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For all the enthusiasm surrounding the craft beer boom and its burly porters, full-bodied stouts and hoppy heavies, there’s a fact that shouldn’t get lost amidst the ever-expanding world of suds: light beer remains the once and future king of beers.
Light beer is a category that's defined as having a lower ABV (typically around 5%) and a lower amount of calories—or both—and it's a category that includes a lot of pale, crisp lagers. But while the sector may be dominated by those ever-present macrobrews that you'll recognize from commercials during televised sports, there's also a rapidly expanding subsection of light brews hailing from craft breweries. To help you navigate this ubiquitous and important category, we sought out the best light beers to drink today.
Best Overall: Night Shift Brewery Nite Lite Craft Light Lager
Region: Massachusetts | ABV: 4.3% ABV | Tasting Notes: Citrus, Bread, Corn
Within the past decade, craft brewers around the country have hopped (no pun intended) on the light lager bandwagon. While many of these beers came and went—the lager is a notoriously time-consuming beer to brew, so many smaller breweries don’t regularly offer one—Massachusetts’ Night Shift Brewing’s take on the trend is here to stay. At 4.3% ABV, Nite Lite is an effortlessly drinkable lager, with plenty of flavor and only 120 calories.
Best Budget: Miller Lite Lager Beer
Region: Wisconsin | ABV: 4.2% ABV | Tasting Notes: Malt, Hops, Slight sweetness
Known as the original light beer, award-winning Miller Lite has just 96 calories and 3.2 grams of carbs. Easy drinking with a classic golden hue, this beer has a Galena hops-driven aroma and a crisp, slightly sweet finish. This is about as dependable as a mainstream American pilsner gets.
Best Irish: Guinness Pub Draught Stout
Region: Ireland | ABV: 4.2% ABV | Tasting Notes: Chocolate, Caramel, Coffee
Surprised to see this iconic dark ale on our list? Most beer drinkers are familiar with the nitro smoothness, caramelized and chocolate character, and deep roasted coffee color of Guinness Draught. Still, at a low 4.2% ABV, it's technically a light beer. (Even Guinness Extra Stout boasts only a 5.6% ABV.) It’s also versatile enough to pair with Irish standards like soda bread or bangers and mash, or for use in beer cocktails, shots, and layered drinks.
Best Low-Carb: Lagunitas DayTime IPA
Region: California | ABV: 4% ABV | Tasting Notes: Citrus, Pine, Malt
Lagunitas DayTime IPA proves that even the notoriously-heavy India Pale Ale style can be done with a lighter touch: it clocks in at a mere 98 calories, 3 grams of carbs, and a 4% ABV. This craft beer doesn't sacrifice flavor, though—it’s easy drinking, hoppy, and balanced, bursting with citrus and tropical fruit, and offering a complexity many wouldn’t expect with such limited alcohol.
Related: The Best Craft Beers
Best Japanese: Hitachino Nest White Ale
Region: Japan | ABV: 5.5% ABV | Tasting Notes: Yeast, Citrus, Spice
After establishing themselves as sake producers in 1823, Kiuchi Brewery has been brewing beer as a family across eight generations, with this witbier at the forefront. Its creators call the light-bodied, Belgian-style white ale “soft and flavorful,” and they’re not wrong. Flavored with coriander, orange peel and nutmeg, it’s explosively fragrant and carbonated with a pleasantly dry finish.
Related: The Best Beer Glasses
Best Mexican: Tecate Original
Region: Mexico | ABV: 4.5% ABV | Tasting Notes: Malt, Bread, Sweet corn
Using the brand's long-trusted formula, Tecate Original has a reasonable 141 calories, 4.5% ABV, and a classic flavor profile that distinguishes it in blind taste tests. You’ll be hard-pressed to find something this accessible and full-flavored yet light-bodied. "The palate-cleansing effervescence and hint of sweet corn in Tecate makes it perfect not only for summer, but for anything fresh off the grill," says Anthony St. Clair, an author and long-time beer critic.
Related: The Best Summer Beers
Best Wheat: Allagash White
Region: Maine | ABV: 5.2% ABV | Tasting Notes: Yeast, Orange peel, Spice
Allagash’s brewers call this witbier their "interpretation of a traditional Belgian wheat beer," spiced with flavors of coriander and curaçao orange peel. Experts celebrate its mouthfeel and interplay of sweetness and bitterness. "One of my all-time favorites," says Merideth Canham-Nelson, an author and experienced beer traveler. "It has a refreshing balance of citrus and spiciness, [and it's] easy drinking with a lower ABV."
Related: The Best Beer Fridges
Best Pale Ale: Bell’s Light Hearted Ale Lo-Cal IPA
Region: Michigan | ABV: 3.7% ABV | Tasting Notes: Caramel malt, Pine, Citrus
A low-ABV, low-calorie IPA may sound like a myth—and, for a while, it was. Several years ago, however, Michigan’s Bell’s Brewing decided to take its cult classic Two-Hearted Ale and dial down the booze, resulting in a well-received younger sibling, Bell's Light-Hearted Ale. A blend of Centennial and Galaxy hops gives the beer its signature notes of citrus and pine, and at 3.7% ABV (and a mere 110 calories) it’s a flavorful brew that packs a lighter punch.
Related: The Best Beers
Best Belgian: Oude Gueuze Tilquin
Region: Belgium | ABV: 6% ABV | Tasting Notes: Sour, Fruit, Barnyard
Belgium is not exactly known for moderation when it comes to the alcohol content of its beers: the mammoth Belgian quad, for example, can tip the scales at 10% ABV. But if you’re seeking the strong flavor profile of a Belgian beer paired with the light body and low alcohol content of a light beer, check out lambics. These spontaneous fermentation beers drink like wine, but tend to have an ABV around 6%. Oude Gueuze Tilquin is a traditional gueuze, blending one, two, and three years old lambics resulting in a tart and slightly fruity beer.
Related: The Best Nonalcoholic Beers
Best Hefeweizen: Primator Hefeweizen
Region: Czech Republic | ABV: 4.8% ABV | Tasting Notes: Citrus, Banana, Clove
At a smooth 4.8% ABV, Primator Hefeweizen is Bavarian in style (even though it's brewed in the nearby Czech Republic). It's also unfiltered, and built around malted wheat, malted barley, Saaz hops, proprietary yeast and pure mountain water. Its lively aromas of clove, fruit, and yeast are striking, and its flavors of banana, orange, and mango expand on that complexity. One of the best hefeweizens in the market, it was even voted "World's Best Beer" at the World Beer Awards in 2013. "This is a really solid Czech brewery nailing the style," says Kris Calef, owner of MonthlyClubs.com.
Best Pilsner: Notch Brewing Session Pils Czech Pale Lager
Region: Massachusetts | ABV: 4% ABV | Tasting Notes: Malt, Pine, Spice
The pilsner, a style of lager originating in the Czech city of Plzeň in the 19th century, is among the most reliably light and refreshing categories in the beer world. Massachusetts’ Notch Brewing has plenty of options when it comes to easy-drinking beers, from Bavarian helles to Düsseldorf altbier. For crisp crushability, however, you can’t beat its Czech-style session pils. It hits all the right notes when it comes to delivering a crisp beer with herbal and hoppy notes at only 4% ABV.
Related: The Best Lager Beers
The craft beer industry has improved the light beer category by leaps and bounds. While there will always be a time and a place for a Miller Lite or a Tecate, if you want a beer that won’t weigh you down (but also won’t leave you questioning if you are, in fact, drinking a beer), reach for a craft option such as Night Shift’s Nite Lite (view at Drizly).
What to Look For
For decades Miller Light was synonymous with the slogan “tastes great, less filling.” Many light beers still try to live up to the motto, by offering easy-drinking beers that don’t skimp on the flavor. A quality light beer should be a beer you’d reach for whenever you’re in the mood for a less potent brew that still tastes like beer.
Is light beer made the same way as regular beer?
Unlike other beer styles—stout, lager, pale ale—the “light beer” category is less a strict category and more a qualifier, as there are light lagers, light IPAs, light wheat beers, etc. A beer is made “light” by reducing the gravity (the amount of fermentable sugars) in a beer, thus lowering the alcohol and calorie content. This is often primarily done by diluting the wort during the brewing process. There are other ways to lower the gravity of a beer—decoction mashing, for example—but these processes are sometimes too time-consuming and costly for breweries to endeavor.
What makes it light/what is considered light?
A light beer is any beer with a lower alcohol content, which therefore is lower in calories and often has a lighter body. The most common light beer style is the American lager, which also remains the most popular beer in the country, with Budweiser selling their venerable Bud Light by the tens of millions of barrels.
Is light beer good quality?
Light beer sometimes has a reputation of being a watered down version of its fuller bodied counterpart. In some cases, this is undeniably true. However, a recent spike in craft breweries experimenting with light beer styles has resulted in plenty of high quality light beers that do not skimp on flavor.
Does light beer have the same ABV as regular beer?
The ABV of most light beers is below 5% ABV, which is lower than more full-bodied, full alcohol styles.
Why Trust Liquor.com?
This roundup was updated by Jesse Porter, whose first bar job ever was at a mountainside German restaurant in upstate New York, where steins full of refreshing lager could be found on every table. And although he's worked since then as a sommelier, a wine educator, and a spirits rep, his love for tasty light beer remains as fresh and intense as a good pilsner.
Sarah Freeman is a food and beverage writer based in Chicago. She has been writing about restaurants and bars for the past decade—from learning about what makes a perfect piece of cocktail ice to the exploring art of beer label design.