Light is bright in America. Domestic premium lights still dominate the beer scene, with Bud Light, Coors Light, Miller Lite and Michelob Ultra among the top-selling beers in the U.S., as are import light brands Corona, Heineken, Amstel and Labatt, to name just a few.
Although craft beer gets most of the attention these days, its share of the market is still just 12.3%, according to the Boulder, CO-based Brewers Association. And craft has a number of its own “light” styles.
“We sell a ton of domestic light premiums,” says Jeremy Goldberg, owner of Essex Junction Craft Kitchen and Bar in Bloomfiled, NJ. Lights don’t appear on the restaurant’s 14-tap lineup, says Goldberg. “But when it comes to the bottles, we sell way more Coors Light and Bud Light than we do any of the bottled or canned craft beers.” Draft prices run $6 to $7; bottles and cans are $5 to $10.
“I sell more light beer than I do anything else,” says Hank Ausband, co-owner with wife Terry of Longnecks Restaurant, Tavern and Inn in Marshall, NC. Despite an extensive list of more than 50 different American craft and artisanal imports, domestic light premiums account for at least 60% of gross sales, says Ausband.
Michelob Ultra and Bud Light are the best sellers at Longnecks; also on the list are Miller Lite, Natural Light and Coors Light. Prices are tiered at $3, $4 and $10, with all the lights selling for $3, which may explain part of their popularity.
Light beers are big at the Budweiser Brew House in Saint Louis Ballpark Village, a dining and entertainment complex located next to the Busch Stadium home of the St. Louis Cardinals. The Budweiser Brew House is a three-level, 26,000-sq.-ft. venue boasting 11 bars, with 60 different beers on 239 taps, plus bottle options.
Budweiser Brew House sells draft beers for $5.25 to $7.50; bottles are priced $5 to $9. Of the draft sales 25% are light beers, and 55% of bottle sales are lights, according to Tony Caradonna, Ballpark Village’s ambassador and official “Beer Man.”
Shining a Light
Many customers drink light beers and even craft-oriented operators should accommodate that thirst. Because there are plenty of good reasons why people drink lights. For one, light brews are low in calories. And they’re low in alcohol—and drinkable when you are having more than one.
“At the Brew House, we have a sports crowd, and people are spending a good length of time here. I think that contributes to the skew toward light beers, which are easy drinking,” explains Caradonna. Popular drafts include Bud Light, Michelob Ultra Light and Michelob Golden Light. “We also sell a lot of Shock Top, and for the craft drinkers, Goose Island IPA.”
When Essex Junction first opened, there were no lights on the list, recalls the owner. “But the market wanted light beers, so we added them.” Goldberg attributes part of their popularity to what he calls the anti-craft movement, piloted by “people who have tried craft beer but found they just don’t like it.”
What’s more, Goldberg notes, “From a business standpoint, you don’t want customers drinking one and done, because they are too full or drunk from big beers.” That’s where light beer fits in. “You want customers drinking a few beers, hanging out and socializing.”
On the menu at Migration Brewing, a brewery and pub in Portland, OR, “we always have a couple of beers that fall under that light, entry-level category,” says co-owner McKean Banzer-Lausberg. “With new people coming to craft, lighter beers are an introduction,” he says, “or for anyone who is burnt out on hoppy IPAs.”
Lighter styles currently on the menu are the brewery’s Sunny Day Pilsner, a Patio Pale Ale and Clem’s Cream Ale—about 25% of the 12-tap lineup. Those styles are more accessible and easier to drink, notes Banzer-Lausberg. IPAs are still the best-selling beers at Migration Brewing. The company released ISA Got Back, a 4.4% India Session Ale, in July. All beers are priced at $5.50 for a 16-oz. pint.
Depending upon whom you’re talking to, the concept of light beer can range from brews with the word “light” in their name and low-calorie products to lighter, refreshing styles with lower ABV and IBU (International Bittering Unit) levels.
Many would list lagers and pilsners as being on the lighter side; others might include categories as diverse as Kolsch, altbier, saison, various wheat beers and sour styles such as lambic, gose and Berliner weisse. With ABVs under 5%, the various sessionable styles can also be considered light.
The Brewers Association Beer Style Guidelines defines American-style Amber Light Lagers: “In these beers the word ‘light’ refers to relatively low body and reduced calories, rather than to color…. Hop aroma is absent or low. Malt sweetness is very low but evident. Hop flavor is absent or very low. Hop bitterness is very low to low. Corn, rice, or other grain or sugar adjuncts may be used but all-malt formulations are also made. These beers are high in carbonation…. Calorie level should not exceed 125 per 12-ounce serving.”
Goldberg says he would “split light beers into two categories—beers like Miller Light, Bud Light or Amstel Light that are marketed as having low calories, or beers with a lighter, refreshing style.” He would include saisons, farmhouse ales and sour beers among the latter. Goldberg also cites sessionable IPAs like Founders All Day IPA as a lighter choice. “It’s a great example of an easy-drinking beer.”
“We don’t use the term light beer, except to note the color,” says Banzer-Lausberg. And he notes that beers may be light in color, yet high in alcohol and extremely hoppy.
Pressed for a definition of light beer, he says, “I’d say they are approachable, entry level and refreshing—great to drink on a sunny summer day.”
Banzer-Lausberg would include lagers and pilsners on the light spectrum. “We have definitely seen an increase in demand for lagers in general, but specifically pilsners, which are very popular,” he says. The macro brands are lagers and pilsners, now craft producers are taking those traditional styles to a new level.
Ausband makes the case for the Brazilian import Xingu as a light beer. “It’s mild and a little sweet and just 4.6%,” he explains, “and could be considered a light beer, except it’s pitch-black in color.” He hand-sells a lot of the black lager, which appeals to Bud Light fans, non-drinkers and stout aficionados alike. “I get people coming back looking for Xingu because they like it and can’t find it anywhere else.”
To help customers decide among the 60 different beers on draft, the Budweiser Brew House offers three flights of 4-oz. samples, ranging in price from $9 to $15. The Home Town offers tastes of Budweiser, Michelob Amberbock and Michelob Golden Light. The Flight of the Goose showcases Goose Island Brewery’s Green Line, 312 Urban Wheat, Honkers Ale and IPA. The Explorer explores Hoegaarden Belgian ale, a Shock Top Seasonal and Goose Island’s Belgian styles Matilda, and Sophie.
Another avenue of exploration is the Brew House’s self-serve, 21-ft. tap wall, featuring a variety of brews. This allows guests to pour and explore new beers or old favorites. Customers access the taps by swiping RFID cards at tablets that display info on the beers, pouring as much or as little as they want.
“It’s a great way to sample some unique beers,” says Caradonna. “It’s also popular for private parties.”
Many bars will list the statistics for each beer’s ABV and IBUs on menus as an aid to customers. The higher the numbers, the bigger the beer, and conversely, lower numbers indicate lighter beers.
Migration Brewing, for example, offers both stats on all their offerings. “That gets people started in making choices, plus we give out tons of samples so folks can taste before they commit,” says Banzer-Lausberg.
Staff are trained to help customers walk though the options. “If a customer says, I drink Bud/Miller light all the time, we’ll tell them, you might want to try XYZ beer.”
A staffer will offer a few samples of lighter options and sneak in an IPA as well, Banzer-Lausberg notes. “It’s surprising. Even though they say they want a Bud Light, they like the IPA. Everyone drinks their first IPA at some point,” he says.
Spice of Light
The popularity of Mexican beer brands has boosted sales of the light versions. “Aside from fitting our taqueria theme, lighter Mexican beers complement the spicy flavor profiles of our food really well, and they allow customers to save some space for our good eats,” says Colin Stanton, managing partner for the new Fat Baby Tacos in Chicago.
The fresh-casual taqueria, which just opened in May, offers six imported lagers: Modelo Draft, by the pint ($6) or pitcher ($22), Pacifico in a 22-oz. can ($10), Dos Equis in a 16-oz. can ($7), Corona and Corona Light ($6 a 12-oz. can) and cans of Tecate ($5).
“For customers, light beers are mainstays,” says Stanton. “They are a familiar style, comforting and easy to drink.” He notes that “cans are trendy right now, and they work well operationally in our concept.” Plus, crushing the used cans saves space in trash receptacles, and cans are more readily recyclable.
With their lighter palates, lights, lagers and pilsners are ideal vehicles for beer cocktails such as Shandies, Micheladas and Radlers. “Micheladas will be an off-menu item that we will note on our specials chalkboard,” says Stanton.
The traditional Mexican drink is a good fit thematically for the taqueria. Fat Baby Tacos executive chef Alex Placencia will prep the Michelada mix from scratch.
“My wife is Mexican, so of course we do Micheladas, the classic version with Tecate,” says Goldberg of Essex Junction. The bar also offers Shandy and Radler variations in the summer. “Crisp, not overly fruity; they go down easy.”
Budweiser Brew House offers half a dozen beer-based drinks, such as the Gold Glove ($8), a combo of Michelob Golden Light, Woodford Reserve bourbon and ginger beer.
The bottled beer list at Longnecks includes Bud Light Lime-A-Rita and Bud Light Straw-Ber-Rita. The flavored beers mostly appeal to non-beer drinkers, says Ausband.
“Fruit and sour beers are both trending upwards,” says Banzer-Lausberg. Migration is brewing a beer for summer that combines both trends. Impeachment (the name is a political statement) is a sour ale using local peach puree, which is then aged in a gin barrel.
“With the growth of craft, there has been a deeper exploration of all the styles,” says Banzer-Lausberg. “It’s the consumer who is winning with the amazing amount of options. You can choose your own adventure.”
Thomas Henry Strenk is Brooklyn-based writer specializing in all things drinkable.