We now drink more light beer than any other kind, and more varieties have frothed up recently to quench that American thirst. But shoppers beware: There is no standard for light beer, so you will find calories - and taste - all over the lot.
That was Consumer Reports' finding when it pitted newcomer brews against current top-sellers and top-scoring light beers from past tests to see which stood out for taste, price and caloric content. Michelob Ultra Amber, which hit the market just last year, was rated the tastiest by CR's trained experts.
Taste matters, of course, but CR suspects most people turn to light beer because of the calorie savings. Therein lies a problem: Unlike "light" food products, there are no government standards for "light" beer. Companies using the term have to list calories (and carbohydrates, protein and fat) on the label. Generally, the light beers are lower in calories than their regular siblings, but you need to pay attention to the labels.
A Bud Light, for example, has 110 calories per 12-ounce serving versus 145 for a regular Budweiser. And the range of calories across the category of light beers is wide - from 64 for Beck's Premier Light (rated lowest by CR tasters) to 119 for Sam Adams Light (one of several brews deemed "very good"). The calorie savings, however, doesn't exactly give you license to swill. Light beer has almost as much alcohol as regular beer. The calorie cut comes mainly from a reduction in carbohydrates.
Matter of taste
As for flavor, the light beers CR tested were similar in quality to domestic and imported full-calorie beers, but were less intense. The magazine's tasters saw no bottles, cans or labels. All they got was sample after sample of beer, straight from the fridge, poured carefully into wineglasses to allow for some foam formation.
Six brews proved better than the rest. Two darker beers - the top-scoring Michelob Ultra Amber (114 calories; $5.74 per six-pack of bottles) and Sam Adams Light (119 calories; $7.38 per six-pack of bottles) - are both on the heavy side of light, possessing a bigger flavor with fruity, dry hops; molasses; and caramelized-malt notes. Similar in style to a regular lager, but with a lighter flavor, are Michelob Light (113 calories; $5.71 per six-pack of bottles), Michelob Ultra (95 calories; $5.76 per six-pack of bottles), Coors Light (102 calories; $5.36 per six-pack of cans) and Budweiser Select (99 calories; $5.28 per six-pack of bottles).
Three other beers combined very good taste (the magazine's experts noted "fruity and floral notes") with comparatively low price to earn distinction as CR Best Buys. Busch Light (95 calories; $3.87 per six-pack of cans) and Keystone Light (104 calories; $3.75 per six-pack of cans) were balanced and crisp. Natural Light (95 calories; $3.54 per six-pack of cans) had an even lighter flavor than the rest, but a bit too much of a club-soda finish, according to the tasters.
Keeping it fresh
For all its supposed brawniness, beer is a delicate drink and loses freshness when exposed to light and heat. So look for a date on the label to assess a beer's freshness. And don't shun cans: They may not be trendy, but they protect beer from light and tend to keep it fresher longer. (If you go for glass, dark is better than clear, and brown is better than green.)
You may want to consider a keg for parties. In past tests, CR found that keg beer tasted fresher than beer in a bottle or a can.