Why are light beer styles so hot right now?

The humble, unassuming and often bland Golden Ale has become a thing. The same can be said of Saisons. Heck, even Michelob Ultra these days is flying off the shelves. Of course, not too long ago, the Gose-style was all the rage. Certainly beer fads come and go and some of them like fruit infused IPA’s and hazy IPA’s run counter to this.  But still, what’s up with all these lighter beers?  Did the upheaval of America’s craft brewing revolution just replace tasteless industrial lagers with slightly more flavorful light beers from smaller breweries?

Not exactly. IPA’s remain and strong and growing market and breweries still focus on finding the next hot IPA to bring to market. But it’s worth reminding folks our nation still drinks more Bud Light than all those IPA’s put together. Which brings me to a couple of observations about beer that helps put things in perspective.

  1. A lot of people like tasteless light industrial lagers.
  2. A lot of people who are either foodies or care about locally made food, don’t like IPA’s and other full flavored beer styles (ie. Barrel Aged Stouts)

These things fly into the face of typical craft beer rah-rah cheerleading. You know the story. We all suffered for decades as evil corporations churned out tasteless lagers. Then craft beer fought back with highly flavorful beers like IPA’s and the few enlightened who dared try them reached nirvana, causing a wave of beery innovation and entrepreneurship. What’s holding back craft beer is those evil corporations are still up to their tricks like buying out small brewers trying to dupe people into thinking they are “craft” and strangling smaller breweries with their strong distribution channel.

There is plenty of truth in all of that. But an inconvenient fact to that narrative is lots of people like light lagers and it’s no longer because they just haven’t been exposed to craft beer. Craft beer has been here for a while now and needs little or no introduction. I’ve met plenty of people who tried IPA’s and said “I’m fine with my Bud Lite, thank you very much.” And lord knows how many local-vores I’ve met who would really love to support their local brewery but don’t find a line-up full of aggressively flavored alcohol bombs particularly appealing.

So what’s a craft brewery to do? To find new business, especially where there’s a lot of craft beer market penetration, they can make some awfully light brews. When I first tried Firestone-Walker’s 805, I never expected it to be such a runaway hit. It’s expertly brewed but it’s one of most tasteless Golden Ales of this largely tasteless style. Of course, I’d say the same thing about Budweiser. A lot of people attribute the success of 805 to Firestone-Walker’s branding, which makes 805 a lot like Budweiser in more ways than one. Corporate breweries are finding new success by acting like small craft breweries. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising craft breweries are finding success by acting like corporate breweries.

(Photo from the Craft Beer Conference taken from a tweet  from Focus on the Beer.)

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