Light & Low-Alcohol Beer Benefits
In general, people in the United States drink light and low-alcohol beer for one or more of the following reasons:
1. They want to be able to drink more beer without getting as intoxicated as they get from regular beer.
2. Light beer is cheaper so party hosts can spend less and still have alcohol available.
3. They find light beer more refreshing than regular beer when it is hot outside.
4. They like the taste of light beer better than regular beer.
5.They are trying to lose weight and want fewer calories.
A deep dive of my research findings is below.
The popularity of light beer in America
Many beer connoisseurs of the world don't understand America's preference for light beer. They wonder how Americans can drink such a bland alcoholic beverage, when "right-thinking drinkers all know that bitter is better." Despite the perception that light beer isn't real beer, the "four best-selling beers in America by volume" are Budweiser Light, Coors Light, Budweiser, and Miller Light. In fact, Bud Light "accounts for nearly one out of every four beers sold in the United States." This preference for lighter beers can be traced back to the 19th century, when German-speaking immigrants, with names like Busch, Miller, Pabst, and Anheuser brought their light, pale lagers to the United States. Americans were already beginning to shun the "warm, bitter British-style ales" anyway, and the prevalence of German pilsners and lagers just sped up the process. In addition, the temperance movement in America, which occurred at the end of the 19th century and continued into the early 20th century "stigmatized high-alcohol beers like ales and led Americans to favor the lighter, blander pilsners." Proponents of temperance preached that hoppier beers contained too much alcohol and therefore should be avoided. As a result, through prohibition and even after, Americans tended to favor lighter brews. Today, nearly 85 years after Prohibition ended, Americans still choose light beer more often than they do any other beer. Hank Ausband, co-owner of Longnecks Restaurant, Tavern, and Inn in Marshall, North Carolina said, "I sell more light beer than I do anything else." In fact, "despite an extensive list of more than 50 different American craft and artisanal imports, domestic light premiums account for at least 60% of gross sales." Certainly, there has been a recent focus on craft beer and an uptick in the number of people who prefer imported brews, but craft beer still only makes up 12.3% of the total beer market. Moreover, even craft and imported beer brewers have their own versions of light beer because they realize how popular they are among Americans. Amazingly, eight out of the top 10 imported beer brands are pale lagers. Regardless of the attention craft and other types of "regular" beers have received in recent years, many bars and restaurants still "sell way more Coors Light and Bud Light than [they] do any of the bottled or canned craft beers."
Informal survey results
In examining the Reddit and Bogleheads responses to the question of why Americans drink light beer, I calculated the following results. Please note that I only included posts that cited a specific reason for choosing light beer because there were many posts that didn't contribute to the question at hand or were from users who don't choose light beer. In addition, some users gave more than one reason and each reason was counted as a separate response. Out of 85 responses, five reasons were given for why people choose to drink light beer:
Light beer can be consumed more often and for longer periods than "regular" beer: 25 (29%)
Light beer is cheaper than "regular" beer: 21 (25%)
Light beer is more refreshing than "regular" beer: 20 (24%)
Light beer tastes better than "regular" beer: 12 (14%)
Light beer is healthier than "regular" beer" 7 (8%)
Reason 1 — Higher tolerance
While there is no official survey on why people choose light and low-alcohol beers, I was able to find respondents to this question in popular forums that allowed me to compile my own survey results to determine the main reasons why people drink light beer. The overwhelmingly most popular reason people choose light or low-alcohol beers is because they can drink more of it over a longer period of time than they can "regular" beer.
To qualify as a light beer, a product must have fewer calories than its regular counterpart and since alcohol is the biggest contributor to calories in an alcoholic beverage, the way that brewers cut calories is by reducing the alcohol content. Therefore, light beers are inherently more "drinkable when you are having more than one." The notion that light beers allow people to drink more and more often was consistently repeated by respondents to the question of why people drink light beer on both Reddit and Bogleheads forums. Specifically, Reddit users referred to the ability to play party games for a longer period of time. For instance, Reddit user Huazzy said, "Light beers are cheaper, easier to drink, and therefore more can be consumed (hence: drinking games/parties usually involve light beer)." User DPlaintiff agreed, saying, "in my early twenties I would take [craft beers] to parties and end up getting super drunk on way less. I switched back to drinking sub 5% beers for parties and it's made me much happier." User Sheepdeepsleep chooses light beer "when [they] are consuming massive quantities and aren't concerned with quality. It doesn't fill you up, so you can drink more. It's cheaper, so you can buy more. And if you are playing games like Beer Pong or Flip Cup or whatever you have, it lets you play longer and keeps the party going." User Doublejpee concurred, saying, "It's cheaper and less filling which makes it easier to consume more in a sitting (this is especially beneficial for drinking games like beer pong)." Finally, user Dudecephus summed up these sentiments in one statement: "when I'm partying, it's about quantity over quality, and I want the weakest, coldest, most watery beer I can find." Bogleheads users tend to agree that the best benefit of light beer is that it can be consumed in greater quantities over a longer period of time. However, these users rarely cite parties as the reason for extended drinking. Instead, they prefer light beer when they anticipate drinking beer while watching or participating in sports. For example, user Go Blue 99 said, "I drink light beer when I'm tailgating at a game or watching a game with friends at home/bar. In these situations, you tend to drink more and light beer has lower alcohol %, calories, and price." User SouthernCPA agreed, saying, "I'll drink almost any beer, but some scenarios call for light beer. Sometimes quantity is the word, rather than quality. Tailgating at football games all day, fishing offshore all day...you get the idea." User JTeigen also prefers to drink light beer during specific occasions: "I'm a huge IPA fan, I love the bitterness, however I can't drink more than 3 of them in a day due to the high alcohol content. I drink light beer so that I can drink beer while I watch football all day." Bars and restaurants also find that light beers are good for business. For instance, Tony Caradonna, Beer Ambassador of St. Louis' Ballpark Village, said, "We have a sports crowd, and people are spending a good length of time here. I think that contributes to the skew toward light beers, which are easy drinking." Essex Junction Craft Kitchen and Bar owner Jeremy Goldberg also said, "We sell a ton of domestic light premiums...[and] from a business standpoint, you don’t want customers drinking one and done, because they are too full or drunk from big beers. That’s where light beer fits in. You want customers drinking a few beers, hanging out and socializing." The responses about the ability to drink more light beer for a longer amount of time on both Reddit and Bogleheads go on and on. It is clearly the top reason behind Americans' choice of light beer for parties and many social events. However, there are other reasons people give for preferring light and low-alcohol beers over regular beers as well.
Reason 2 — It's cheaper
The second-most cited reason for choosing light beer is simply that it is cheaper than regular beer. Other than the ability to consume more light beer over an extended period of time, price is a major consideration, particularly for college students who don't typically have a lot of money to spend, but still enjoy drinking alcohol. Throughout my research, I discovered that often, when people (mostly college students) attend parties, they drink whatever beverage is offered. However, because party hosts want to be able to provide as much alcohol as possible, they tend to purchase copious amounts of light beer. After all, as an anonymous Reddit user said, "People buy light beer for parties because it is cheaper." Reddit user Tallandlanky confirmed that "A 30 rack of Busch or Keystone is by far and away cheaper than nicer beer," while user Jefferson497 said, "college kids drink it because it's dirt cheap compared to craft beer." Finally, user Susan said, "I drink light beer when I'm poor. When I have extra money, I get good craft beer. My favorite beer is $9.99 for a 4 pack. Pbr is $9.49 for a 12 pack." The idea that a popular reason for choosing light beer is its inexpensive price point is not exclusive to Reddit. Users on Bogleheads also cited this reason as well. User Amphora said, "obviously it is cheaper when hosting a large party," and HomerJ agreed, saying, a "30-pack of Bud Light is really cheap and...when young all I could afford was cheap beer." In Patrick Allan's blog post, "Why I Drink 'Crappy' Beer," he also referenced price as a reason why he regularly chooses light beer over the regular variety. He wrote, "the crappy stuff is cheap and it tastes good enough. If mass market pilsners like Budweiser, Coors, and Miller didn’t taste somewhat okay, they wouldn’t have been around as long as they have... I can drink a lot of it and not feel bad, both in a guilty 'I spent too much money on booze' way and in an 'I actually woke up without a hangover' way." Allan isn't a college student, which goes to show that even non-college students choose light beer because it is less expensive.
Reason 3 — It's refreshing
Many light beer drinkers on both Reddit and Bogleheads mentioned they prefer light beer when the temperature rises and nearly all beers recommended for the summer months are lagers, pilsners, and ales. Heavy or "regular" beers just don't settle well in the heat. Reddit user HighOnGoofballs said, "Drinking 15 heavy beers in the sun is no fun," and Dudecephus agreed, saying, "If I'm on the lake in 100-degree weather, I want something ice cold on my insides every few minutes. If I'm going to be out there for 10 hours in that kind of heat, I can't be slamming high-alcohol beers that fast." User Yoyoyobaby wrote, "In my experience, lite beer is reserved for days at the beach or lake where it will be hot, you'll be in the sun all day, and you'd rather not black out before the day ends." Bogleheads users were of the same mind as Reddit users, with user SouthernCPA saying he drinks light beer "because when you're offshore fishing in the Gulf of Mexico in South Mississippi summer sun, the last thing you really want is a heavy beer. Ice cold Coors Light goes down perfectly in that situation" and user oc4boxer said, "I love really hoppy IPAs, but when it's hot out a light beer is way more refreshing." User EnjoyIt concurred, stating, "I prefer darker beers myself, but when I am out working in the heat, or doing strenuous activity, having a frosty cold light beer really hits the spot. The right beer for the right mood." Finally, HomerJ said, "When I'm at the lake in the summer, I don't want to drink 3 heavy beers... I want to drink 10 light beers, and make the drinking last all afternoon long with no hangover in the morning."
Reason 4 — It tastes better
Even though light beer has a poor reputation as being a watered-down version of the real product, several Bogleheads users indicated they drink light beer because they light the taste. Bogleheads user Stemikger said, "I know I'm probably in the minority, but I like light beer better and I'm talking about the taste not the calories. I only drink Bud Light, I just love the taste." User CoAndy said, "I agree with the post above. A lot of light beers taste as good as their non light equivalents, such as Bud Light and Coors Light," and user Silverado agreed, stating, "I drink it because I prefer the taste. My beer of choice is Old Mil Light. Do not judge unless you have consumed a six pack over the course of a week or two. I did, and got hooked." Reddit users did not mention taste as a reason as often, but blogger Patrick Allan agreed that taste is one reason he chooses light beer. He wrote, "Sometimes I don’t want to expand my palate when I order a drink with some buddies, or sip something 'that is both elevating and challenging.' Sometimes I just want the mild taste of a light beer and a buzz so I can forget about this horrible place filled with horrible people and have a laugh." Light beer is "cheap and it tastes good enough."
Reason 5 — It's healthier
The last of the four main reasons why people choose light or low-alcohol beer is because it has the reputation of being healthier than regular beers. According to Patient.info, the healthiest beer is alcohol-free beer, which must contain less than 0.05% alcohol. A study conducted by the University of Valencia found that alcohol-free beer reduces "dangerous build-up of fat in the arteries of those with high levels of bad cholesterol" and increases "the amount of antioxidants in drinkers' blood, which could offer additional heart protection." In the absence or alcohol-free selections, people who want to drink healthier versions of beer should choose low- or reduced-alcohol beer. To qualify as low-alcohol, a beer must contain less than 1.2% alcohol while a reduced-alcohol beer, otherwise known as a light beer, only needs to have a lower alcohol content than its "regular" beer counterpart. However, "both versions tend to be lower in calories — for example, half a pint of reduced-alcohol beer contains approximately 60 calories, compared with a standard-strength lager at more than 100 calories." Patient.info claims these beers are the second-healthiest beer types available. In terms of low-alcohol choices, particularly beers classified as non-alcoholic, there appear to be several health reasons for selecting these options over regular or even light beers. Some people choose it because they are designated drivers and do not want to harm their own or others' health by driving while impaired. Women sometimes choose it because they are either pregnant or nursing and do not want to introduce the harmful effects of alcohol to their children. Other non-alcoholic beer drinkers are recovering alcoholics who want to sate their cravings without actually drinking a substantial amount of alcohol. In addition to these personal health reasons for choosing low-alcohol beer, the Beer and Health website indicates there are other health benefits to selecting these brands. For instance, studies have found that low-alcohol beers "may not affect fluid recovery when one is in a dehydrated state," meaning athletes can drink it without it impacting their ability to play sports. These same studies indicate that non-alcoholic beer also improves quality of sleep, reduces feelings of anxiety, and "can also have positive effects on cardiovascular health." Even so, the health reasons cited for choosing low-alcohol or light beers lag far behind the other reasons given in this brief.
Light beer is a major part of American culture and while people have many reasons for choosing it over regular beer, the most frequently cited reasons are that they can drink more light beer over a longer period of time, it is cheaper, it is more refreshing, and it is generally healthier.