You’ve heard it dozens of times (if not more). You’re sitting at the bar at your local purveyor of fermented beverage and someone walks up to order a beer. Bewildered by a selection of beers whose names and tap handles are unfamiliar, that someone says to the bartender, “Just give me something light.”
Here’s where the trouble starts. What the hell does “light” mean? For most, “light” is a color descriptor. A lot of folks have the common misperception that color provides an accurate indication of the strength, mouthfeel and degree of flavor in a given beer. This probably has mostly to do with the fact that Guinness is served nitrogenated. While Guinness is a comparatively small beer by ABV (4.2%), nitrogenation gives it a heavier mouthfeel, thus giving people the perception that it is a heavy beer (when it in fact has less calories than Budweiser).
The “light” phenomenon described above probably also has to do with the pale straw color of most mass-produced American lagers. These beers have very little body, very little alcohol and very little flavor. Further, they are the American beers with which most people are familiar. However, there are beers of similar color, such as Berliner Weisse, which have a comparatively huge amount of flavor. There are also beers of similar color (close enough anyway) that have a ton more body and more than double the alcohol, such as Belgian Tripels. Given the existence of such beers, perhaps “light” isn’t the best choice of words when describing what one wants at a bar.
Given the misconceptions of the general public, one must divine what “light” means. Firstly, people tend to be afraid of “dark” beers for one reason or another (again, Guinness probably has a lot to do with it). It stands to reason that people want a beer that’s light in color. But we can’t stop there. It is not however, a problem to work within the “light” color parameter (that issue can be worked out later).
What does “light” say about other preferences? As far as flavor goes it does not necessarily mean that someone wants less flavor. It may just mean that the beer drinker wants lighter, more delicate flavors. In other words, a Tripel and an IPA may be close to each other in color, but the person who asked for a “light” beer will probably be more pleased with the Tripel. The huge bitterness of an American IPA is often one of the final flavor frontiers conquered by the nascent craft beer enthusiast. However, the delicate, fruity esters and generally dry character of a Tripel may be right up someone’s alley.
Mouthfeel is an issue too. The person ordering a “light” beer probably wants one that doesn’t have too much weight. That’s fine. There are plenty of flavorful, pale-colored beers that don’t coat the mouth and punch the palate. An exemplar is Allagash White. Outside of Pierre Celis, there is no finer Belgian-Style Witbier in production. It has huge, spicy, fruity flavor but it also dances on the tongue and has a crisp, dry finish. It is the ultimate gateway beer and one that anyone ordering a “light” beer ought to be thrilled with.
So next time that hapless soul wends his or her way to the bar and asks for a “light” beer, be a mensch and ask them what they mean by “light.” Are they talking about color? Weight? Alcohol? Flavor? There are enough places out there where a craft beer enthusiast knows more than (or isn’t as busy as) the staff and can provide a great recommendation to a future craft beer convert if only the neophyte is asked to elaborate.