All beer contains sugar - it's a necessity in order to create alcohol. However, the overall sugar content varies based on the style of beer in your glass. Below I'll explain how beer is made, why there is sugar in beer and how much sugar you can expect to find in different types of beers, ales and lagers.
How Is Beer Made?
Beer, for the most part, is a healthy beverage made with four natural ingredients. These ingredients are water, hops, grain (mostly barley, but this can vary based on style), and yeast. The brewing process is actually surprisingly simple to understand, yet extremely difficult to master.
Between all the combinations of hops, yeast, and barley alone, there are thousands of ways to combine these ingredients to brew a beer. This is why there are so many styles of this popular drink. But how does this relate to sugar in beer? Let's take a look at the brewing process to find out.
The first step in brewing beer is to mix all the grain with hot water. This is called the "mash". In essence, this step is all about extracting the sugars from the grain. The boiling water breaks down the grain and extracts as much sugar as possible in the process. Depending on how much grain is present and the type of grain used, this amount can vary dramatically.
Now that the brewer's have some hot, sugary water, they add in hops. Hops don't actually add much sugar to the beverage, so we won't discuss them much. However, if you enjoy India Pale Ales (IPA) or like your beers to have a more floral taste to them, you can thank hops!
The next step in the process is to add the final ingredient to the mix. Yeast.
Yeast is a microscopic organism that loves to eat sugar. The byproduct of this consumption is alcohol. As yeast chews up the sugar in wort (this is the term for beer in it's early stages, before yeast is added) it excretes alcohol. Therefore, in order to have an alcoholic beverage like beer, sugar is a necessity.
The yeast will then sit in the beer for several days, potentially weeks, depending on the style being brewed. As it munches away at the sugar, it is increasing the alcohol content of the beverage while simultaneously lowering the sugar content. Sugar content in beer is know as "Gravity" in the industry. A "High Gravity" beer will start with loads of sugar, ultimately leading to a highly alcoholic beverage.
Eventually, the yeast in the beer will begin to die, as the alcohol content rises. At some point, the yeast will no longer be able to digest the sugars in the beer, and fermentation will cease. Once this happens, the brewers will chill the tank, and then send the beer over to be packaged. Any sugar that is left at this point will end up in the final product.
This is a highly simplified view of the brewing process, but it allows us to understand where the sugar is coming from. Brewer's measure sugar in beer using hydrometer or refractometer.
When a beer is finished fermenting they will use these devices to determine the "Final Gravity" of the beer; that is, how much sugar is leftover. Unless this reads "0.000", there is leftover sugar. As far as beer styles go, most require at least a little residual sugar for flavor.
Does "Dark Beer" Contain More Sugar Than "Light Beer"?
It's a common misconception that "Dark Beer" contains more sugar than "Light Beer". It is assumed that these beers are "heavier" than their "lighter" colored companions, and the conclusion is immediately made that they must have more sugar.
While it is sometimes true that darker beers contain loads of sugar, it is not always the case!
Darker beer is made with roasted malt. Roasted malt is simply a type of grain that has been roasted until it has achieved a darker color. The specific time spent roasting is based on the style of beer being brewed. The malt is then mixed with hot water, and the dark color is imparted to the mixture.
However, less malt is needed for dark beers than it is for light colored beers. Think of this in terms of food coloring; You only need a few drops of dark food coloring to achieve a dark color, where as a lighter color (such as yellow) might require several more drops. This means that dark beers can use less grain than lighter beers. In effect, this means that dark beers can use less sugar than their "yellow" counterparts.
No matter the color of beer, it all comes down to how much sugar is fermented by the yeast.
Original Gravity Vs. Final Gravity
Now that we've established some basics about how beer is brewed, and dispelled a common misconception, let's discuss one last concept. It's a simple concept, and is the only factor that truly matters when it comes to sugar in beer... Original Gravity Vs. Final Gravity.
We previously talked about gravity as the measure of sugar in beer. To dig a bit deeper, we can define two terms:
- Original Gravity: Total sugar in the beer BEFORE fermentation
- Final Gravity: Total sugar in the beer AFTER fermentation
By comparing these two values of a beer, we can determine both the alcohol content and sugar content of the final product. For example, let's say a beer starts with an original gravity of 1.15, and ends with a final gravity of 1.00. This means the yeast was able to ferment enough of the sugars to reduce the gravity by 0.15. While it may not seem like a lot, this process is able to product a beer with an alcohol content of over 10%! The final gravity is also low, which means it does not contain much sugar.
In essence, the final gravity tells the final sugar content. The lower this number, the less sugar in your glass.
The difference between original and final gravity tells the alcohol content. The larger the difference, the more alcoholic the beverage.
Types of Sugar in Beer
The most common type of sugar in beer is maltose. This is the sugar released from the grain when mixed with hot water. There have not been many studies performed related to the health benefits of maltose, however it is believed to be healthier than many other types of sugar, including fructose and glucose. Dozens of other types of sugars can be found in beer depending on the grains used, but the overwhelming majority will always be maltose.
This is the main type of sugar produced by grain in order to provide energy to its cells. It is also a type of sugar that can be readily digested by yeast, allowing for quick fermentation and an efficient way to produce alcohol in beer.
Ale, Lager, and Beer?
Many people often wonder what the difference is between all these terms. Thankfully, the answer is quite simple, and only comes down to one factor!
Ale and lager are both types of beer. The main difference between what makes a beer an ale or a lager is simply the strain of yeast used to brew the beer. If the yeast strain typically stays near the top of the vessel to ferment the beer, it is an "Ale". If the yeast dwells near the bottom of the vessel, it is a "Lager". Lagers tend to have a "cleaner, less fruity" flavor than ales. Lagers are also fermented at lower temperatures than ales.
Higher temperatures usually allow the yeast to produce esters, a flavorful compound that is highly desirable to many types of beer. In summary, ales and lagers are both types beer, but ales tend to contain more flavor. Within these two types of beers you can find all the styles of beer, such as stout, pilsner, IPA, etc.
Beer Styles and Sugar
Each style of beer relies on different hop varies, yeast strains, and grain bills. In the end, sugar content only relates to the final gravity. All of these variables play a role on that value, but in order to bypass this complexity, looking at final gravity is enough to give the values we are looking for. Here are some popular styles of beer and the sugar content in each.
Lite American Lager
These are the staple beers for most consumers. They are extremely light in color and very low in calories and alcohol content. Oftentimes, these styles will use rice or even corn syrup to lower costs, instead of using real grain or barley. However, they are truly "Lite" in every sense of the word. With a final gravity around 1.000 (depending on brand), they contain almost no sugars! You can expect to consume 4 grams of sugar per liter, or less than 1 gram per 12 ounces of per.
Standard American Lager
The more "flavorful" brother of the "Lite American Lager", these tend to include more alcohol, more flavor, and more sugars. These beverages have a final gravity of around 1.010. Convert this to sugar per serving, and we're looking at around 10 grams of sugar per bottle!
American Wheat Beer
These beers are made exclusively with wheat as the grain used. This imparts a unique flavor and a final gravity similar to that of Standard American Lagers. Wheat beers tend to hold a final gravity of 1.010 (again dependent on the exact brand), yielding around 10 grams of sugar per bottle. This is still much less than the 39 grams of sugar in a can of coke. On top of that, the sugar being consumed is maltose as opposed to nasty high fructose corn syrup.
Hundreds of craft brewer's have made this style famous, often offering it as a flagship beer for their brewery. The large quantity of hops in this beer means it usually only has a few weeks before it goes bad, but it also keeps it from being contaminated by other microbes during the brewing process. With a final gravity of nearly 1.015, however, it is a bit high in the sugar department. Expect around 15 grams of sugar per glass.
As previously mentioned, the color of a beer isn't always an indicator of sugar content. The American Stout is about as dark as a beer can get, but contains just about as much sugar as the much lighter American IPA. The American Stout usually comes in with a final gravity of 1.020. Translated to sugar per glass? Around 20 grams per glass; only a bit more sugar than an IPA!
Looking for something that's high in alcohol content and full of floral flavors? The Double IPA hits all the right notes. Crafting such a powerful beverage also comes at the cost of a high final gravity of 1.025. Per glass? Around 25 grams of sugar!
A fantastic style that seems to be making a resurgence among craft breweries. Brewed with ale yeast, but then conditioned at low temperatures like a lager, it is unique among beer styles. Offering the best of both worlds, it also offers a fairly low final gravity. Convert 1.015 to sugar per 12 ounces, and we end up with around 15 grams.
Sugar In Beer - The Bottom Line
While it's true that beer is much lower in sugar content that most wines, it still contains quite a bit of residual sugars leftover from the brewing process. These sugars are mostly assumed to be healthy, such as maltose, but they are typically overlooked by most consumers.
Beer is not regulated the same way as most other food and beverage products, and usually does not contain a readily available nutrition label on the packaging. This makes it dangerously easy to consume sugar without even knowing it!
However, many websites are beginning to offer nutrition information on specific brands of beer. Be sure to do your research before heading out to the bar or restaurant, that way you are prepared before you order a drink. With a bit of preparation, you'll be cutting out alcoholic sugars before you know it!
If you would like to know more about cutting sugar from your diet click on my video below.