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In Defense of Light Lagers

The light lager bears a powerful stigma as the stylistic face of all that is considered unholy by craft beer devotees. But many of the most common arguments against it – it’s easily made, flavorless, lacking complexity – don’t always hold water. By removing the stigma associated with this style, we can continue refining the American beer sensibility. Far from the frontier days of rugged syrups, knowledge about the wide range of styles available today empowers us to select the beers that best suit our drinking needs.

Is the idea to advocate a light lager-dominant paradigm? Absolutely not. However, craft beer is as much about having options and a tailored drinking experience as it is about being able to enjoy a beer thicker than blood. Sometimes light lagers are better suited for specific drinking occasions.

The Minimalist Approach

You don’t have to look far into the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) Style Guide to find it – it’s literally at the top of the list as “American Light Lager” in the “Standard American Beer” Category, which contains beers that “are not typically complex and have smooth, accessible flavors.”

This is the style that is considered quintessentially American, for better or worse, having originally gained mainstream popularity in 1973 with the introduction of Miller Lite. Over time it became the ballpark beer, the racetrack beer, the pregame beer, the turbocharged-riding-lawnmower-maiden-voyage celebration beer and so on. You’ve put it on your brats, used it to attract slugs and enjoyed it in your cereal in the dark (and/or golden) ages of college.

Speaking of cereal, the ingredients are quite cereal-like in nature: most light lagers consist of two- or six-row barley with up to 40 percent rice or corn as adjuncts. Beyond that, you’ve got the standard yeast and light bittering hop additions ‒ and that’s about it. Sometimes additional enzymes are introduced to further lighten the body and lower the carbs. For the American Light Lager, less is more: An exceptional American Light Lager specimen is one that doesn’t leave too much of an impression, and for a slice of the craft-centered public, that’s a problem.



Over time, light lagers became the ballpark beer, the racetrack beer, the pregame beer, the turbocharged-riding-lawnmower-maiden-voyage celebration beer and so on.


At any rate, the BJCP defines a light lager as a “highly carbonated, very light-bodied, nearly flavorless lager designed to be consumed very cold. Very refreshing and thirst-quenching.”

Well, most of that sounds pretty good. “Nearly flavorless,” however, is where craft aficionados begin nervously shifting about. Is there a scenario where lacking bold flavor could be a positive? I’d argue so. But let’s continue.

The aroma of a light lager is similar to that of cryogenically preserved cornflakes. The malt aroma is muted, but if present, it will appear as mild, grainy and sweet. Hop aromas are minimal, and mildly spicy or floral if present – hops in this style are mainly for bittering. These beers are generally uber-clean, but according to the BJCP, a “light amount of yeast character (particularly a light apple fruitiness) is not a fault.” Light dimethyl sulfide (DMS) is not considered a fault either.

For the average craft drinker, the BJCP description of a light lager’s appearance is downright depressing, akin to that of a sad scarecrow: “Very pale straw to pale yellow color. White, frothy head seldom persists. Very clear.” You can sense the excitement in the author’s words.

The flavor is just as you’d expect: minimal. A “relatively neutral palate with a crisp and dry finish and a low to very low grainy or corn-like flavor that might be perceived as sweetness due to the low bitterness. Hop flavor ranges from nonexistent to low, and can have a floral, spicy or herbal quality (although rarely strong enough to detect). Low to very low hop bitterness. Balance may vary from slightly malty to slightly bitter, but is relatively close to even. High levels of carbonation may accentuate the crispness of the dry finish. Clean lager fermentation character.” This dull description is generally the last straw for today’s lovers of craft and the glorious range of bold, juicy and funky brews it represents.



For the average craft drinker, the BJCP description of a light lager’s appearance is downright depressing, akin to that of a sad scarecrow: “Very pale straw to pale yellow color. White, frothy head seldom persists. Very clear.” You can sense the excitement in the author’s words.


A common argument against the American Light Lager is that it ruins the layman’s perception of what beer can be. This may be true, but I’d wager that this gateway style has opened more doors to beer experiences than it has closed. Palates take time to calibrate to tastes. Like coffee, beer is often puzzling to first-time drinkers due to its bitterness. Sending someone down the pathway of beer with a mild, neutral starting point is less likely to set up a taste-aversion scenario.

Much of the criticism leveled at this style is focused on what isn’t there: bold flavor, thick, juicy mouthfeel and so on. But that’s the exact opposite of what light lager is supposed to be, by definition.

You may scoff at the idea that one would knowingly choose a watery, objectively neutral beer. However, there are scenarios where this is actually ideal.


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