While your favorite brew might contain additional ingredients, beer is generally made of grains, spices, yeast, and water.
Although sugar is not included in the list, it’s necessary to produce alcohol.
As such, you may wonder whether there’s any sugar in beer and how much it contains.
This article reviews the sugar content of beer.
The beer brewing process
To know how much sugar is in beer, you first have to understand how beer is made.
The main ingredients in beer are grains, spices, yeast, and water. Barley and wheat are the most utilized grains, while hops are the principal flavoring spice.
The brewing process consists of the following steps:
- Malting. This step allows for the controlled germination of the grain. This is a crucial step, as germination helps break down stored starch into fermentable sugar — mainly maltose.
- Mashing. Mashing is the process of roasting, milling, and soaking the germinated grains in hot water. The result is a sugar-containing liquid called wort.
- Boiling. During this step hops or other spices are added. The wort is then briefly cooled and filtrated to eliminate plant residue and debris.
- Fermentation. At this point, yeast is added to the wort to ferment it, which converts sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide.
- Maturation. This is the last brewing step, during which beer is stored and left to age.
As you can see, sugar is an essential element in beer making.
However, it’s not added as an ingredient. Instead, it comes from processing the grains and fermented by yeast to produce alcohol.
Summary: Sugar is essential in the beer brewing process, but it’s not added as an ingredient. Instead, it comes from the germination of the grains.
Beer gravity refers to the density of the wort relative to water at various stages of fermentation, and it’s primarily determined by sugar content.
A high sugar concentration wort is called a high gravity wort.
As the yeast ferments the wort, its sugar content decreases while its alcohol content increases, lowering its gravity and resulting in a beer with high alcohol content.
Therefore, beers have an initial and final gravity, and the difference indicates the amount of sugar converted into alcohol.
Ale vs. lager
Both ales and lagers are different types of beers, and their main difference is the yeast strain used for brewing.
Ale beers are made with the Saccharomyces cerevisiae strains, while lager beers use Saccharomyces pastorianus.
Beer yeasts are highly efficient when it comes to fermenting sugar.
Still, several factors affect yeast’s fermenting efficiency, including brewing temperatures and beer’s rising alcohol content. Once the alcohol content is too high for them to survive, fermentation stops.
While both strains produce alcohol as an end product, ale yeasts have a higher alcohol tolerance than lager yeasts — meaning they can survive in higher alcohol environments.
Therefore, ales generally have a higher alcohol content and lower sugar content.
Summary: Beer gravity reflects the amount of sugar in beer. As the yeast ferments sugar, beer’s gravity decreases, and alcohol content increases. Yeast strains used in ales have a higher alcohol tolerance. Thus, their remaining sugar content tends to be lower.
Sugar content in beer
Sugars are carbs. Sugar is the most basic unit of carbs.
Structurally, carbs are divided into mono-, di-, oligo-, and polysaccharides, depending on whether a compound has 1, 2, 3–10, or more than ten sugar molecules, respectively.
Suggested read: Is sourdough bread gluten-free?
Beer’s primary sugar type is maltose, made of two glucose molecules. Hence, it’s classified as a disaccharide — a type of simple sugar.
However, maltose and other simple sugars comprise only about 80% of the wort’s fermentable sugar content. In contrast, the remaining 20% consists of oligosaccharides, which the yeast doesn’t ferment.
Still, your body can’t digest oligosaccharides either, so they are considered calorie-free and act as prebiotic fibers or food for your gut bacteria.
Therefore, while beer contains a fair amount of carbs, its sugar content tends to be relatively low.
Summary: Beer’s sugar content comprises 80% fermentable sugars and 20% oligosaccharides. Yeast can’t digest oligosaccharides, but neither can your body. Thus, beer’s final sugar content may still be relatively low.
How much sugar is in various types of beer?
As explained above, beer’s sugar content may vary depending on its initial gravity and the type of yeast strain used to ferment it.
Yet, beer manufacturers may include other sugar-containing ingredients in their recipes, such as honey and corn syrup, to give their beer a distinctive flavor.
Nevertheless, labeling regulations for alcoholic beverages in the United States do not require manufacturers to report the sugar content of their products.
While some state the carb content, most only disclose their alcohol content. Thus, determining how much sugar your favorite beer contains may be complex.
Still, the following list includes the sugar and carb contents found in 12 ounces (355 ml) of various types of beer:
- Regular beer: 12.8 grams of carbs, 0 grams of sugar
- Light beer: 5.9 grams of carbs, 0.3 grams of sugar
- Low carb beer: 2.6 grams of carbs, 0 grams of sugar
- Non-alcoholic beer: 28.5 grams of carbs, 28.5 grams of sugar
As you can see, light beers are slightly higher in sugar than regular beers. This may be due to differences in their fermentation process.
Suggested read: Is beer gluten-free?
Light beers are produced by adding glucoamylase to the wort — an enzyme that breaks down residual carbs and transforms them into fermentable sugars. This reduces both the calorie and alcohol contents of the beer.
Additionally, since none of the wort’s sugar is converted into alcohol in non-alcoholic beers, these have the highest sugar content.
Remember that while beer’s sugar content may be low, regular beers are still a source of carbs, affecting your blood sugar levels.
Furthermore, beer’s alcohol content is still a significant source of calories, even without any reported sugars.
Summary: Regular beers tend to be sugar-free, and light beers report barely 1 gram per can. However, non-alcoholic beers have the highest sugar content of all.
Beer and blood sugar
While beer may not have that much sugar, it’s an alcoholic drink, and as such, it can lower your blood sugar levels.
Alcohol impairs sugar metabolism by inhibiting gluconeogenesis and glycogenolysis — the body’s production and breakdown of stored sugar, respectively — which are needed to maintain blood sugar balance.
Therefore, its intake may result in hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar levels, which is why it’s generally recommended to consume it with a carb-containing meal.
However, if consumed with simple carbs that raise your blood sugar levels too quickly, it may lead to an increased insulin response, resulting in hypoglycemia.
Additionally, alcohol may interfere with the effectiveness of hypoglycemic medications.
Summary: While beer may have low sugar content, as an alcoholic drink, it may lead to low blood sugar levels.
Sugar is a critical element in beer brewing, as it’s the nutrient from which yeast produces alcohol.
While a couple of factors influence yeast’s ability to convert sugar into alcohol, it’s highly efficient. Therefore, aside from the non-alcoholic types, beer tends to have low sugar content.
Still, remember that alcoholic beverages may lower your blood sugar levels.
Plus, to avoid adverse health effects, you should always drink alcohol in moderation, defined as no more than one or two standard drinks per day for women and men, respectively.