Down the street from me is an Irish-themed pub that I have a drink at once or twice a week. And every other or week or so, almost without fail, I will overhear a comment about Guinness beer.
I love Guinness – I think it’s a beer lover’s sort of ‘kick back and watch the game on Sunday’ kind of beer. It goes great with potatoes prepared in just about any way, deep-fried snacks, or even a burger or sausage fresh off the grill. That is to say, unsurprisingly, Guinness tends to pair well with white, starchy carbs and red meats. That’s because, particularly as Americans, we associate Guinness with hearty, filling foods. Guinness is hearty and filling, after all. Isn’t it?
This is actually something of a myth, largely perpetuated by your taste buds and your brain. Working in tandem, they will readily convince you Guinness is a big, heavy beer that goes straight to your gut. One or two pints is more than enough for most people before they feel as though they’re going to burst at the seams. Now, I’m not a food scientist, a chemist, or a neuroscientist. I can’t tell you exactly why Guinness tends to evoke these feelings, but I can give you a pretty good layman’s flyover, I think.
First, there’s the taste. What does Guinness taste like? Well, like most dry stouts, it tastes like burnt malt to a degree. Malt is short for malted barley, and it’s what can give a beer a “toasty,” “nutty,” or “bready” flavor profile if we’re talking about something like a classic British old ale, or a full-bodied German Märzen (the beer of Oktoberfest). Malt is also the primary source of carbohydrates in beer, so the more malt you taste (either breadiness or sweetness), likely the more carbs the beer has, in the form of residual sugars not metabolized by the yeast (yeast makes beer alcoholic by eating the sugars in the malt).
Guinness, though, is tricky in this regard – because the malts used to give the beer its distinct flavor and color are so dark and heavily roasted, it doesn’t take much of them to impart that very dark tint and classic stout taste. These dark malts also don’t contain much for the yeast to eat (because of the roasting), meaning they don’t leave much residual sugar behind or dramatically raise the alcohol content of the beer. In fact, most of Guinness’ alcohol and carb content probably comes from other, much milder malts that impact the flavor of the beer very little. Anyway, lets go to the numbers.
Carbohydrates per 12 fluid ounces, in grams:
- Budweiser (classic): 10.6g
- Heineken (classic): 9.8g
- Blue Moon (wheat): 12.9g
- Sierra Nevada (pale ale): 14.1g
- Guinness: 10g
Whoah there, Guinness has fewer carbs than a can of Bud? How’s that even possible? Well, again, it’s a trick on your taste buds. Guinness has a much darker, burnt malt profile than something like Heineken or Budweiser, which are lagers. There’s also the texture – Guinness draft is almost exclusively dispensed with a nitrous oxide infusion system (I believe rarely it’s still had from a cask at the brewery in Dublin). Nitrous, as opposed to CO2 (carbonation), is a flavor muter, rather than an enhancer. You taste less of the beer, though sometimes with certain styles nitrous imparts benefits that outweigh the loss of some of those characteristics. Nitrous is what can give beers like Guinness their signature rich, creamy, dense head of foam. The entire pour of the beer also adopts some of this profile – nitrous beers feel more syrupy, thick, and dense than highly carbonated (standard draught tap) ones. And, once again, your taste buds fool you: the popping, bubbly carbonation of most beer is something we tend to associate with “lightness.” Soda, champagne, sparkling water. Does anyone generally think of those beverages as “heavy”? No – they’re light and refreshing! Guinness, by contrast, feels dense, thick, and even looks filling.
If you want to know what Guinness tastes like without the muting, heaviness-imparting nitrous infusion, go to a local BevMo or other large dedicated wine / beer/ spirits retailer (eg, not a liquor store probably) and find Guinness Foreign Extra Stout. It comes in a four-pack, and is fully carbonated. It’s a bit more intense than standard Guinness (7.6% ABV vs 4%), so it’s not like it’s the same beer, but it’s obviously a very similar recipe. It’s outstanding, by the way – if you like Guinness, you owe yourself an opportunity to try Foreign Extra (not to be confused with the standard Guinness Extra Stout, which is just OK).
Anyway, back to the topic at hand. Why is Guinness a good dieting beer, then? Well, good luck finding an alcoholic drink your brain is going to interpret as rich and carby (and thus convince you that you should be feeling full) without actually being all that rich and carby. A 12 oz bottle of Guinness contains a mere 125 calories, and has just 10g of carbs. That means an American 16 oz pint is around 160 calories, and about 12.5g of carbohydrates.
As with anything, Guinness can be overdone on a diet, and you may eventually develop a tolerance for the “full” feeling as your brain catches on to the fact that Guinness isn’t actually all that carb-rich. If you’re counting calories or going low-carb, you could still end up missing your goals because of overindulgence in Ireland’s famous liquid repast. But if you were under the impression dieting meant no beer at all, let alone good beer, don’t be afraid to raise a glass or two of Guinness a few times a week – it’s certainly a healthier late-night “snack” than a Big Mac.