Can craft brewers make good light beer? This tasting pits them against Big Beer
Josh Noel, Chicago Tribune
Dec. 10 is National Lager Day, so here's a ranking of 15 light lagers.
How we did it
The three brewers — Jim Cibak of Revolution Brewing, Matt Gallagher of Half Acre Beer Co. and Brian Pawola of Pollyanna Brewing — eagerly signed on for the tasting. Each declared a love for any beer that's light, refreshing and well-made, no matter who makes it.
The wrinkle to the tasting, they were told, was that the classic brands — like Bud, Miller and Coors — would be doing battle with similar beers from craft breweries.
Though light lagers have traditionally been the domain of Big Beer since the 1970s, craft breweries have increasingly waded into the realm of easy-drinking accessibility. After decades of staking their claims on piney and bitter, sour and sweet — everything that Big Beer wasn't — craft brewers have taken a recent turn toward what is sometimes known as beer-flavored beer. No onslaught of hops. No cascade of sugary ingredients. No lip-pursing sourness. Just easy-drinking refreshment.
You know, like Bud, Miller and Coors.
I assembled 15 beers that could reasonably be called "light lagers." Some have "light" (or "lite") right there in the name. Others are a brewery's interpretation of a light, easy-drinking lager. They were served to the panel in random order, blindly.
Was it Miller Lite or New Glarus? Bud Light or Founders?
Our panel did not know. (Though we will reveal the beers for you here, as we go, for your reading ease.)
We tasted the beers across more than two hours in a private room at Half Acre's brewery on Balmoral Avenue. I grabbed them one by one from an ice chest and poured the (mostly) pale yellow liquids out of view of the panel into the same short clear plastic cups Half Acre uses for blind evaluations of its own beers.
Using a grading scale of 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest), our panel members spent a couple of hours in search of the lightest, cleanest and most refreshing beers on a recent warm summer afternoon.
No flabbiness, please
Beer No. 1 was a classic, and I wondered if it gained an unfair advantage by going first and dancing across clean palates? Perhaps. But our judges universally applauded it for doing the things a light beer should: It boasted just a touch of malt character while remaining, in their words, "clean" and "refreshing."
Pawola said it was "dry and bubbly, with a touch of malt." Cibak admired its "crisp bitterness." Most important, Gallagher said, it wasn't "flabby" — a crucial flaw among many light beers.
What makes for a flabby light beer?
"Lacking bitterness balance to the sweetness," Gallagher said.
Coors Light, they said, was anything but flabby. They quite liked its combination of malt character, refreshment and balance.
Beer No. 2, another light beer mainstay, also avoided flabbiness. And in last year's macro lager tasting, it fared quite well. However, Miller Lite didn't do as well this time. It was clearly lighter than Coors Light, and featured less malt character, which led to less of a sense of balance. Though quite clean, Miller Lite was an entirely one-note beer. As Gallagher said, it was "lacking any complexity" even though it was "still crisp."
The first curveball came with beer No. 3. Of all of the craft entries into light beer, Founders Brewing's Solid Gold has arguably had the most buzz, in part because it made the most forceful entry, landing in 15- and 24-packs (just like Big Beer) with aggressive pricing to match (just like Big Beer). It is the clearest example of craft beer trying to play Big Beer's game.
Though Founders doesn't tout Solid Gold as "light," that's clearly a piece of the intent, with an alcohol volume (4.4 percent) closer to Bud Light (4.2 percent) than Budweiser (5 percent).
All three members of the panel examined Solid Gold in prolonged silence. Then all at once they keyed in on its vast difference from the first two beers: Solid Gold is darker and has a bit of haze. It was clearly a craft effort at "lightness."
"This is pretty radically different — and not in a bad way," Cibak said.
"This doesn't taste like a traditional light lager," Pawola said.
Ah! And there we had the difference between light lagers from craft and Big Beer companies: Craft versions tended not to taste like what we think of as "traditional." With one exception — keep reading! — each craft entry put its own spin on the idea of a light lager. Rarely do they simply try to approximate Bud, Miller and Coors.
In the case of Solid Gold, Cibak said the difference made it more reminiscent of an easy-drinking golden ale — more body, more malt, more hops.
"It's almost fruity," Gallagher said. "I wonder if that's the yeast. I probably enjoy drinking this more than the others because of its bigger, hoppier flavor. Makes it more drinkable to me."
Solid Gold scored uniformly well, turning a low-alcohol lager into a far bolder proposition than the panel expected.
Beer No. 4 was a more conventional light beer than Solid Gold, but still had a fair bit going on for the genre, showing "lots of yeast character," Cibak said, and veering to "the sweet side of balance" though tempered by a vague "lingering bitterness," according to Gallagher. Everyone found it average if not slightly above, though it would probably have been even better with a squeeze of fresh lime — it was Corona Light.
Beer No. 5 returned to the vein of classic light lagers, though to the extreme: even less color and body than most of its competitors.
"It's so light and clear," Gallagher said.
But that's the point of Michelob Ultra Light, which prides itself on consummate lightness — all the way down to a piddling calorie count that makes it one of the fastest-growing major brands in the nation.
Cibak observed a "slight egginess" to the aroma, which he suspected was a byproduct of lager yeast fermentation. I said it sounded like a flaw — and aren't the big beer companies above such flaws? Even if the beer is underwhelming, consistency and technical quality are what they supposedly do best.
"I'd imagine if that's what it tastes like, that's what they want it to taste like," he said. "Very little comes out of there that's not intentional."
No one much cared for the beer; there wasn't much to care for. That may be the entire point of Michelob Ultra Light. But it doesn't make for an enjoyable beer.
Based on its color, beer No. 6 elicited even more raised eyebrows than Solid Gold — it was amber-colored, inching toward brown, and easily the darkest beer in our tasting.
"Looks like Anti-Hero," Cibak said of his brewery's flagship IPA.
Was he bothered by a light beer — one that employs the word prominently on its label — that's so dark in color?
"Doesn't bother me at all," he said.
It was Sam Adams Light, a beer that far predates the rest of craft brewing's embrace of light beer; it was first released in 2001. In that way, Sam Adams Light seemed very much like a throwback, a craft version of light at a time that the classic light beers were still something to shun at every turn.
And so it was for Sam Adams Light, whose flavor backed up the appearance. Cibak described it as "toasty, caramel flavor." Pretty impressive for 4 percent alcohol — even less than the evanescent Michelob Ultra (which is 4.2 percent).
Cibak and Pawola both approved, but Gallagher wasn't a fan, detecting a "soylike, savory-ness" — just about the last thing he wanted from a light beer.
Beer No. 7 was more light beer business as usual. Words such as "neutral, "like drinking air" and "characterless — in a good way" were tossed about. It was Keystone Light, and it finished squarely in the middle of our rankings.
Beer No. 8 did, too, tying Keystone Light for most middling. All three brewers found the beer inoffensive and balanced enough, but nothing special. They declared Miller High Life Light to be worthy of a hot day at a ballgame. But that's about it.
Another curveball awaited with beer No. 9 — it's not even available outside of Wisconsin. That, of course, refers to the great New Glarus Brewing. I had been in Wisconsin the previous week, and my beer shopping spree included a New Glarus variety pack. It wasn't until I cracked open a bottle of Totally Naked at home that it occurred to me to add it to the tasting. But it is, in fact, a nearly perfect light beer — nothing fancy, but refreshing and supremely balanced, clocking in at 4.2 percent alcohol, just like the major light beer brands.
While Pawola and Cibak sniffed the mystery brew, Gallagher declared it among his favorites.
"Full-flavored, but light," he said. "Easy to drink. Crisp."
Pawola said it had "a full, round mouthfeel" — impressive for such a light beer. Cibak called it "refreshing and neutral," which he meant as a compliment.
Gallagher didn't heap praise on beer No. 10, though he did declare it "familiar." The panel detected a bit more fruitiness from it than most others in our tasting, which they attributed to more malt or yeast character, or perhaps both. The fruitiness didn't make for a more interesting or enjoyable beer, however; it got in the way of refreshment and accessibility.
As for the familiarity, there was a reason for that. It was the nation's top-selling beer: Bud Light. It wound up as one of our lowest-rated beers.
Beer No. 11 was maybe the most unique of the afternoon, and the epitome of a craft take on light lager: bright, clean and a lean 4.7 percent alcohol, but so interesting as to earn an asterisk. It was quite a different proposition from Bud, Miller or Coors.
Hand Miller Lite drinkers a Totally Naked, and they'd drink it happily. Hand those same Miller Lite drinkers this beer, and they might love it — or they might be confused.
The tasters uniformly liked Spiteful Lager, made by Chicago's tiny Spiteful Brewing. It was refreshing and faultlessly crisp, with fruity overtones reminiscent of a refreshing white wine or perhaps even cider. Everyone found it an enjoyable, curious outlier in the world of light lagers.
Taste it fresh
Up next as beer No. 12 was another craft entry. It had been canned less than three months earlier, but was unfortunately already showing signs of age. The culprit was most likely a lack of refrigeration and, indeed, I'd bought the sixpack off a warm store shelf.
Still, once tasters waded past the cardboardlike oxidation, the beer stood out as a gem. It was balanced and had "full body and flavor," Gallagher said. Cibak declared it "a nice drinking beer; ignoring the oxidation, I can tell it's a good beer."
"Would love to taste this one fresh," he said.
It was in fact a beer that Cibak once made, when he worked at Firestone Walker Brewing in central California between 2006 and 2008: Firestone Lager. It was a smaller-batch beer back then, but with the rise of the craft light lager, Firestone Walker scaled it up for broad release last year.
The fact that its taste had fallen off so quickly was less a criticism of the beer and more a testament to the standards of craft brewing — and the importance of both freshness and refrigeration.
"There's more malt involved and more hops involved," Cibak said. "Those things tend to oxidize quicker."
A solution that the big breweries embrace, craft breweries typically shun: adding chemicals to stabilize flavor and appearance.
"That's the thing about craft beer," Cibak said. "It's fresher."
Beer No. 13 beer was a bit of a lark. As I drove past a Trader Joe's on the morning of the tasting, I decided to see which of its beer brands included the word "light." There was only one: Trader Jose Light — the supermarket's version of a light Mexican beer.
The panel immediately picked up on it as an uninspired version of Corona — all the way down to the prominent skunk character. Gallagher admitted a perverse enjoyment of skunky beer, but still didn't care for it.
"A little flabby," he said.
Up next as beer No. 14 was another middling entry, with a bit more yeast character than most other options but little else to distinguish it. It was Busch Light, the ninth-biggest selling brand in the U.S.
Finally, we reached our last beer — beer No. 15. The panel found it "sweet, simple, nothing special" (Gallagher), "very light all around" (Pawola) and "very neutral" (Cibak). It was yet another Corona brand — the first new Corona brand in nearly 30 years — Corona Premier. It's a beer aimed at men, unlike Corona Light, which is targeted more to women. It didn't work for these men.
Because the first beer they tasted — Coors Light — appeared to be the favorite among the major brands, we decided to taste it again, to be sure that it didn't have an advantage based on simply being the first beer sampled. However, another taste only reinforced their decision.
"Pretty good mouthfeel," Cibak said.
"I like the malt character," Pawola said.
"It's malty without being heavy," Gallagher added. "Pretty simple and easy to drink."
It was confirmed: Coors Light was the favorite of the big brands, tied with three craft beers (Solid Gold, Firestone Lager and Totally Naked), and with another craft beer (Spiteful Lager) and Corona Light (which, I'll be honest, shocked me) sliding in just behind.
The big beer companies have dominated the world of light lagers for so long, I wouldn't have been surprised to see them dominate this blind tasting too. But no. Craft breweries have proved themselves capable of brewing the lightest beers, just as they helped introduce us to the joys of piney, fruity IPAs; bold, rich stouts; and everything in between.
Perhaps it should be no surprise that craft breweries have successfully created alternatives to the light lagers that have dominated store shelves and tap handles for decades. Doing things differently — and, in many cases, better, with fresher and more interesting ingredients — has always been the point.
How the beers scored
Here are the average scores for the 15 beers tasted on a 5-point scale, with beers listed in order of finish, highest score to lowest.