Despite the massive sea change that has occurred in the American brewing scene over the past two-plus decades, one fact remains starkly constant: Light beers are, by far, the best-selling beers in the country. According to Statista, seven of the top ten, six of the top seven, and all of the top three best-selling beers in the US have “light” in the name (though Miller takes some liberties with its spelling). In the 52 weeks ending on January 24, 2016, Bud Light sold over $2 billion worth of product, nearly three times more than Budweiser, which is America’s top selling non-light beer. Coors Light moved just over $1 billion in brews. And rounding out the top three, Miller Lite had sales of $884 million. By comparison, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale – one of the top-selling and best-known craft beers – ranked 19th in sales with $79.5 million.
But what is a “light beer”? How is it different than a “regular” beer? And if light beers are so popular, why don’t more breweries make them? The answer to these questions may be simultaneously simpler and more complicated than you think.
To begin, the simplest concept to understand is that “light beer” is still beer, brewed in essentially the same manner as all beer. “Light style beers are just as much ‘regular’ beers as styles that incorporate a fuller body profile,” says Travis Moore, a brewmaster at Anheuser-Busch, maker of Bud Light. “Not all styles will be something you like, but that doesn’t mean any one style of beer is not ‘regular’ beer,” he continues, hinting at the common perception that light beers somehow aren’t as good as other styles. Technically speaking, the only factor that makes something a light beer is that it’s low in calories (and as a result, usually lower in alcohol). Remember Miller Lite’s slogan “tastes great, less filling”? “Less filling” speaks specifically to calories. And as the Great American Beer Festival says in its style guidelines (yes, awards are given for light beers), “In these beers the word ‘light’ refers to relatively low body and reduced calories, rather than to color.”