to drink becomes two because, hey, who's counting?

MOYER: You're looking at upwards of 500 calories easily.

AUBREY: Now, ignoring the calories in your beer is about to get harder. Soon, calorie counts may be staring you in the face when you pick up a beer bottle. The Beer Institute, a trade group that represents industry giants including Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors, Heineken USA and some craft brewers, has announced a new initiative aimed at transparency.

Beer Institute CEO Jim McGreevy says six leading beer companies, which produce 80 percent of all the beer sold in the U.S., have agreed to begin labeling calories, carbs and alcohol content.

JIM MCGREEVY: We've seen poll after poll, Allison, that indicates that consumers are interested in knowing the calorie and other kinds of information that are in their products.

AUBREY: Now, not all brewers will add labels right away. The company behind Redhook and Kona Brewing tells us it's still working out whether to post calories on bottles or on their company website. And the Brewers Association, a trade group for craft brewers, says these new labels may not be feasible financially for some smaller brewers.

As for Beer Institute CEO McGreevy, I asked him if he'll begin paying attention to calorie counts on the beers he drinks.

Do you count calories yourself?

MCGREEVY: Sometimes.

(LAUGHTER)

AUBREY: McGreevy says labels have already started to appear, but it'll take three years to complete the rollout. And he says he hopes the wine and spirit industries will follow suit. Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.