What Makes Light Beer Different From All Other Beer?

light beer
Photo: © Arielle Cifuentes

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."

But less than or reduced from what? Herein lies what may be light beer's most unique characteristic: Light beers typically stand as a counterpoint to another beer already in a brewery's repertoire. For instance, a brewery doesn't need to have a stout in its lineup to make a beer in the bigger style of imperial stout, but the best known light beers tend to be "lighter" versions of another, more caloric beer.

This phenomenon may also explain why light beers are often seen as lesser beers. "Light beer has been around since the early 1970s. For the most part, light beers have been watered down versions of their flagships that compromised flavor in return for lower calories," explains Jim Koch, the man behind Samuel Adams, who set out to change light beer's reputation. His brand made waves in the industry when, in 2001, it introduced a light version of its signature beer, Samuel Adams Boston Lager, called Sam Adams Light – a move often seen as unbefitting a "craft" brewer. "In the 1990s, we wondered 'What would a 'light' beer look like for Sam Adams?'" Koch explains. "It had to be flavorful and not a pale, fizzy, flavorless brew. When it came to brewing a beer with more flavor, we knew we needed to play around with both the recipe and the brewing process." That "playing around" period lasted for two years and 23 test batches according to Koch.

The story behind Sam Adams Light illuminates two key points about brewing a light beer: First, as long as a light beer has less calories, it doesn't have to fit a specific flavor profile, but second, and more importantly, though making light beer is fundamentally the same as making regular beer, it's easy to see the process as more involved or more complicated.

"During the brewing process, we use a technique called decoction mashing which is a way to conduct multi-step mashes without adding additional water or applying heat to the mash tun," Koch tells me, getting into a bit more detail. "While this process requires more time and attention, it is an enzyme suppressing step. Knowing this, we can kiln the malt at a higher temp and kill malt enzymes to make our beer less caloric." In layman's terms, killing enzymes will lower the amount of fermentable sugars, dropping both the alcohol content and the number of calories. But the fact that we need layman's terms just proves that making a light beer goes beyond basic homebrewing knowledge. Still, Koch insists, "In terms of the brewing process, it is not more difficult to create beer with the sole goal of having less calories, it's just different."

However, Anheuser-Busch's Moore does believe some parts of producing a light beer could be considered more difficult, particularly when it comes to quality control. "Light style lager beers are definitely difficult to make with a consistent and repeatable flavor profile," Moore tells me. "All the beers we brew have a rigorous quality control routine in place to consistently make high quality beers in a repeatable fashion … but Light American Lagers can be extremely unforgiving due to their lighter body and more subtle flavor profiles."

That strict level of quality control could be a key factor in answering our final question: With over 5,000 breweries in America, why don't more of them produce a beer that fits into America's best-selling style? Moore suggests a few reasons why light-style American lagers are mainly a macro-brewery phenomenon. First, the larger scale "allows for a high level of scrutiny" of ingredients. "For example, a large portion of our malt is malted in our own facilities utilizing our world renowned expertise in producing the highest quality malted barley in the world." Time and money are also factors. The up-front costs for the equipment can prove prohibitive and, as Sam Adams found out, the "unforgiving process takes years of study and experience to master," Moore explains.

But Koch offers up another explanation for smaller brewers' unwillingness to enter the light beer category. "A lot has changed since the 1970s," says the man who first brewed Boston Lager back in 1984. "Brewers and drinkers today, when they reach for a craft beer, aren't thinking of calorie count, they're thinking of flavor. A brewer won't compromise his or her art to cut a few calories from a masterpiece!"

That's not to say that light beers aren't an art in themselves. It's simply a different type of art: one more built around a specific type of technical mastery. Even Moore evokes the idea of artistry when talking about light beer. "Anyone who truly loves beer and understands the artistic touch of the brewmaster, and respects the profound scientific understanding required to make any style of beer, respects all beer styles," the Anheuser-Busch brewer says. "All styles have their own unique reasons for existing and are meant to be created for the consumers that love that style."

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