No Defense For Light Beer

miller-lite
Ever since I first read about this in Beer Business Daily, it’s been bothering me, but I’ve been unable to read the original editorial by David Ryder, who’s the Vice-President of Brewing for MillerCoors. It supposedly ran in the Chicago-Sun Times, but they apparently do not have that particular editorial online and their search engine only allows searching their archives for articles written in 2011 or before. But apparently on July 4, he wrote an op-ed piece, “In Defense of Light Beer,” though I imagine he would have preferred the spelling “lite beer.” Now, without having even read it, you have to be suspicious of it for no other reason then he owes much of his living to the continued sales and popularity of low-calorie light beer. As Upton Sinclair famously observed. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

But here’s what I do know, as reported by Beer Business Daily:

“It’s absolutely true that U.S. beer drinkers have more choices than ever before, from spicy saisons to big imperial stouts to hoppy IPAs. It’s a wonderful development that brings energy and excitement to brewing.

“But it’s also true that, faced with all those choices, American beer drinkers still overwhelmingly choose American light lagers over all others.

“That fact often draws the scorn and condescension of beer ‘aficionados,’ not to mention the news media. Not too long ago, the financial newswire Bloomberg News derided light lagers as ‘barley water’ in a story on our sales trends.

“The lighter take on beer exemplified by American pilsners and lagers is an authentic and widely admired style. In fact, it is the very first style of beer listed in the Beer Judge Certification Program. I have worked as a brewer in some 20 countries on five continents. I can assure you that this is the most emulated and difficult-to-brew beer style in the world.”

David points out that in the old days before light beer, “beer was a food staple” but Adolph Coors and Adolphus Busch changed beer to be seen as “as a form of refreshment and pioneered new brands to meet changing consumer preferences.” He also points out that “light beers are incredibly difficult to brew. Heavy, sometimes cloudy, beers can mask brewing imperfections. But with light beers, the slightest irregularity is glaring to the taste buds. Consistently replicating these delicate flavors and aromas requires a remarkable level of brewing skill and precision.”

To the point he makes about the difficulty of making light beer, while I generally admire the science of brewing that the big breweries have developed and the difficulty of consistently brewing light beers, where flaws are nearly impossible to hide, that admiration does not extend to the products themselves. No matter how difficult they are to make, that still doesn’t excuse their existence, or make them a beer that I’d ever want to drink. To me, they are still an abomination, a science experiment gone awry. There’s no reason to sacrifice flavor to save a mere pittance of calories. Beer is not particularly fattening, especially if you drink it in moderation. The easiest way to reduce your caloric intake of beer is not to choose the latest scientifically engineered slightly lower-calorie beer, but to simply drink less bottles, cans or pints. Drink less, but drink better is always a good rule of thumb.

A little over a week after Ryder’s op-ed appeared, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Herb Gould also examined Ryder’s assertions. In his column Thirsting for some better pilsners, he claims to be a homebrewer, but one who will drink apparently any beer. He offers that he’s “not a beer snob,” but “simply like[s] beers that, well, taste better than what the Big Two offer.” Despite this apparent contradiction, he applauds Ryder for his “much-needed defense of American pilsners,” continuing. “As he said, it’s an American classic. When you’re watching a ballgame on a hot day, when you’re enjoying a big steak, or a nice piece of salmon, nothing’s better than a well-bittered but not too heavy lager.”

Except that light beers are not “well-bittered” and they’re not pilsners, American or otherwise. They may have been based upon pilsners once upon a time, but they have diverged so far from that purported origin that they bear little resemblance to pilsners from the Czech Republic, Germany or any other place on the planet. They have become, as even David Ryder notes, a separate category of beer all to themselves.

He claims surprise “that the little breweries don’t seem interested in making a nice pilsner — or a better version of Budweiser or Miller High Life” and later in his column challenges what he terms “earnest little micro-breweries” to “[g]ive us more and better All-American pilsners.” I’m not sure where he’s been going to find his beer, because there are literally hundreds of great pilsners made by craft brewers of all sizes. Right in my backyard, the Trumer Brauerei in Berkeley only makes one beer, a fantastic pilsner that’s exactly what Gould claims to want in a “quality pilsner — a beer that’s on the lighter side but has nothing to be ashamed of. A beer that’s got a little bite, has a nice layer of flavor but doesn’t shout out anything fancy.”

A beer fitting that description, frankly, is not all that difficult to find. Of the Top 50 Czech Pilsners on Beer Advocate, 36 of them are made in the U.S. and for the Top 50 German Pilsners, 34 are American-made. Good American pilsners are everywhere if you know where to look.

And quite frankly, the reason he may be having trouble finding one is that he admits he “will drink MillerCoors or Budweiser products, but only if more ambitious choices are not available, which is often the case.” But that’s never going to change if he just accepts what beers they have and fails to tell the bars he frequents that he would prefer “more ambitious choices.” If he keeps ordering whatever is available, there’s absolutely no incentive for the bar to stock “more ambitious choices.” He seems to wear not being a beer snob as a badge of honor, but he’s doing himself and craft beer no favors by settling for whatever beers a bar decides to carry. Asking, or even insisting, on the beers you want is not being a snob, but is simply the only way to effect change and get the beers you actually want. Can you imagine being hungry for a steak and going to a restaurant, only to find out the only kind they have is Salisbury steak, and just settling for that, especially when there are other steak restaurants right around the corner? Vote for what you want with your wallet. Buy what you actually want, don’t just settle for whatever’s put in front of you. Seriously, who lives that way?

But I think his way of thinking is pretty common, and is a big reason why light beer and other less-flavorful beers continue to be so popular. It’s simply that people who are not as fanatical as the average beer geek just don’t care enough to bother. There’s enough to worry about in people’s everyday lives, and we all decide what things we’ll make a priority and what we’ll just accept and not fuss too much about. And in that, the big breweries have the advantage.

Think about colas, for example. There are people who really care that they drink only Coke or Pepsi. They’re fanatical about it. My grandmother was a Pepsi person. She hated Coke. But there are countless people who just don’t care. You see it at restaurants all the time. “Can I have a Coke, please.” The waitress replies, “we only have Pepsi.” And how often have you heard this? “That’s fine. No problem. Whatever.” And so it is with beer. You’re out for lunch or dinner and want a beer. More often than not, most people will just accept whatever beer is offered. It’s the reason that distribution and availability are so crucial to success. Simply have your beer available at more places than your competitor and you’ll most likely do better. Because most people in such a situation will just capitulate and order from what’s available rather than make a fuss or ask for something else or, perish the thought, not patronize that bar or restaurant.

So simply having deep distribution and being available everywhere will sustain light beer for years to come, so long as people don’t speak up. Because until Gould and a majority of people do care enough to insist on what they put in their bodies, the big companies that can afford national advertising budgets and can make their products available everywhere, those light beer makers will continue to flourish, and little will change in the world of beer.

But let’s get back to Ryder, and some of his arguments in defense of light beer. Here’s just a few of the earlier statements Ryder makes that I disagree with.

  • The lighter take on beer exemplified by American pilsners and lagers is an authentic and widely admired style:

    Widely admired by whom, exactly? Sales do not automatically equal admiration. The reasons any product is popular is not that it’s the best one available. Often it’s the cheapest, most available or has the highest advertising budget. Wonder bread my be the best-selling bread in America, but does anyone actually think it’s the best bread money can buy? People drink light beer because they’re bombarded with marketing and advertising, have been tricked into thinking they’re not sacrificing flavor and/or don’t really think (or care) about their choices. And as for its “authenticity,” I don’t even know what he’s talking about, do you? They’re not “pilsners” by any stretch of the imagination and they may be among the groups of beers described as lagers, but they exist in their own world, as a separate category. That a new category was created so that similar beers could be tasted and judged with other similar beers, does not make them authentic, which is defined as “not false or copied; genuine; real.” Given that “light beers” are lighter, less flavorful beers copied from true pilsners and rendered into a false version of them, I’d argue they’re the very opposite of authentic.

  • In fact, it is the very first style of beer listed in the Beer Judge Certification Program:

    Why yes, yes they are. But that fact has absolutely nothing to do with authenticity or any positive attribute. The BJCP style guidelines are organized roughly by lagers, ales and hybrids, from lightest (and sometimes) weakest to darkest or stronger. Light lagers, being the lightest in color and weakest in terms of flavor are listed first. It is not because they are the most authentic or any other reason that anyone might consider because they are somehow more favored or the best. And, I suspect, Mr. Ryder must know that their position in the list is utterly meaningless such that trying to defend light beer using this argument is completely disingenuous and intentionally misleading.

  • It’s also true that, faced with all those choices, American beer drinkers still overwhelmingly choose American light lagers over all others:

    Yes, that may be true but it hardly proves that this is because light beer is somehow a superior product. As I argued above, marketing, advertising and manipulating consumers over decades is responsible for light beer’s popularity. It’s certainly not its taste or any actual health benefits over other beers.

The true reason that the big breweries have focused on low-calorie beers has more to do with business, and the bottom line, than health or any altruistic reasons. In fact, the earliest diet beers had a very difficult time finding a market. Men, by far the largest gender drinking beer when they were introduced, had to be convinced over a long period of time that they should drink light beer. And let’s not forget that low-calorie beers use less ingredients than their more flavorful counterparts, but yet are sold for the same prince point. You don’t even have to be very cynical to realize that they’re more profitable and to see why breweries might have put more effort into selling them.

Gablingers-Beer

The first low-calorie beer was created by Joe Owedes, who, it must be said, had some very strong opinions about beer. He once told me that all ale yeast was dead and inferior to lager yeast. Around 1967, he created Gablinger’s diet beer, the first light beer, while working for Rheingold. It flopped. Big time. Not everybody agrees on what happened next. Some accounts credit Owedes with sharing his recipe for light beer with Meister Brau of Chicago while others claim that the Peter Hand Brewing Company (which marketed Meister Brau) came up with it independently on their own. However it happened, Meister Brau Lite proved somewhat more successful than Gablinger’s, primarily due to its superior marketing. Miller Brewing later acquired Meister Brau, and in 1975 debuted Miller Lite, complete with the distinctive, trademark-able spelling.

Meister-Brau-Lite-1969

But it took marketing the new low-calorie beer in a new way so that it removed the “diet” stigma to make it work. They had to trick people into drinking it. Miller’s famously successful “tastes great, less filling” campaign was the primary reason for the category’s success. But it was hardly overnight. It took fifteen years — from 1975 to 1990 — for Miller Lite to reach 10% of the market. Over that time, the other big brewers (loathe to miss out on any market share) introduced their own versions, such as Coors Light and Bud Light, so that whole segment of low-calorie beer was nearly 30% of the beer market by 1990.

miller-lite-uecker-1982

Today, seven of the top ten big brands are light beers. Despite its recent dip in sales, it remains a $50 billion segment of the business and still hovers close to half of all beer sold in the United States. That fact, I find to be incredibly sad, frankly. What a great triumph of marketing over common sense and actual taste.

Earlier this year, Ryder gave a talk on beer in Milwaukee, entitled the Science of Beer, where he extolled the recent changes in people’s attitudes toward beer. “‘People are rediscovering beer,’ he said. ‘They’re gaining a brand new appreciation of what beer is and what beer could be.’” And to my way of thinking, what beer is and what beer can be is just so much more than low-calorie light beer. I find that there’s just no defense for light beer.

Comments

  1. Shooter says

    I toured the Budweiser facility up in Fairfield a while back. Heck yes, their process and consistency is impressive. When the tour was over I was offered two complementary beers. I hadn’t tasted a regular Budweiser in years. So, I went for that. I was taken by surprise, I could almost see myself drinking this at a ball park on a hot summer day. I wondered about my reaction and realized, the big three have pushed light/lite beer SO hard that the watered down flavor is the only thing I associate with their beers. Is that really the image they want to push? Apparently, it is…

  2. LitenUp says

    Here’s the full text of the thing, from Lexis-Nexis:

    LIGHTEN UP ON LIGHT BEER
    562 words
    4 July 2012
    Chicago Sun-Times
    CHI
    21
    English
    © Copyright 2012, NewsBank. All Rights Reserved
    If you’re a beer drinker, you’ve probably heard a simplistic story that goes something like this: “Americans are wising up and dumping their watery, industrial light beers for harder-to-make craft beers.”
    It’s a catchy narrative with an unmistakable David-vs.-Goliath appeal. It’s also completely and utterly false.
    It’s absolutely true that U.S. beer drinkers have more choices than ever before, from spicy saisons to big imperial stouts to hoppy IPAs. It’s a wonderful development that brings energy and excitement to brewing.
    But it’s also true that, faced with all those choices, American beer drinkers still overwhelmingly choose American light lagers over all others.
    That fact often draws the scorn and condescension of beer “aficionados,” not to mention the news media. Not too long ago, the financial newswire Bloomberg News derided light lagers as “barley water” in a story on our sales trends.
    The lighter take on beer exemplified by American pilsners and lagers is an authentic and widely admired style. In fact, it is the very first style of beer listed in the Beer Judge Certification Program. I have worked as a brewer in some 20 countries on five continents. I can assure you that this is the most emulated and difficult-to-brew beer style in the world.
    It is also uniquely American, dating back to the mid to late 19th century, when German immigrants like Fred Miller in Milwaukee, Adolph Coors in Denver and Adolphus Busch in St. Louis reconsidered the role of beer.
    In the old world, beer was a food staple. These brewing pioneers saw that Americans viewed beer more as a form of refreshment and pioneered new brands to meet changing consumer preferences. The products that emerged perfectly suited the way Americans drank beer — as a social beverage, perfect for catching up with friends, watching a ballgame, cooling off on a hot day or enjoying a picnic. With the introduction of “Lite Beer from Miller” in 1974, America’s leading brewers filled that niche even better by appealing to a more calorie-conscious consumer.
    Contrary to the popular bar banter, these beers are something of a brewing marvel. Light beers are incredibly difficult to brew. Heavy, sometimes cloudy, beers can mask brewing imperfections. But with light beers, the slightest irregularity is glaring to the taste buds. Consistently replicating these delicate flavors and aromas requires a remarkable level of brewing skill and precision.
    All this runs counter to the prevailing prejudices of some hop head elitists, but so does the fact that MillerCoors has helped many craft brewers source ingredients as our groundbreaking research and development identifies better-quality options. At MillerCoors, we have always believed that there is a fraternity of brewers and that we ought to help each other. Because when the American consumer chooses beer, we all win.
    We’re excited about a marketplace where you can enjoy a light beer at a ballgame, a Belgian White with seafood or an assertive Pilsner with a steak. Or where you can transition from a lager at happy hour to something more substantial and sippable, like a Russian Imperial Stout, later in the evening.
    As we like to say, beers to quaff and beers to toff.
    Responsibly, of course.

    David Ryder is vice president for brewing and research at MillerCoors.

  3. says

    I don’t take offense at Dr. Ryder’s comments, but note that (obviously) they are biased by his career/profession. No doubt his extolling of American light lager would be attenuated if he were still the brewmaster at Duvel. Nonetheless, I agree with Jay Brooks’ criticism that because light American is hard to brew, doesn’t make it admirable…much the same way that the difficulty of rhythmic gymnastics or synchronized swimming does not make them redeeming Olympic sports.

  4. Bob Natsch says

    Mr. Brooks has given us a very opinionated take on the mass market beer business today. He wears the “beer snob” title as a badge of honor just as he portrays Mr. Gould wearing the “not a beer snob” label the same way. Mass produced American light beers may not meet Mr. Brooks’ taste flavor profile, but that is no reason to turn up one’s nose in a snobbery fashion at the whole segment. A lot of consumers want a product that tastes exactly like the Big Two’s leading offerings just like a lot of consumers prefer a regular ole American pickup over some other small batch technologically superior vehicle made wherever. My taste flavor preference does not lend itself to light beers, but I would never dis the entire category because of my personal taste. Wow, how would Mr Brooks handle the 3.2 alcohol content by weight vs the ” 6 point” by volume strong beer myth. Drink what you want enjoy, and stop acting superior to those who do the same.

    • says

      Bob, thanks for your thoughtful comment. Unfortunately, I think you may have missed the larger point. I was not coming out to attack low-calorie light beer, but their defense. I’m not turning up my “nose in a snobbery fashion” because they do not meet my “taste profile” but because Mr. Ryder and Mr. Gould are trying to defend them using questionable arguments at best and in a very well-respected mainstream media outlet. When someone claims light beer is a superior product because it’s hard to make or because it’s the first style category in a list of beer styles, or when someone defends that defense by confusing what’s being defended with pilsner, then yes, I do feel compelled to proffer a contrary position. Both were given a forum that reaches possibly millions of people and used that influential medium to give what I consider to be incorrect or self-serving arguments. I would have been happy to not even bring up light beer as I generally simply choose not to drink them or talk about them. But put more childishly, they started it.

      Bob, I assume you’re the Bob Natsch who is, or was, the Senior Vice President of Operations for Premium Beers of Oklahoma, which I see is now A-B Sales of Oklahoma-Oklahoma City. So that would also mean you’ve sold a lot of Bud Light, Busch Light and others, too, over the years. With no disrespect, that would likewise mean that you might have formed a different take on light beer since it is or was such a big part of your business’ success. I contend that popularity and quality are not the same thing.

      I do not believe Mr. Ryder is championing them because he truly believes in them, but because it’s his job. I don’t know why Mr. Gould chimed in, but he did and he included opinions and information that I believe are, quite frankly, incorrect. If that means I’m “dis[ing] the entire category because of my personal taste,” then I can live with that, though I don’t believe that’s the case.

      It’s true that I don’t like low-calorie light beer. But whether I like them or not isn’t really the point. I could love them but it still wouldn’t change the fact that they’re a less full-flavored version of regular beer. That’s simply a fact. It wouldn’t change the fact that they are popular only because of a concerted marketing effort over many years. When you say that “[a] lot of consumers want a product that tastes exactly like the Big Two’s leading offerings just like a lot of consumers prefer a regular ole American pickup over some other small batch technologically superior vehicle made wherever,” I again must respectfully disagree. They did not come by that desire naturally, but were persuaded that they could save calories or not get filled up or that it tastes great. Those “tastes great, less filling” ads of the 1980s are ingrained in our collective consciousness, they created an entire segment that today is close to half the total beer market. But that didn’t happen because people were clamoring for them. Whatever demand there is for them today has been manufactured, it’s as artificial as the beer. The big breweries have made more profits by selling light beer since the cost of ingredients is lower but they’re sold for the same price as their regular offerings. And I believe you got your analogy backwards. MillerCoors and ABI make the “technologically superior” pick-up truck. The small batch trucks are the simpler ones from the craft brewers, although that line is blurring quite a bit these days. Many of the bigger regionals have built breweries that are every bit as technologically marvelous as the big boys. But apart from Boston Beer Co., none have introduced a low-calorie light beer.

      I certainly agree that people should drink what they enjoy. While I think that most beers that aren’t low-calorie light beers are more enjoyable to drink because they have more flavor, it was not my intention to act superior, but offer a strong counterpoint to light beer’s defense, which I found hollow, shallow and self-serving. If you read Ryder’s original op-ed piece, it read like a press release, free publicity in the Chicago Sun-Times. I think I’m at least entitled to my opinion on my backwater blog that’s read by far fewer than the 400,000 circulation of the Sun-Times.

  5. beerman49 says

    Interesting series of points & counterpoints being bandied back & forth here; the one thing I found missing from the discussion was the economic reality facing brewpubs & microbreweries about making beer w/lager yeast.

    Ales can be brewed, fermented, conditioned, & put on line/bottled within 15-21 days; for lagers/pilseners, add 20-30 days for cold-conditioning. Proprietors who choose to offer lager/pils are tying up tank space, which, in most cases, they can’t afford being “non-productive” for a month, unless they’re devoting their entire “house” line to such beers & have figured out a brewing cycle that minimizes their costs.

    It’d be nice if a few brewpub brewers who that focus on lager/pils would chime in; they have a tough road to hoe & I have a lot of respect for them, especially those who can make one under 4.5% ABV that tastes good. I’ve found one just once – on a hot & muggy summer day a few yrs ago when in Alexandria, VA to meet friends for dinner @ Hops (once Florida-based; now owned by Rita Restaurant Group – their website lists locations only in VA, NC, & CO).

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