10 Light Beers That Still Pack a Flavor Punch

Many beer novices hear “light beer” and assume Coors, Miller, or Bud Light. When, in fact, these beers fall into only one or two categories of the nearly 140 beer styles. If you don’t want to be reminded of Beer Pong the next time you opt for a light beer, check out one (or all!) of our 10 picks.

Do you have one of those friends who was sheltered as a child? Their parents were super strict. They had an early curfew and were never allowed to go out and get into debauchery.

What happened to them when they got a little freedom in college?

They went friggin’ nuts!

A similar thing is happening in the craft beer industry. We’ve had very little choice in beer since prohibition. “Hmm…should I have a fizzy yellow beer from Big Brewer A or a fizzy yellow beer from Big Brewer B?”

Call it beer oppression.

Now craft brewers are fighting back. And what are they doing now that there is a market for their beer? They’re going friggin’ nuts! They’re getting as far away from American light lagers as possible, brewing huge beers that challenge the senses – 12% barleywines and palate bruising double IPAs. It’s a beer rebellion.

But many of them, having gotten it out of their system, are now coming back down to earth.

Craft brewers (and consumers) are realizing something that was blasphemy a few years ago – it’s ok to brew light beer. Even more importantly, it’s possible to brew a light beer that still tastes great.
The problem with beers like Bud Light isn’t so much that they taste bad, but that they don’t taste like anything at all. They’re just bland. The goal of the big brewers is to make a beer with mass appeal, make it cheap, and make a whole lot of it. This usually means using large proportions of corn and rice which are cheap but don’t bring much to the flavor party. The use of all malted barley is what distinguishes craft brewers from the big boys.

Sometimes you hear heated arguments from loyal Bud/Miller/Coors drinkers over how their beer is so much better and so different than the others. Well I hate to rain on your parade, but when it comes to vast world of beer styles, all of these beers are nearly identical. That’s not just my opinion. Beers are grouped into categories for the purpose of competition, and these particular beers fall into only one or two of the 140+ beer styles as of the most recent Brewers Association Style Guidelines.

There are two main points here. 1) Bud/Miller/Coors by definition have to be very similar or they wouldn’t beer grouped together. 2) Most people are missing out on a ton of great beer!

Not mutually exclusive

Light doesn’t have to mean no flavor. As fun as it is to sample the latest booze-bomb, most of the time we’d rather have something lighter. We want a beer where we can have two at happy hour without drooling on our shirts, or something to drink at those occasions where we can’t stomach something heavy, like at the beach or summer BBQs.

You don’t need to be a cryptozoologist to find these rare creatures, but you do need to know where to look. We’ll help you with that.

Two words to remember are “session beer.” It’s not a beer style per say because they can all taste radically different. Instead, it refers to a lower alcohol beer. The exact abv requirement varies, and there are heated arguments in the beer world about where to draw the line, but anything below 4.5% is generally accepted as a session beer.

(Word of warning – you’re bound to run into a beer snob one day who only drinks >11% beer and considers 7% to be a session. Sorry buddy, it’s not. And dear God give your liver a break.)

Yards Brawler, English Mild, 4.2% abv

This iconic Philadelphia brewery has a penchant for classic English-style ales. Their entire lineup is crafted to perfection, but if you’re looking for something to drink all night, go with the 4.2% Brawler. It will satisfy your taste buds without rendering them unconscious, despite the name.

Stone Levitation Ale, Amber Ale, 4.4% abv

If you close your eyes and drink this beer you’ll never guess it was from Stone, who is known for their go big or go home attitude with brews like Arrogant Bastard and Ruination IPA. They toned things down a bit with Levitation and showed their versatility by brewing a sub 5% beer that delivers a bright citric hop flavor that’s balanced by a soft malt sweetness.

Narragansett Summer Ale, Pale Ale, 4.2% abv

Narragansett can trace its roots back to the 19th century – not many American breweries can say that. Their summer ale is an easy drinking blonde ale spiced with the trendy citra hop. They balance the smooth malt flavor with a tropical fruit note.

Surly Bitter Brewer, English Bitter, 4.1% abv

Named for an overworked brewer, Bitter Brewer combines English and American ingredients to make an extra tasty and thirst-quenching brew. Surly maintained the spirit of this classic beer style while putting an undoubtedly American spin on it with an addition of hops that brings to mind sweet oranges and apricots.

Full Sail Session Premium Lager, Pre-Prohibition Style Lager, 5.1% abv

American lagers get a bad rap, but that’s because prohibition wiped clear the beer landscape and gave rise to the corn and rice filled lagers that now dominate the market. Pre-prohibition lagers were flavor rich and diverse. They’re finally making a comeback, and Full Sail’s version is a great place to start if you want a taste of history.

Victory Prima Pils, German Pilsner, 5.3% abv

This is pushing the limit in terms of a low alcohol beer, but it couldn’t be left out. Prima Pils is the gold standard pilsner and the ultimate "light but flavorful" beer. Though it’s made in Pennsylvania in the image of a classic German style, it’s right there with the best in the world.

Goose Island Honkers Ale, English Bitter, 4.2% abv

After their sale to AB-InBev, many beer geeks turned their back on Goose Island. I believe that good beer is good beer and Goose Island is still putting out winners like Honkers Ale, a well-balanced bitter that will make you think you’re in a warm English pub.

Crabtree Berliner Weisse, German Berliner Weisse, 4.3%

It’s hard to stand out among the great Colorado craft breweries, but winning a medal at The Great American Beer Festival is the way to do it. This light, German-style sour beer took home gold at the 2011 GABF. To me it’s the perfect summer beer.

21st Amendment Bitter American, Pale Ale, 4.4% abv

Big in flavor, low in booze, this San Francisco brewery has created a refreshing brew that satisfies hop heads while allowing multiple rounds. Give it a shot and enjoy its citrusy hop character, caramel malt flavor, and crisp bitterness.

Sierra Nevada Kellerweis, Hefeweizen, 4.8%

We’ll finish things off with a wheat beer, and a delicious one at that. Sierra Nevada’s Kellerweis is inspired by traditional German hefeweizens, combining flavors of banana and clove to go with a refreshing acidity. They hit a home run with this one.

Billy Broas is a craft beer lover and homebrewer from Denver, Colorado. You can find him at his beer blog, BillyBrew.com. He also teaches people how to make their own beer over at The Homebrew Academy.

  • Rich

    Kellerweis is phenomenal.

  • Christopher

    You hit the nail on the head with Stone’s Levitation. Great session ale!

  • http://abeerinhand.blogspot.com JayZeis

    I think we need more commercial berliner weisses. great summer beers. usually low abv. tasty sourness

  • http://billybrew.com Billy Broas

    When do we get to try beer from The Primer Brewing Company?

  • s9

    I am taking this list w/me next time I visit the liquor store; thank you for the suggestions.

  • http://karensvegankitchen.blogspot.com Karen

    Great list! I’m thinking I can get 2 or 3 of those in Alaska. The Kellerweis I’ve had and it’s yummy! Hoping to try out the Stone and the 21st Amendment. It really is nice to have a “beer without a buzz” from time to time.

  • Will

    One of my favorite light(er) beer choices is Sam Adams’ seasonal Summer Ale. Delicious, refreshing, and not too expensive.

    Also, I know it’s a bit heavier on the alcohol than the ones listed above (ok, more like a lot heavier), but my favorite beer for when I want something a little lighter is Ommegang Hennepin. 7.7% isn’t really what most people who care about their livers would call sessionable, but it is very crisp and refreshing, and a more appropriate summer/light beer than their Abbey Ale, which is my go-to general purpose beer. Plus, it’s available year-round unlike the Adams.

  • Zach

    I’d also recommend North Coast Brewing company’s Scrimshaw Pilsner. It has a really great flavor considering that it’s a pils. 4.4 ABV. Made in Northern California.

  • Zach

    I’d also recommend North Coast Brewing company’s Scrimshaw Pilsner. It has a really great flavor considering that it’s a pils. 4.4 ABV. Made in Northern California.

  • cisco

    if you’re ever going through the midwest try something from boulevard brewing co. from hefeweizen to porter there’s something for every taste and occasion. btw, the dominate use of rice and corn in american beer was the result of wwii and aren’t flavor ingredients. they’re used for their starches that the malt converts to sugar for the yeast to eat which is why u.s. lagers are so flavorless.

  • TJ

    As a fan of hefeweizens i have to say that kellerwies is not that high up on my list of them. i much prefer a paulaner or franziskaner to it, and weihenstephaner if i can find it (if you happen to see some and are a fan of hefeweizens, definitely give it a try, its my favorite).

  • ricob

    Nice list. Having already tried (and thoroughly enjoyed) 3 of the beers on this list, I look forward to giving the rest a go. Thanks.

    And don’t let the can fool you – Bitter American is stellar.

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  • Steve

    This would have been more helpful if there was a calorie comparison – the term “light” seems to have a very wide range of interpretations.

    • http://www.primermagazine.com Andrew

      Light, in this context, is not diet related.