California homebrewer Geoff Schmitz, along with many craft beer fans, were in for astonishing results after beer sales data for 2017 and 2018 was revealed by IRI Worldwide. For the first time since the mid-1990s, data indicated that the nation's three top-selling beer brands in 2017 were "light" beers (American light adjunct lager) and recent IRI sales data suggests the same for 2018.
Schmitz, co-founder of Wingman Watches in San Diego, said he has followed craft beer's evolution since his college days. Schmitz began homebrewing around the time light beer enjoyed its last high point. This was a time when homebrewing offered something other than the bland big-beer pale lager, and it was brewed with adjunct ingredients like corn instead of barley.
"San Diego especially has been a hotbed for craft beer since then," said Schmitz, during a recent visit to Longmont's 300 Suns Brewing. "It's hard to believe, light beer can still outsell quality local beer."
The legacy of craft beer's revival rode a wave of full-flavored, barely-beautiful 6 percent-plus alcohol-by-volume contents, which is why Schmitz and many beer consumers were left outwardly puzzled with recent beer sales figures.
Reflecting on the broader beer market, though, light beers have long been big sellers across the globe.
While some craft beer drinkers may just be "seeing the light," mega-breweries — like Molson Coors and Anheuser-Busch InBev — have enjoyed sales on the lighter end of the market for more than half a century, in spite of American craft beer's revival in the last three decades. (Although IRI data is somewhat skewed in that it reflects mainly off-site retail sales, e.g., liquor stores.) Nevertheless, direct-to-consumer sales at craft taprooms are also trending as light beers inch onto craft beer menu boards, revealing a craft "light beer" renaissance.
Dogfish Head, Sam Adams, New Belgium, Odell and other craft beer icons, along with microbreweries like Burial Beer (Asheville, N.C.), are moving into the heretofore hallowed market corner dominated by mega-breweries.
Why leave the market to the big guys?
"They are firing shots, so we are firing back," said Rob Burns, co-founder of Boston's Night Shift brewery, which brews low-calorie Nite Lite lager.
Studies regarding beer's caloric content and consumers' value of flavor over alcohol content that were commissioned by Rheingold Beer in the 1960s still hold true today. There's no doubt that events like Breckenridge's recent Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines Festival will always have a following, but data reveals that lighter beer appeals to a broader audience. Beer drinkers may be choosing taste over booziness — or avoiding the hefty 7-plus grams of carbohydrates per ounce that is common in craft beers.
Few light craft beers land squarely in the American light lager style, though, sitting beside Bud Light or Coors Light. Most craft brewers wading into the lighter spectrum are making "light beer" the way they do best: crafting creative flavorful beers that express the diversity of historical light-hued, sessionable, lower-alcohol beer styles — like gose, Kellerbier, golden ales and pilsners.
"We consider our Mean Heat Wheat and several others as gateway beers for folks who want something better than Bud, but may not be ready for a double IPA," said Kevin Gearhardt, owner of Maxline Brewery in Fort Collins.
Craft light beers are approachable, full-flavored, lower in calories and offer opportunities for brewers to subtly flex skill while producing clean, true flavors. These beers represent up to half of the beers currently on tap in Longmont taprooms.
Left Hand Brewing has roots in light-lager brewing and has long maintained Polestar Pilsner as a standard. Recently, Left Hand also added seasonal saisons, Kolsch, modern golden ales and gose-style beers. Longmont's 300 Suns Brewery also offers three light-spectrum beers that are less than 5 percent alcohol-by-volume. Half of Wibby Brewing's year-round menu and 25 percent of its total menu consists of light beers — from Helles and Radler to the Volksbier Vienna lager. Bootstrap Brewing has seven light craft beers, which make up more than 30 percent of its production, including Stick's American Pale Ale and the 1956 Golden Ale.
Scandinavians, Czechs, Italians, Bahamian, and Peruvians — along with Californians, New Yorkers and diverse Americans in between — have long reached for pilsners and light lagers for many reasons, so it is not necessarily a mystery why light beer sales have held consistent throughout the craft beer surge. As domestic craft brewers redefine "light beer" as an aged, calorie-conscious craft beer and curious customers poke about the edges of true beer, the field of "craft beer" expands.
Consumers looking to go light do not need to settle for mega-brewery pap; they can instead venture into the array of independent light craft beers readily available in taprooms and still stay "craft," because going light does not have to mean bland or weak-natured.
Cyril Vidergar is a homebrewer and attorney based in Northern Colorado. He can be reached at email@example.com.