With summer months come long, hot days of bright sun and breezy patios—the perfect time for easy-drinking beers such as lights. While light beer may refer to reduced calories or lower alcohol, which are often directly related, drinkers don’t have to compromise on flavor or quality when lightening up. Light beers can and should be quaffable and refreshing.
The spectrum of light brew styles varies broadly. Light beers range in color from pale straw to pale gold; somewhere between two and four on the Standard Reference Method (SRM).
Hop bitterness should be low to moderate, malt sweetness should not fatigue the palate. Alcohol should likewise be low, from 2% to 6% alcohol by volume (ABV). Maintaining these qualities results in highly drinkable lighter beer.
Major brands such as Bud Light, Coors Light and Miller Lite often come to mind first when stocking light beers. They’re not the only domestic lagers that reign in popularity—Schlitz and Pabst Blue Ribbon, often served in a can, are default options for many bars and restaurants.
But think outside the typical six-pack and look for styles such as a dry and herbaceous Czech pilsner, a cold-fermenting ale hybrid like kölsch, and the increasly popular session IPA.
A New Light Landscape
Tyler Ott, beverage director of farm-to-table restaurant Ox & Son in Santa Monica, CA, is energized by available styles of light beer. “Gone are the days when cheap adjunct lagers ruled the landscape; instead a new crop of amazing pilsners and blonde ales have flooded the scene,” he says.
With 12 beers on tap priced from $8 to $12, and Schlitz for $5, Ott thinks light styles have an important place at the restaurant bar or table. “I’m actually a big fan of pilsners, as they pair well with so many great summer dishes, and when made well can exhibit some truly amazing flavors such as cornbread, honeysuckle and malt,” he says.
“I definitely promote lighter beers going into summer,” Ott notes. “The crisp, light flavors not only help to fight the heat, but pair perfectly with lighter seasonal or warm-weather fare. Santa Monica is very much a beach town, and nothing says the start of the season like sipping a Smog City Little Bo pilsener on our patio at sunset.”
Providing light options is also an important strategy for Dan Cook, general manager of Craftsmen Kitchen and Tap House in Charleston, SC. The casual bar and restaurant devotes considerable real estate to light beer, Cook says. “I run 12 lines [out of 48 draft beers] dedicated to lighter, lower-ABV beers,” he says.
Banger’s Sausage House & Beer Garden in Austin, TX, has 104 draft beers, most priced from $5 to $7 per pint. The choices can be daunting, so Banger’s beer broker Courtney Strange will provide guidance to guests.
“If a customer asks for a light beer, I usually recommend a kölsch,” typically Saint Arnold’s Lawnmower or Karbach’s Love Street, she says. “This style of beer is crisp and clean.”
Lighter-style brews provide a jumping off point for new beer drinkers, Strange adds. “Light beers are a great way to start someone off and get a good idea of how adventurous they want to get for their second beer.”
Top Sellers for Light Beer
Muggy midwestern summers call for fresh, bracing pints. Logan’s Alley is a relaxed neighborhood pub in Grand Rapids, MI, with 23 draft beers. When asked about bestsellers, beverage director Jak Mercer notes that “Bell’s Oberon wheat ale is the Tyrannosaurus Rex of Michigan summer beers—it has no natural predators.”
Session IPAs, which have been circulating in the U.S. beer market for a few years now, are also popular. These slightly tamer, hoppy beers pack the aromatics and bitterness of an American IPA but with lower alcohol.
“Kuhnhenn Fluffer and Founders All Day sell well year round, and Perrin Grapefruit Ale is just around the corner and sells to those who are newer to the craft beer scene,” Mercer says.
At Crafthouse Kitchen, “We have quite a few local breweries producing lighter beers that do extremely well for us as well,” Cook says. “The Coast Brewing 32/50 Kölsch is one of my top sellers; as well as the White Thai Witbier from Westbrook Brewing Co.”
Krug Park is a cocktail and beer bar, in Omaha, NE, that’s known for an extensive menu of Bloody Marys. As for its light beer selections, “we hardly ever have a kölsch or lager, so I tend to steer them toward session IPAs, like Founders All Day IPA or New Belgian Citradelic,” says founder Alexander Lund.
“We also always carry Hoegaarden, Stella Artois and Bitburger German pilsner,” Lund adds. “Our top sellers for light beer at Krug Park are Stella Artois, Bitburger, Hoegaarden and Fruili,” a Belgian strawberry beer.
Pairing With Food
Light beer styles make pleasing pairings with an array of dishes from cheese to salad to seafood. Not only will light beer add subtle background to a dish, it can provide relief from food that is spicy or fatty.
For example, a mild pale lager cools spicy sausage, while a dry pilsener cuts through the fattiness of cheese pizza.
Oporto Fooding House and Wine, a tapas restaurant in Houston, is generally more focused on wine than beer. But in the middle of summer, “we cannot keep enough light beer in stock,” says beverage director Samantha Porter. “It sells itself and then some.”
Beer is an affordable option at Oporto, priced at $4 to $7 for bottles and cans, plus it often provides the best food-pairing options.
“One of my favorite dishes on our menu is the Bulhão Pato Clams—Portuguese littleneck clams prepared with vinho verde wine, garlic, olive oil, cilantro, and chili peppers, served with toasted bread,” Porter says, “Pair it with a crisp German pilsener like Bavik and you cannot go wrong!”
At Banger’s Sausage House, where customers choose from a list of 20 different sausages, Strange likes to play with heat. “If you like it a little more spicy and incredibly unique, my all-time favorite is the DakBulgogi sausage with Hops & Grain Craft Brewery’s The One They Call Zoe.”
The pale lager mellows out an otherwise intense dish, Strange says. “There are so many flavors going on in the Dak Bulgogi that a nice sweet palate cleanser like the Zoe refreshes the mouth for each bite perfectly.”
Craftsmen in Charleston offers a special “Flights & Bites” promotion every Thursday night. “I pick a single brewery and offer a flight of four of their brews and our chef pairs a small food item with each brew,” Cook says.
Not that beer pairings necessarily have to be limited to food. At MiniBar Hollywood, “Our favorite food pairing for light beer is tequila. Or popcorn,” says general manager Jeremy Allen.
The retro hotel lounge setting serves as a whimsical background for midcentury cocktails and a distinctive beer selection. “Our favorite light beer recommendation is the Churchkey with the oldschool throwback top that you have to punch in,” Allen says. “It is our best-selling beer by far.”
Erika Bolden is a freelance writer and Certified Beer Server. She is a frequent contributor to L.A. Weekly, West Coaster SoCal and All About Beer magazine.