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.