Beer Language

Part One: Light It Up

What people say and what they think they’re saying are sometimes two completely different things. I’ve noticed that this is especially true in the case of beer, where so many terms have multiple meanings and interpretations depending on the person. That’s why I’m starting this new section, to discuss a few of these words and maybe lock down some alternative word choices that will help me, the bartender, understand what you, the customer, really want to drink.

Today’s word is “light,” which is one of the more versatile and ambiguous words in the English language. It’s a verb, a noun, an adjective and throw an “ly” at the end of it and it’s an adverb, too. It can refer to illumination, color, weight, sparseness or force, just to name a few of the most obvious definitions, and it’s especially problematic when used to describe beer.

A “light” beer could be:

  1. A beer that is light in color or appearance
  2. A beer that is light in taste/flavor
  3. A beer that is light in alcohol
  4. A beer that is light in calories

Those four definitions aren’t always mutually exclusive, but in most cases, they aren’t related to one another. Macro lagers are probably the exception to that rule, as they do tend to be all of the above, and certain classic beer styles also tend to fit those four definitions pretty well, though not always; these styles include Kolsch, Blonde, Pilsner, Helles, and some American wheat beers.

But it’s a mistake to assume that if a beer is light in color, it must be light in the other three categories, too. Take yesterday’s example of the Saison style as a beer that is usually light in color, but not particularly light in flavor, alcohol, or calories. The same goes for a Belgian Strong Golden, trippels, a hoppy pilsner, Hefeweizens, and some lighter colored IPAs. There are plenty of darker colored beers like ambers, browns, or black ales that I’d argue were far lighter in flavor than their golden cousins.

So let’s talk alternatives to the word, “light.”

Usually what most people are looking for when they ask for a “light” beer is something that is clean, easy to drink, and features only a couple basic flavors. In other words, nothing that is too complex, strong, or bitter. If that sounds like you, try asking for something “clean,” “simple,” “thirst-quenching,” “refreshing,” or “sessionable,” meaning it’s the kind of beer you can guzzle instead of sip.

On the other hand, if you’ve got no problem with some complexity in your beer, but you just don’t like darker colored beers for their roasted coffee or chocolate flavors, specify that you don’t like those particular styles and specify whether you’re in the mood for something “strong” or “weak,” in alcohol, and “clean,” “fruity”, or “hoppy” in taste.

If you’re looking for a beer with less alcohol, check the ABV (Alcohol By Volume). Most low-alcohol beers are between 4-5% and there are plenty of darker colored beers that qualify.

And if you’re looking for a beer with fewer calories, you’re wasting your time. While alcohol does contain calories, it’s a myth that alcoholic drinks lead to weight gain. Don’t believe me?

Click here.

(That’s right. You no longer have any reason at all for drinking Amstel Light or Michelob Ultra.)

Now that you’ve got plenty of alternatives to the word “light,” I’m calling a ban on it. The next time you order a beer, see if you can avoid using the most ambiguous word in all of Beerdom. And be sure to give me hell if you catch me rolling it out again either.

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