Sunday, July 16, 2017 | 2 a.m.
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — There’s craft beer (interesting, delicious, caloric) and then there’s mass-market light beer (watery, disappointing, yet only 100 calories). Never the twain shall meet, right?
New technology has allowed brewers to produce low-gluten beers and low-alcohol beers, so why not low-calorie beers? Georgia’s Red Hare Brewing Co. launched Gem City Classic Craft Light Lager in January, just 140 calories and 4.2 percent alcohol by volume, and Oregon’s Omission Brewing Co. debuted a 99-calorie craft beer in April.
The trend is taking hold in Tampa Bay, with 3 Daughters Brewing launching Floating Dock Light India pale ale this month in kegs and in its tasting room, with cans of it to follow in the fall. This 118-calorie IPA is likely the first canned light craft beer in the state.
“We’ll have it on tap for the Florida Brewers Guild conference in Orlando in August, and we’ll see what the brewers think of it,” 3 Daughters co-owner Leigh Harting said Monday. “We think it’s going to be a game-changer.”
Craft beer has captured the public’s attention the past couple of years, especially in places like St. Petersburg, but domestic craft beer accounted for only 6.2 percent of sales volume in 2016. Mega brands like Budweiser and Miller still make up the vast majority of U.S. beer sales, with light beer a significant category.
While the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t have a strict definition of light beer, the industry standard is beers that contain fewer than 120 calories. Craft beers routinely tip past 250 calories. Michelob Ultra is 95 calories, Miller Lite is 96 calories and Bud Light rings in at 110, but with a fairly hefty 6.6 grams of carbohydrates.
There are risks associated with entering the light beer fray.
Gerard Walen, founder and editor of beerinflorida.com and author of Florida Breweries, guarantees that every craft “beertender” in the state is asked daily whether they’re pouring a light beer. But filling that niche could come at a cost.
“I think marketing a light craft beer could make 3 Daughters look lesser in the eyes of some hard-core craft beer geeks. But people want a low-calorie beer that hopefully has some good taste to it and quality ingredients. I can’t know until I taste it.”
On Monday morning, we tasted it. Good body, pale straw color, discernible hoppiness but not too bitter on the finish. Definitely a session beer, but with characteristic IPA flavors.
Head brewer Ty Weaver, a former chef, has been tinkering with a recipe for close to a year.
“We started with a session IPA because it’s the most popular style,” he said. “We’re not used to working with so little grain, which provides body. We used some rye to give it more malt flavor, but you can’t have too much malt flavor because that’s a lot of sugar. We’ve probably brewed it 15 to 20 times and then sent it out to be tested. If it comes back at 140 calories, we’ve got to rethink the grain.”
When 3 Daughters, now the state’s third-largest brewery by volume, started in October 2014, it budgeted $10,000 to $12,000 for its “labrewtory” in St. Petersburg. That number, they say, has hit $125,000.
Its most recent purchase? The Alex 500 for $12,000. With this unassuming gray box, Weaver can test beer samples in real time to determine calories, alcohol, degree of fermentation, sugar content and other nutritional data without sending it to outside labs. That’s nutritional data, Harting says, that restaurants, distributors and end users increasingly want to have. (She says Hooters has already asked for the brewery’s nutritional breakdowns.)
Although not yet legally required, cans of Floating Dock and 3 Daughters’ ciders will list this nutritional data.
Floating Dock has 7 grams of carbs and comes in at 4.2 percent alcohol by volume — all stats that put it squarely in line with macro offerings.
Once 3 Daughters finalizes its can design and Ball Corp. in Tampa produces pallets of 225,000 printed cans -- which Ball accomplishes in a staggering 20 minutes -- Floating Dock will hit 3 Daughters’ canning line. An arm sweeps the cans, they are date-stamped on the bottom, filled with sanitizer and flipped, filled with CO2, then with beer. They are lidded, sanitized again and stamped with a six-pack topper. They’ll produce 140 cases per minute, nearly 1,000 cases per hour.
So which mass-market light beer are Weaver and crew gunning for? Weaver is stumped. While Men’s Health and Men’s Fitness routinely preoccupy themselves with lists of good-tasting low-calorie beers, Weaver can’t dredge up one laudable entry from his early beer-drinking days. Craft beer has recalibrated things for him.
“I guess I’ve changed,” Weaver said.