What Is Light Beer?

bartender serving light beer from a tap

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Light beer is used to describe low-calorie, light-bodied beer, without regard to its color. It's brewed in the same manner as any other beer and may be of any beer style, though lagers are most common. The fermentable sugars in alcohol are responsible for the majority of a beer's calories. To reduce the calorie count, most brewers simply lower the alcohol content.

Light beers have been brewed in the United States since the 1970s. American breweries continue to dominate this market, though light beer is produced elsewhere as well. Light beers are designed to satisfy drinkers who want to enjoy a beer while maintaining a healthier lifestyle. They are among the best-selling beers in America, and macro breweries dominated the market for decades. Today, craft brewers produce some very nice light beers as well.

Fast Facts

  • ABV: 2.3–4.5%
  • Bitterness: 8–20 IBU
  • Color: 2–14 SRM

What Is the Difference Between Light Beer and Regular Beer?

Miller Lite was launched in 1975 and lays claim as the first light beer. The 96-calorie brew started a trend that many of America's largest breweries followed: Brew a lower-calorie counterpart to the brand's "heavier" flagship beer. Generally, light beers have around 100 calories. Some contain as few as 55 to 60 calories, while others may have as many as 120 calories.

The catch is that the calorie count is generally only lower in relation to the original beer, not to every beer on the market. There is no industry standard for what qualifies as "low-calorie." For example, a 12-ounce can of Budweiser has 145 calories, while Bud Light has 110 calories. Likewise, regular Busch beer has 114 calories, and Busch Light has just 95 calories. When comparing the two brands, in terms of calories, Busch is nearly the same as a can of Bud Light, and both are significantly lower than Budweiser.

Where the alcohol content is concerned, each of those four examples is between 4.1 percent (Busch Light) and 5 percent (Budweiser) ABV. That's not a significant difference. Other light beers do cut the alcohol significantly. For instance, Yuengling Light Lager is 3.2 percent ABV with 99 calories and Beck's Premier Light is a very light 2.3 percent ABV with just 64 calories.

Styles

There are no distinct styles within the light beer category. Lagers dominate the market and a few are brewed in the pilsner style, which is a lager. Craft brewers are making light ales of various styles, including hoppy India pale ales (IPAs).

Some beers use the term "ultra light" (or some derivative of it) on the label or in marketing. Generally, these are around 90 calories, though there's no industry standard for this either.

In keeping with the healthier drinking lifestyle, many gluten-free beers may also be low-calorie. Some of these are not brewed using traditional ingredients or adhere to common styles of beer.

How to Serve Light Beer

When serving light beer, it's best to follow the recommendations of the individual style. For instance, a lager is best served cold and the light versions are often enjoyed ice-cold.

Since these are low-alcohol beers, many people enjoy more than one at a time and drink them straight out of the can or bottle. When pouring a light beer, the pint glass is a popular choice. The beer will stay colder longer when the glass is chilled. Be sure to pour slowly, tilting the glass to a 45-degree angle at first and bringing it upright as the glass fills. A minimal head is generally preferred, depending on the style of beer.

Food Pairings

One overall characteristic of light beer is that they're generally very refreshing and highly carbonated. Paired with the lower alcohol content, that makes them ideal beverages to enjoy with any casual meal.

Light American lagers are good backyard (or "lawnmower") beers, so they're great for a cookout. Enjoy one with burgers, brats, or steaks. It's also a natural choice when making beer can chicken, both in the chicken and as a beverage while grilling and eating it.

The non-lager light beers can follow pairing recommendations of the beer style. For example, a low-calorie pale ale is great with spicy dishes, grilled meat, and roasted chicken.

Best Brands

The brands of light beer available today are surprisingly diverse. Far beyond the macro lagers, you'll find some exciting beers to try by taking a deeper look in the beer cooler.

  • Amstel Light
  • Dogfish Head Slightly Mighty
  • Coors Light
  • Harpoon Rec League
  • Heineken Light
  • Night Shift Brewing Nite Lite
  • Omission Ultimate Light Golden Ale
  • Saint Archer Gold
  • Shiner Light Blonde
  • Southern Tier Brewing Swipe Light