Scott Sharp-Heward has very personal reasons for wanting to brew a low carb beer.

Sharp-Heward, quality manager and technical brewer at Sawmill in Matakana, learned last year he had developed Type 1 diabetes, possibly as a result of Covid-19.

He was planning his return to New Zealand last year after two years in the UK, when he started to worry about losing weight.

“I hadn’t been feeling great but there was nothing specific. The only symptom was weight loss. The nature of living in UK at the time was that the NHS was fully overwhelmed with Covid and appointments with doctors were near impossible to get.

“So, I parked it until we got to New Zealand, where I lost a considerable amount of weight when we were in MIQ.

“I’d weighed myself on the luggage scales at Heathrow and weighed myself again in MIQ and despite lying around and doing nothing, I’d lost another 5kg – so it was definitely time for a doctor’s visit. I was worried I had cancer.”

One blood test later and the type 1 diabetes diagnosis came in. A subsequent finger-prick test showed he was in a state of ketoacidosis and he was admitted to hospital.

“Technically I was in ketoacidosis, but I hadn’t had any symptoms. They kept asking me if I was feeling OK and when I asked why, they told me ‘well, normally you’d be going into a coma at this stage’.”

After an IV dose of insulin therapy he was sent home with his insulin, needles, and a finger-pricking device to test his blood glucose levels. He has since moved to using a “continuous glucose monitor”, which is implanted in his arm and provides a new glucose reading to his phone every five minutes via Bluetooth — with Sharp-Heward noting that “sadly these devices are self-funded in New Zealand for T1”.

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease, and while Sharp-Heward has no family history of it, there is family history of autoimmune disease.

While type 1 usually starts in childhood or adolescence, it’s now understood it can start in adulthood too – possibly as a post-infection autoimmune response. Recently, there’s growing evidence that T1 can be related to Covid-19 infection.

“I never had confirmed case of Covid-19,” Sharp-Heward says. “But right at the start of Covid, in March 2020 before there was widespread testing, I did have something for a month where I was really sick.”

Scott Sharp-Heward

Scott Sharp-Heward

Sharp-Heward’s experience with T1 diabetes is a driving force behind his desire to develop a low-carb beer at Sawmill.

His glucose meter gives real-time feedback on what food and drink do to his blood sugar, so he knows that low carb beer makes a difference to his condition and his enjoyment of life.

Because artificial insulin is not as sensitive as naturally-produced insulin, those living with T1 have to constantly tinker with their insulin dosages, depending on what they’ve eaten and how much exercise they’ve done.

“I have science background and it has become a problem to be solved – a challenge to work out the best management plan. The official line when I was diagnosed — and this is how the medical system sees it — is that you can eat whatever you want and just use insulin to dose. I don’ think that’s good advice…as it’s not truly like human insulin. Someone with a fully working pancreas produces an insulin response to deal with the size of the blood sugar spike after a meal. But it also has feedback systems to start deactivating as needed as well.

“A certain amount of insulin injected will reduce a certain amount of blood sugar, but when you know what carbs you’re putting in, you’re better able to correctly calculate your insulin dosing.”

For those with T1, it’s often a tightrope between too much or too little insulin. Being too low on blood sugar has negative effects: “It’s like finding yourself unpleasantly drunk when you didn’t expect to be and unable to solve simple problems.” Plus, it’s dangerous as your brain needs that sugar to function properly.

Being too high in blood sugars can lead to lots of other long-term health problems, such as vision loss, nerve damage, or it can put a high load on the kidneys and lead to kidney failure later in life.

Sharp-Heward is managing my insulin requirements through rationing his carbohydrate intake — it means he needs less insulin and there’s less chance of anything going wrong. And he’s actually come to enjoy the lower carb lifestyle. “When you get into habit of it, it feels quite good. You don’t get that bloating from excessive carb consumption and you don’t get blood sugar highs and lows.”

And so, we come to low carb or “lifestyle” beer.  Some people deride low carb beer as a fad for people on keto diets, or marketing over substance, or not even necessary at all – arguing that all beer is relatively low-carb compared with other foods such as bread or pasta.

Since his diagnosis, Sharp-Heward realises it’s definitely more than a “mere lifestyle” beer.

“I’d never really thought about low carb beer until I was confronted with the knowledge that there’s a huge group of people like me, for whom it’s not a lifestyle choice – it’s a way to enjoy things they love while being able to manage health conditions, of which T1 diabetes is only one.

“Isn’t it the truth with humans: we say `why would I drink that?’, but there might come a time when it makes more sense. If you have to restrict carbs, you still want things that make life enjoyable, rather than just living it out. That’s what’s driving me: to make good beer so that people with restrictions can enjoy them. There’s a whole group of people like myself who still want to have these treats in life, but need to be cautious about it.

“I’m driven from a personal sense and a professional sense to excel at these products and give a shit, rather than it being a brand exercise or purely a commercial exercise – although it does have to stack up from that perspective.”

The glucose monitor shows Sharp-Heward that low carb beers make a difference to his blood glucose. “It’s fascinating how beer affects you in terms of blood glucose…I can tell you from the horse’s mouth low carb beer makes a huge difference to managing blood sugar, there’s zero doubt in my mind.

“I can drink a couple of Epic Blues and have very little blood glucose response. Epic Blue is particularly low carb; they’ve done a really good job on that – it’s bloody dry and it’s a tasty beer.

“If you’re purely going on blood glucose, a normal craft pale ale has the same glycemic response as two or three Epic Blues.”

Low Carb Lowdown

To make a low carb beer has proved more challenging than expected.

The first Sawmill batch went down the drain as he couldn’t get the residual sugar as low as he wanted: which in technical terms is getting a final gravity around 0, or the same as water (there’s a complicated math equation that balances the lighter weight of alcohol against the few grams of residual carbs to achieve a gravity that’s close to water).

He wants to get the recipe perfect before it is sent off to be tested, as that costs around $1200 per batch. He’s aiming for a hoppy pale ale at around 4.3 per cent.

For the nerds, making such a beer is about getting the residual sugar low, but maintaining body and mouthfeel through hop oils, alcohol, and proteins from grains such oats and wheat. “And you need to be very careful with hopping rates because for a beer with a terminal gravity of water, you don’t want too many polyphenols from excessive kettle- or dry-hopping; you need a deft hand to keep the balance in the final beer.”

Low carb ultra-trendy

Michelob-Ultra Have you noticed the increased use of the word “Ultra” on beer labels lately?

There’s Speight’s Summit Ultra, Mac’s Ultra Violet, Steinlager Ultra and now Bach Brut Ultra.

Around the world you’ll also find Michelob, Miller, Molson, Kingfisher and Coopers all make beers with Ultra in the name.

“Ultra” has become shorthand for low carbohydrate beer. It sprang from the United States where breweries — starting with Michelob — jumped on a fitness and lifestyle trend that involved low carb diets and outdoor activities like mountain biking, trail running and ultra-endurance events.

While keto diets aren’t quite as in vogue as they were pre-pandemic (we all need comfort food when the world is going nuts, right?) low carb is still a big deal. Most beer is relatively low in carbohydrate (compared with bread and chips), as most of the sugars (maltose) are converted to alcohol, but there’s enough residual sugar to be of concern to people who count their carbs.

After Epic Blue and Deep Creek LoCal ventured into a market previously the domain of big breweries, there’s a been a second push of low carb craft beers this year.

It started with Urbanaut testing and rebranding their award-winning Miami Brut Lager as “low carb”, and moving it from the 250ml cans to 330ml six-packs. Then there’s Bach Brut Ultra IPA, Good George Social League and Epic (again) with Royal, a 6 per cent IPA. Sprig + Fern have just launched a low carb lager and Sawmill have one in development.

Epic’s decision to throw another low carb beer into the ring was spurred by Blue’s success.

“We just thought we’d give it a try and see how it goes,” says Luke Nicholas of Epic. “There’s plenty of interest in Blue, so having an IPA that’s lower carb than Armageddon is an exploratory exercise.”

Nicholas says low carb beers are reaching a broad market. “Everyone is at different degrees of intensity in the low carb or keto life, and there’s others who think this is a slightly healthier choice. Blue has found its group of followers and ticks along nicely. I haven’t got hard data on the market, but my feeling is that it’s craft beer drinkers looking for slightly healthier lifestyle, but not giving up the flavour they’re used to.”

Royal is brewed with some lighter crystal malts and has a deep, rich flavour with perfectly integrated hops. “It’s more along lines of how I like to brew — so many IPAs and pale ales have gone down a path of light but those crystal malts add something to an IPA for me and they work with certain hops as well.”

A warning: a lower level of carbs does not make a “healthier” beer per se, though there is a perception they are “relatively” better for you. Alcohol delivers calories, but it is neither a carb nor a fat and has a calorific density somewhere in between the two.  The good thing about low carb beers is that they come with nutritional information which is not required by law on beer, but it’s certainly great to see.

Beyond their low carb appeal, these beers have a lovely light and dry quality.

Low carb, high appeal

The rise in popularity of low carb beer and lifestyle beer in general is reflected in data from Foodstuffs North Island, which includes New World, Pak‘nSave and Four Square supermarkets.

Based on revenue low carb beer is up 20 per cent over the past year compared to the 2020-21, growing from revenue of $21 million to almost $26m. That’s driven a 21 per cent growth in the broader “lifestyle” beer category. In terms of Foodstuffs categorisation, lifestyle includes low carb, no alcohol, light alcohol, gluten-free beer, seltzer and alcoholic kombucha.

Low carb is the biggest driver in this category but there’s also been a massive growth in no-alcohol sales — up 37 per cent but off a tiny base.

There’s also been similar lifts for the other “lifestyle” products and the only loser in the category has been light alcohol (under 2.5 per cent) which has dropped 3 per cent as punters shift to low carb and no alcohol.