Variation in the Craft Beer Scene

With the explosion of craft beers in the United States, and the most popular beer in this country being light beers, why haven't we seen more craft light beers? I mean, I've enjoyed an albino stout, a cherry wood smoked porter, even a pineapple IPA.

But not a flavorful light beer, it just seems odd to me.

How about you?

Craft beers aren't typically described as "light" but styles that would fit that category are kolsch, helles, pilsner, wheat, hefe, and there are plenty more.

I think the real problem is that it's harder to make a good beer that isn't high ABV because you can't just throw more ingredients in to cover up any mistakes. Look at how many breweries are putting out 5% ABV "session beers". They use fermentables that don't add any body to the beer – namely rice and corn syrup. If they made an all malt beer at 4% or so, it would be significantly better. Michelob even makes a beer like this.

Look at how pilsners are less common.

Also people are less likely to try to get you to justify your prices if you're making high-octane beer. So not only is it more challenging to make a lower ABV beer, you probably can't even charge as much for it.

Look at how people have frequently been reacting to session beers when they're priced the same as other beers from the same brewery. I mean let's be real, a lot of us do both legitimately enjoy good beer and want to get a bit drunk in the process. This makes light beers, session beers, etc, an inherently hard sell.

Light Beers Are Trickier Than It Sounds

You have actually seen more craft beers than you'd realize would qualify for the definition of "lite" if anyone cared to call them that, but they have less reason to call them that because the term arose in the context of the macro lager mono-culture of decades past and hasn't been particularly relevant outside of that context.

First you have to ask yourself what exactly a light beer is and where it came from.

It's different than its big brothers but it's also partially a branding/marketing device. This creature as we usually know it is a lower calorie, lower ABV, lower taste version of a grocery store macro lager that we already know. In reality, it's probably more accurate to say it's just a different beer with those lighter qualities that rides the coattails of the existing brand for the sake of efficiency. It's easy to put out Bud Light successfully when Bud already exists, for example, rather than to make it start from scratch building up brand value in consumers' minds, even if it winds up branching off and continues to evolve into a wholly different identity.

How similar they actually are in terms of ingredients, process, and resulting flavor is probably arbitrary. Maybe those guys could comment.

But think back to the old Miller Lite ads from the 80s, where sports celebrities would divide into teams and argue back and forth about whether Miller Lite "tastes great" or is "less filling". The answer from Miller of course was "both!"

So the idea of these beers in the context of the diet-conscious 70s and 80s was to deviate from the norm of the mono-lager that hovered around 4.8 to 5% and carve out a new category, whether because you want to watch your calories or because you want to be able to drink more without getting as filled up.

And that category pretty much existed only relative to another category, which for most people in the USA back then was the only category, effectively.

And on that note, when you look at the description of Sam Adams Light, which is the only "lite" craft I can think of, they go out of their way to say "Sam Adams Light is not just a lighter version of our Samuel Adams Boston Lager but rather the culmination of over two years of tireless research and brewing trials that proved to be worth the wait." So they're saying it's its own thing, a different beer that happens to have these lighter characteristics comparable to the big macro lites.

It's 4.3% ABV by the way, just a whisker higher than Bud Light and Miller Lite.

But from there, we can recognize that there are also other craft beers out there with similarly lighter characteristics that aren't classed or branded or pitched as being in this light/lite category as we know it. And there are old world styles that have been lower ABV all along. So we might ask, "What's in a name? A beer by any other name would be as light."

Session beers are all the rage these days, most notably session IPAs, and brewers are finding ways to pack more and more flavor into beers that are lower and lower ABV.

The pitch is "you can enjoy more beers with your bros in a session and not get all fucked up as quickly." That's not quite diet consciousness but it can double as that if you want it to, though the ABV range of "session" seems to keep expanding. There are even a few "table" beers and "small" beers out there that are super low ABV, much lower than these session IPAs, though I can't verify whether the flavor holds up since I haven't had them.

But take Bud Light and Miller Lite – if any beers out there typify the light/lite category, it's those two and they clock in at about 4.2% ABV. By comparison Bud heavy is 5%, at least in the USA.

So let's use those as our benchmarks.

  • Firestone Walker Easy Jack is a session IPA that weighs in at 4.5% ABV, as many of these newer session IPAs do. Not quite Bud Light strength but not quite Bud heavy either. So that's sort of "lite". Certainly lite-er.
  • Stone's Go To IPA is 4.5% and their now-retired Levitation, which wasn't described as an IPA of any kind but was kind of an early example anyway, was 4.4%.
  • Dogfish Head Festina Peche is a Berliner Weisse at 4.5%. The lower ABV in this case is typical of the style more so than a deliberate effort to lower the ABV of an otherwise boozier style.
  • Same goes for Bells Oarsman, a Berliner Weisse at 4%. In fact, look at the Berliner Weisse style page on BeerAdvocate. Check the ABV column. Some of them are higher than Festina Peche, but most are below 4.5%, even below 4%. De Garde has one at 2.3%. Cigar City, if this can be believed, did one at 1%. By comparison to those, Bud Light is for people trying to cultivate mass.

  • Victory Donnybrook Stout is 3.7%

  • Anchor Small Beer is 3.3%.
  • Jester King Commercial Suicide is a 2.9% "farmhouse mild" ale inspired in part by the traditional English mild style that's already low ABV.
  • Jester King Le Petit Prince is a farmhouse table beer at 2.8% ABV.

As for calories, ABV isn't an exact determinant of a beer's load in that respect, but it's close enough to get a loose idea.

There are other things like residual sugars, which vary from beer to beer and contribute different amounts of calories, but the alcohol provides most of the calories. Brewers could tell you better since they deal in concepts like original gravity and final gravity.

So you can ask why we haven't seen more craft "light" beer if you want to, but if you do, recognize what it is you're asking about.

There are already a fair amount of beers out there that either approach, meet, or beat the "lightness" of the Bud Lights and Miller Lites and whatnot, but are so much more flavorful, but they just aren't classed or called or pitched as light beers. That's because the very concept of a light beer as we know it is partly a branding/marketing device and is often defined relative to other product offerings by the same companies.

Jester King Le Petit Prince is substantially lighter than Bud Light but does not care about that or about any other beer in the Jester King portfolio. It's that ABV because that's just part of what comes with that style. In fact, traditional table beer back across the water was often even lower than that.

With all of that said, you could accurately brand and market any of the above beers as "light" and maybe reap some of the enduring sales benefits that come from people's perception of what light beer means. Maybe that's actually what you're asking. But at that point I'd defer to ElGringoAlto's answer in this thread. Most of us craft fans have not wanted or cared about light beer ever since we moved away from macros for reasons of flavor.

I don't care too much about ABV or calories myself – I want flavor and complexity and other nice things however you can get them to me.

But maybe as the macro and craft worlds and audiences continue to converge, we actually will see more craft beers pitched as "lite". If somebody's goal when they go to the store is to buy beer that is specifically lower calorie, maybe it makes sense to market to them with a word they already recognize and instantly know the definition of. They may have no clue that berliner weisses are typically lower ABV/calorie, but they know "light". And they may not know tha ABV scales similarly to calories but, again, they know "light".

So that might be a really effective way to grab the business of someone who likes craft but wants lower cal, or this category of people who don't know anything about craft and are still fine with macro but want to experiment while keeping it light.

Guess we'll see.

In The Market For A Light Craft Beer?

I think it's natural to assume that there would be a big market for these types of beers, but I think upon closer inspection that may not be the case.

First, consider that most people who now drink craft beer may once have been light beer drinkers who migrated away from that style because they're looking for more flavor and more interesting beer styles.

They're no longer interested in regularly drinking light beer to begin with. Berliner Weiss is usually 3.5ish ABV

Second, consider the economic side.

A craft brewer, if they make an American light lager, will never be able to compete against the likes of AB and MillerCoors on price. There are some very low ABV craft beers, but you don't see them much. I doubt craft aficionados want to pay craft prices for a low ABV beer on the regular.

Their comparable beer is going to be far more expensive, and difficult to convince drinkers they should spend more on that type of beer. Drinkers have been conditioned that they will pay more for say, an IPA, but light lager? We simply expect that to be cheap, when in reality it wouldn't be that much cheaper for a craft brewer to make. Sure, there are less hops/malt, but actual ingredient costs are a very small portion of the total cost of making a beer.

So in the end, even if craft brewers did make more light lager-type beers, I'm not sure there would be a very big market for it. Light beers have lesser sugars to start with, so while you get lesser calories in the end, this also means there's less fermented end products to flavor the beer.

They're essentially mutually exclusive. It's the same as expecting all fine dining restaurants to offer healthy alternatives to their menu. That's not why or how they designed their menu.

There really isn't a strong enough market for small, independent brewers to spend money on testing, manufacturing, and distributing a light beer, which most craft-fans wouldn't be interested in.