“What’s your lightest beer?” is a question that we’ve been asked countless times in our brewery’s tasting room. The answer is actually not as simple as it may seem.
Overall a “light beer” can be described in more emotional terms like, refreshing, crisp, or easy drinking. But “light” beers aren’t all the same. Lightness can mean a variety of things to different people: flavor, alcohol content, color, calories, mouthfeel, or all of the above.
An interesting sidenote: adding the term “light” to your beer’s name is actually something controlled by the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (yes, they omit the “a”)). This federal agency reviews beer labels in the United States and sets requirements around what constitutes a “light” beer. In their view, a “light beer” has “a meaningful decrease in calories compared with a reference, full-strength version.” The difficulty here is that we don’t generally brew “full-strength” and “light” versions of the same beer. We’d prefer to brew a single beer that fulfills the goal of what we hoped to brew, rather than multiple versions of the same beer.
LIGHT IN FLAVOR
Let’s start with the most frequent meaning of light: “light in flavor.” Of course, light flavor is subjective—one person’s light beer is another person’s flavor bomb. Our flagship beer, Allagash White is a good example of these complexities. Many would describe White as a lighter option as it is both a very light-colored beer and has lower alcohol at a sessionable 5.2%. We’d certainly describe it as refreshing, crisp, and easy drinking. However, it has plenty of flavor with notes of coriander, Curaçao orange peel and raw wheat, which lends a medium- to full-bodied finish. So, is it a light beer? We think so.
EXAMPLE: Allagash White
LIGHT IN CALORIES OR CARBS
Sometimes folks asking for a “light beer” simply mean they are looking for the lowest-calorie beer, or perhaps more specifically the closest option to a domestic “light” or “lite” lager. Most of the calorie content in beer comes from the alcohol, so generally, lower-ABV beers will also be lower calorie. A beer we’d point to on that front is River Trip with 128 calories and 7.9 g carbs (per 12 oz. portion). As an interesting flipside of the coin, while River Trip has a lower ABV of 4.8%, thanks to the addition of coriander during brewing and more copious dry hopping than we normally do, it carries quite a bit of flavor.
EXAMPLE: Allagash River Trip
LIGHT IN ALCOHOL
“Light in alcohol” is a relatively straightforward concept. A beer that is at or under 4% or 5% alcohol by volume (ABV) is generally considered “session strength” or “light.” However it’s worth pointing out that ABV doesn’t always correlate with strength flavor. Our house beer actually has a relatively low ABV, coming in at 4.5%, while still being delightfully full flavor—with notes of pear and melon balanced out by a distinct hop bitterness.
EXAMPLE: Allagash House Beer
LIGHT IN COLOR
“Light in color” is a tricky indicator of a beer’s lightness and can even be misleading. Light color doesn’t mean light flavor—conversely, darker beers can have more delicate flavors. Lightly toasted grains used in the brewing process will result in lightly colored beer. Sometimes other ingredients (like fruit) can impact color as well. Light-colored beers may have a soft malt flavor, but could have loads of flavor from hops, yeast, spice, fruits and other ingredients. Our own Tripel is a great example, it’s dry and drinkably “light” in color (and flavor), but packs a sneaky 9% ABV. It certainly looks and tastes like a light beer, so we’ll often offer a taste of Tripel to someone looking for a light option—with a high rate of success.
EXAMPLE: Allagash Tripel
EDITOR’S NOTE: Yes, I too am amazed that we legitimately fit Tripel into a post about light beer.
THE BOTTOM LINE
if you’re looking for a light beer, look first at the alcohol content. Beers with a lower ABV will generally have a subtler flavor profile. Also, the style of beer will make a difference. Historically “light” (and we’re taking this to mean low-ABV, light-in-color, and refreshing) styles of beer include: lager, Pilsner, blonde ale, witbier, kölsch, and gose, to name a few.
We hope that helps you gain more insight into your own taste preferences, and the variety of deliciously refreshing styles of beer out there beyond your classic “light” offerings.