These 4 brews sacrifice calories, not flavor.

These 4 brews sacrifice calories, not flavor.

The last time I drank light beer on purpose was at a college frat party a dozen or so years ago. Since then, I've become somewhat of a beer snob. So when I heard that there was a light beer that won a gold medal in a prestigious German beer competition-in a non-light-beer category, I was intrigued. But even more than that, I was skeptical.

Don't get me wrong, I totally understand why typical light beers are popular. They're crisp, refreshing, and low in alcohol and calories. You can throw a few back while spending the day outside in the sun without getting too much of a buzz or consuming too many calories. But to me, the average light beer doesn't taste like much more than water. I drink beer because I like its flavor. So I went on a mission to find light beers that a beer lover like me would actually want to drink.

The term "light" is a powerful marketing tool even though it doesn't really mean much when it comes to beer. Light beer is the fastest-growing beer category in the U.S., taking 48 percent of the market in 2007. So it's not surprising that some craft breweries, such as New Belgium Brewing Company, Shipyard Brewing Company and Redhook Ale Brewery, have jumped into the light-beer market in recent years-with great success. "Skinny Dip is our best-selling seasonal release of all time," said Bryan Simpson, media relations director of New Belgium Brewing. Even Michelob has gotten in the game. After their successful launch of Michelob ULTRA, "we saw a clear demand for new light beer options and that led us to create Michelob ULTRA Amber," says Dan Shannon, senior director of Michelob ULTRA Brands at Anheuser-Busch.

Jim Koch, founder and brewer of Samuel Adams, worked on their light beer doggedly. It's actually the brewery's second light beer (the first, Lightship, was on the market for about 12 years) and it took 24 different batches over two years to fine-tune Sam Adams Light. "What I wanted to do was completely rethink light beer," he said. "I wanted to make a light beer for good-beer drinkers-because even good-beer drinkers occasionally want a light beer."

And Sam Adams Light is the light beer that won the gold medal in the non-light-beer category. And you know what? It tastes good, as do a few other light offerings on the market. So good that a beer lover like me actually wants to drink them.

How Low Can You Go?

While food-labeling terms are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, those regulations do not apply to alcohol. So a beer company doesn't have to follow the same guidelines that a food company does when labeling products. (A food labeled "light" must have significantly reduced calories, fat or sodium.) "Light" on a beer label doesn't mean anything necessarily, although it's safe to assume the brand's light beer has fewer calories than its regular beer. Here are some average calorie counts for a point of reference.

Light beers: ~ 64 to 125*

Guinness Draught: 126*

Miller Genuine Draft: 143*

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale: 175*

5-ounce glass of wine: ~ 120

Light Beers We Like

*Nutrition information for 12-ounce bottle | ABV = alcohol by volume

Michelob ULTRA Amber

ABV 5.0%

114 calories

3.7 grams carbohydrate

Dark golden color and malty, sweet flavor.

Redhook Ale Brewery Slim Chance

ABV 3.9%

125 calories

8.7 grams carbohydrate

Refreshing and light.

Sam Adams Light

ABV 4.0%

119 calories

9.6 grams carbohydrate

Crisp, malty and smooth.

Shipyard Light

ABV 3.9%

97 calories

7.4 grams carbohydrate

Nicely balanced beer was the most mild of the batch.

New Belgium Brewing Skinny Dip

ABV 4.2%

110 calories

7 grams carbohydrate

Bright golden color and delicious citrus notes.

September/October 2009