For all the punch lines, brewing light beers actually requires a great deal of craftsmanship.
On a hot summer night in Manhattan, the young beer connoisseurs were talking shop inside Good Beer NYC, a craft-beer store on East Ninth Street, when the conversation turned to light beer. The consensus: Three of the top-sellers in America -- Bud Light, Coors Light, and Miller Lite -- were barely worth the glass they're bottled in.
"I used to hate beer because I thought it all tasted like Natural Light," said Jennifer Dickey, the store manager, who was leaning against a shelf of Stone Brewing's Imperial Russian Stout.
Al Alvarez, an accountant who spent his formative beer-drinking years in Germany, thanked God that even the diviest American bars carry Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
Melissa Brandt, another Good Beer employee, chimed in. She'd recently bought her father a case of craft beer but couldn't convert him. Once he'd polished off the gift, he retreated to his basement kegerator full of Bud Light.
"It was a sad moment," she said.
It's common to disparage light beers. As craft beers have elbowed their way into American refrigerators and taps, light beers have become punch lines. What few drinkers know, however, is that quality light beers are incredibly difficult to brew. The thin flavor means there's little to mask defects in the more than 800 chemical compounds within. As Kyler Serfass, manager of the home-brew supply shop Brooklyn Homebrew, told me, "Light beer is a brewer's beer. It may be bland, but it's really tough to do." Belgian monks and master brewers around the world marvel at how macro-breweries like Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors have perfected the process in hundreds of factories, ensuring that every pour from every brewery tastes exactly the same. Staring at a bottle, it's staggering to consider the effort that goes into producing each ounce of the straw-colored liquid.
Before it was light beer, it was "small beer." A popular drink in late-medieval Europe and colonial America, small beer was necessary for certain civilizations to grow. In the days before Brita filters, beer staved off disease and dehydration by packing just enough alcohol to kill off pathogens found in drinking water. Kids drank it. George Washington brewed it. Ben Franklin guzzled it for breakfast. Populations grew. Later, during Prohibition, some breweries stayed afloat by selling a similar concoction -- "near beers" or malt beverages that contained less than 0.5 percent alcohol, often described as "light." But it wasn't until 1967 that Joseph L. Owades, a biochemist for Rheingold Breweries in Brooklyn, produced a variation that would change the fate of the drink and make him the "Father of Light Beer." His invention: Gablinger's Diet Beer.
Owades's drink hoped to reverse a trend he'd noticed -- people had stopped drinking beer to avoid gaining weight. To reduce the brew's calorie count, Owades employed an enzyme that broke down starches found in malt, leaving behind fewer carbohydrates. While Gablinger's Diet Beer was ahead of its time, Rheingold's marketing was not. The beer company pushed Gablinger's as a healthier alternative to traditional beer. But the poorly conceived ads featuring "a man with the girth of a sumo wrestler" devouring a plate of spaghetti, then washing it down with a diet beer, didn't appeal to the weight-conscious women it supposedly targeted. The beverage flopped.
With Rheingold's consent, Owades gave his recipe to Chicago's Meister Brau brewery, which released the equally unsuccessful Meister Brau Lite. But when Miller Brewing Company acquired Meister Brau in the early '70s, it sensed an opportunity. Miller tweaked the formula and repackaged the brand as "Lite Beer from Miller." The timing was fortuitous. Miller Lite, as it became known, debuted just in time to catch a new wave of "healthier" products, including diet soda and low-tar cigarettes.
To make a greater dent in the market, Miller would need to appeal to men. Backslapping pro-football heroes like Bubba Smith, John Madden, and Dick Butkus were recruited to shill for the brand. But the true stroke of genius was the "Tastes great! Less filling!" commercial featuring the New York Yankees' George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin. The ad managed to stress both flavor and lightness, suggesting that Miller Lite wasn't meant for weight loss, but instead to be consumed in large quantities.
By 1978, Anheuser-Busch, Coors, and Schlitz were all frantically marketing their own light beers to challenge Miller Lite's dominance. At the height of the rivalry, Miller's president, John A. Murphy, allegedly kept a voodoo doll of August Busch III (then president of Anheuser-Busch) in his office. It didn't help. After years of absurdly expensive marketing, Bud Light finally surpassed Miller Lite in annual sales in 1997. By 2004, Bud Light had strengthened its hold, becoming the true King of Beers as it overtook Budweiser. It has remained the top-selling beer in the U.S. ever since.
Most beer drinkers will tell you that light beers contain a relatively low alcohol percentage and number of calories. Bud is the real beer, Bud Light is the low-cal version. But there's a disagreement among brewers about what truly qualifies as a light beer. Peter Kraemer, a fifth-generation brewmaster and head of brewing for Anheuser-Busch InBev in St. Louis, is just the man to clear up this question. Kraemer, 46, holds a degree in chemical engineering and spent years apprenticing under August Busch III himself. All brewmasters at Anheuser-Busch undergo an extensive apprenticeship that exposes them to the entire supply chain and enables them to hone their beer-tasting skills. Today, he's responsible for making sure that every can, bottle, and glass of Bud Light in North America tastes exactly the same.