In 1995, beer journalist and illustrator Alan Moen drew a wonderful cartoon at the expense of the most famous writer about beer, an Englishman named Michael Jackson. In it, a smirking devil watches a naked, sweating Jackson suffer the fires of damnation. Old Nick is offering the tormented author a can labeled “Light Beer.” The caption: “Michael Jackson in Hell.”
That about sums up the customary attitude of the true beer geek toward light beer: We wouldn’t be caught dead drinking the stuff.
But periodically, a beer enthusiast will privately confess to enjoying the occasional Bud Light. The comment is either received with scorn or the kind of puzzlement that occurs when a person you think you know admits to something terribly out of character, like a fondness for the bagpipes or a weakness for bingeing on Cheetos.
The fact is, the light beer category makes up about 53 percent of the U.S. beer market. Bud Light is the top-selling brand in the country, the world’s default beer, the biggest beer brand on Earth. Granted, popularity is no guarantee of qualityit could just as well represent the triumph of marketingbut light beer drinkers aren’t the oddballs in this conversation.
We beer geeks are the outliers, and our idea of what constitutes a good time over a couple of cold ones is more esoteric than most. It’s worth asking: Do we have a problem with popular beer in general, light beer or big beer producers?
The American drinker likes beers that are light in character. Mainstream American brew has receded in flavor since the repeal of Prohibition; the question is whether the drinkers or the brewers led the way. Some historians think the national palate was simply out of practice after 13 years without legal beer, and it subsequently shunned the strong, bitter flavors.
As the distinctively American lager style developed, more adjunctsfermentable grains other than the traditional malted barleyfound their way into beer. These alternative grains, including rice and corn, produced a beverage that tasted and felt lighter in the mouth. These grains were also cheaper. So, again, who led the way? No one knows, but it’s probably wrong of the geeks to divine a sinister conspiracy on the part of Big Bad Beer to rob us of our once-flavorful national drink.
Once the public palate was accustomed to less demanding flavors, it was a natural step to produce a beer that could flaunt its “lightness”a dieter’s beer, if you will. The first attempts were considered too unmanly to sell well, but between Miller Lite’s brilliant “Tastes Great/Less Filling” campaign starring masculine sports icons, and an increasingly health-conscious public, light beer gained a foothold.
The problem is that, given the already diminished character of mainstream beer, the diet variety had to be perceptibly lighter still. It is possible to brew low-alcohol, lower-calorie beers that are more flavorful than mainstream selections, but it’s tough to convince the public.
Guinness, the Irish stout with an undeserved reputation for being heavy, caloric and intoxicating, is actually a “light” beer, slotting somewhere between Budweiser and Bud Light.
If you’re drinking light beer because its flavor is quenching to you in a way that standard beers are not, greatalthough I’m convinced other beer styles are refreshing and have a lot more interest. If you’re drinking light beer because you think flavorful beers will make you fat, here’s how I save one-third of the calories in a 12-ounce beer and retain the flavor: I pour eight ounces. And I dodge the nachos.
Part of the problem beer crusaders have with Bud Light in particular is that it is the biggest beer in America. From its foundation, the new beer movement grew up in opposition to bigness. It is fashionable among beer enthusiasts to deride Anheuser-Busch and other mega-brewers for making “swill.” In fact, any honest homebrewer worth his or her hops will tell you that brewing anything as delicately flavored as Bud Light is difficult. A huge, chewy barleywine can mask a multitude of sins, but in a light lager, there’s no place to hide.
We can argue with the way the big brewing companies market their products. The “BudMillerCoors” gang, as beer folk often term them, have been known to fight dirty for the beer drinker’s dollar by limiting the consumer’s selection, rather than competing on an equal footing on the retailer’s shelf. But with some of the darlings of the craft world growing to national scale, we can’t condemn size alone as the enemy of beer quality.
So, back to our occasional Bud Light-drinking friend. He or she probably has a fair amount of company out there. For those of you who protest that, after heavy lawn work on a hot day, nothing really matches a light beer, you may be right. But the next time you crank up the mower, slip a couple of German kölsch beers or an English mild into the fridge and see if they don’t satisfy your thirst and your taste buds.