Serious Beer: The Best Light Beer for Tailgating

Beer Reviews

Seeking out the best in malty, hoppy refreshment.


[Photo: Robyn Lee]

This past weekend the University of Missouri celebrated its 100th homecoming. I couldn't make it back, but I'm fairly certain I wouldn't have attended the game if I did. I've never been much for watching sports, but during my four five years there as an undergraduate I became a strong proponent of the eating and drinking that goes along with football.

Before nearly every home game, a group of my friends' parents would drive up the four hours from our hometown in a converted RV they'd christened "The Beast," set up shop in the parking lot south of Faurot Field, and proceed to put on a feast of grilled meats, dips, and casseroles. And light beer. Oh, was there light beer. As a fledgling tailgating enthusiast, I never saw the point of leaving that sort of spread behind to go inside and watch the game. You couldn't bring in outside food or booze unless you were sly, and you certainly couldn't have Busch Light-drinking contests with your friend's mom in the stands.

My taste preferences have moved on in the years since I graduated, but light American lagers are still the staple for most folks during tailgating season. The best should be accessible to the widest audience possible. Maltiness and hop character should both be low to non-existent. Strong flavors are frowned upon. You should be able to drink them in vast quantities. These beers are a bit tough to judge in terms of quality because ideal examples really shouldn't taste like a whole lot. However, you could view that as a strength for this particular style because it's easier to find reasonable substitutes when your brand isn't available. (I've found the 2011 GABF silver medal-winning Busch Light to be one of the harder beers to source in Manhattan bodegas and groceries.)

We tasted nine different light beers, most of which are widely or at least regionally available, to properly prepare you for your pre-gridiron grilling sessions. Astute readers will also notice the #1 selling beer in the world is smack dab in the middle of a space normally reserved for craft beer. Before you geeks start sharpening the tines on your grilling forks and aiming for my more tender regions, hear me out. Relatively flavorless beer—macro breweries' stock in trade—is something they do particularly well, which warrants them having a place in this particular discussion. Macro beer is also far cheaper, and that's tough to ignore if you're buying in bulk.

On to the results!

Serious Beer Ratings

5/5 Mindblowing; a new favorite
4/5 Awesome, stock up on this
3/5 Around average for the style
2/5 There are probably better options
1/5 No, thanks, I'll have water.

Abita Brewing Co. Abita Light Louisiana, 4.0% ABV, 118 calories This light gold beer is all smooth, grainy malt. No hop flavor or aroma. It's dry throughout, not overly sweet like some others we tried. I don't think I'll ever be crazy about light beers again, but if pressed, this is the one for me. 4/5

Karl Strauss Brewing Co. Endless Summer Light California, 3.4% ABV, 110 calories Grainy malts, a bit of white bread in the aroma, and no detectable hops. The body is very light, but it doesn't feel thin. Overall, it's pretty straightforward with a very clean finish. 3.75/5

Spoetzl Brewery Shiner Light Blonde Texas, 4.2%, 99 calories Very pale straw colored with a light bready malt character. Finishes crisp, and despite having the fewest calories, it wasn't watery at all. 3.75/5

Boston Beer Co. Sam Adams Light Massachusetts, 4.3% ABV, 119 calories This light copper beer's slightly sweet breadiness and caramel set it apart from the others we tried. It's the maltier and fuller bodied than you'd expect from a light beer. Lingering nutty finish. 3.75/5

Anheuser-Busch Inc. Bud Light Various Locations, 4.2% ABV, 110 calories Refined, clean, sweet malt. No hop flavor. The beer's carbonic bite provides a bit of bitterness. It's light bodied with a crisp and clean finish. It tastes very fresh. 3.5/5

Cisco Brewers Sankaty Light Lager Massachusetts, 3.8% ABV, 128 calories Hops?! We haven't seen much of them around here this week. Sankaty Light's lemony aroma grabbed our attention when we first poured it. It tastes a bit grainy with a twinge of citrus in the finish. 3.5/5

D.G. Yuengling & Son Light Lager Pennsylvania, 3.6% ABV, 99 calories Clear golden in the glass. Yuengling Light has some light and sweet caramel in the aroma, but the flavor is pretty generically malty. No hops anywhere. 3/5

Intercourse Brewing Co. Mount Joy Light Pilsner Pennsylvania, 4.2% ABV, 120 calories Mount Joy Light reminded us a bit of banana-flavored Runts candy. Not heavily in a Weizen way, but persistent nonetheless. Sweeter pilsner malt provides the bulk of the flavor and a lingering aftertaste. 3/5

Narragansett Beer Co. Narragansett Light New York, 3.8% ABV, 96 calories Sweet, damp malt in the aroma. The flavor is somewhat metallic, sweetish, and almost imperceptibly bitter. Pretty watery and not as highly carbonated as others we tried. 2/5

So does it matter if you choose light craft beer or save yourself several dollars a six-pack by buying macro? In my opinion, only if you have a staunch moral opposition to the AB InBevs and MillerCoors of the world. Chances are, if you're buying light beer in the first place, you're not seeking out character and nuance, you're looking for something to swill in quantity along with a steady stream of bratwurst.

Prefer to drink Bottom Shelf style? Here's Will Gordon's ranked list of cheap light beer.

Can't stomach light lagers at all? Up your game with a Pilsner.

All beers except Yuengling, Bud Light, and Abita were provided as samples for review.

About the Author: Jonathan Moxey is a Harlem-based homebrewer, BJCP beer judge, and Cicerone Certified Beer Server. He hosts private beer tastings for Tapped Craft Beer Events.