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Beer 101 | How to read a beer menu: the Light side

Reading Time: 4 minutes read

By Meagan Wilson and Ben Wilson

Photos by Ben Wilson

If you’ve found your way here, I’ll assume that you’re at least mildly interested in beer. If you’re new to the beer scene, or you’re among the growing number of folks who no longer want to drink bad beer, but don’t quite know what else to order, this article is for you.

First, we’ll look at light-colored beers.

Malty vs. Hoppy

As you probably know, beer is made from water, yeast, grain(s), and hops. The grains in beer are usually malted, and a “malty” beer tastes grainy, and sometimes a little sweet. Sort of, but not quite, like bread. Hops are actually a flower, and they give beer its bitterness; a “hoppy” beer will usually have at least some bitterness, and may also have a floral or even pine-needle component, although some new hops have fruit flavors.

Erdinger Weissbier

Light and Malty


If you’re usually a Bud or PBR drinker, you might enjoy one of these. The name literally means, “a light one.”* As the great Michael Jackson (the beer writer, not the pop star) explains in Ultimate Beer, “A Helles is a golden lager with a sweetish malt accent, but a delicate balance of spicy hops.”


Originally developed in Munich, for their world-famous beer festival, these brews are nearly ubiquitous in the late summer/early fall (when hops are typically harvested). They range from pale honey to golden amber in color, and are malt-balanced, sometimes slightly sweet. From Spaten to Sierra Nevada, you’d be hard-pressed to find a German or American brewery that doesn’t offer an Oktoberfest, or at least a harvest, ale or lager.

American Cream Ale

If you’re anywhere near Rochester, New York, you’ve heard of this. It’s Genesee’s signature brew, and though Genesee is branching out significantly, the style is fairly common amongst American breweries. Cream Ales have a light, creamy mouthfeel, taste a bit like corn, and are very low on hop bitterness.

Pre-Prohibition Pilsner/ Lager

Pre-Pro pilsners are a lager that is made, reportedly, to the same recipes as those available before Prohibition. They tend to taste like Cream Ales, but with a lager yeast character.

Weisse/Wheat beers

Wheat beers span a bunch of styles, but whether light or dark, strong—or not—they all have some similar flavors and characteristics (except for Berliner Weisse). Fluffy wheat flavor and feel, cloudy beer, and some fruit flavors—not as in fruit beer, but from the fermentation. There is usually some banana flavor, sometimes a touch of vanilla, some clove, and sometimes bubblegum. They usually aren’t served with fruit. Hefeweizen is the most commonly available wheat beer style, if you include American hefes in the mix.

Stone Delicious

Light and Hoppy


India Pale Ale, also known as IPA, is one of the most popular beer styles today. There are lots of versions in different colors; red, brown and black, to name a few. IPAs are hoppy, which means bitterer. It also means lighter on the malt, and sometimes more refreshing. IPAs are higher in alcohol (a lot of examples hang around 7%). Some new craft beer drinkers stay away because of all the hops, but after a while you’ll understand.

Pale Ale

Pales are a beer style that could be described as a more sessionable—lower alcohol, so you can drink multiples in a session—friendlier IPA. Not as much alcohol, not as much hops. Just a nice, balanced genuine summer beer. Perfect with Pizza.

Pilsner (and Dortmund)

Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold
Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold

Pilsners are a pale, lagered beer with a light German hop flavor and a malt flavor that means, usually, a single malt grain bill. This is what German and Czech pilsners, and some craft American pils, taste like. The ‘big 5’ domestic pilsners don’t belong here. Dortmunders are similar, but the grain character is a little sweeter.


Bitters are a category of English beer styles that have that English fruity beer twang, a definite English malt character, and not a lot of hops. Think Pale Ale, but with some toffee and fruity notes. More of a beer to drink in the fall than in the summer. You’ll see the words ‘best’ ‘premium’ and ‘extra special’. They generally refer to alcohol strength.

Rogue American Amber

Ambers and Alts and Vienna Lagers

Ambers are an American beer style that is really similar to a pale ale but with more caramel and malt flavors. Altbiers are an awesome German style that goes great with pork and Mexican food. They have a very particular character to them. There aren’t too many American versions, but if you can get Alaskan Amber or Double Bagger, go for it. Vienna Lagers are another uncommon German beer style (Eliot Ness by Great Lakes, for an American version) with a slightly fruitier Vienna malt character, lager flavor, and a good crisp profile.

What the heck is a Barleywine, anyway?

Barleywines, Wheatwines and (much less commonly) Ryewines are just big, strong, syrupy beers brewed to wine strength. Don’t get a pint; these suckers pack a punch. When they are young they taste like mineral spirits and when they are old they have a fantastic, super malty flavor with some port, some sherry, and some whiskey notes, plus something like fig in there for good measure. This is why pale beers aren’t always light, and dark beers aren’t always heavy. Go by flavor, not color.

There you have it

This is far from an all-inclusive guide to light beer styles; the idea is to help you order confidently from a beer menu. Next time, we’ll explore the Dark side. Future articles will look at some of these concepts in more detail, such as ale versus lager, and perhaps get more into specific beer styles. For now, go forth and have a pint!


† Fix, George J. “Explorations in Pre-Prohibition American Lagers.” Brewing Techniques, May/June 1994.

* “Helles.” The German Beer Institute. Accessed February 06, 2016.

Jackson, Michael. Ultimate Beer. First Am. ed. New York, NY: DK Pub., 1998.

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Pacific Northwest native, travel and craft beverage writer. Exploring the intersections where beer (and coffee and spirits), food, travel and culture meet.

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