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.