Light Beer vs Dark Beer What Are The Differences?

When it comes to light beer vs dark beer although there can be differences between these beer styles most of those perceived differences are in fact misconceptions and the reality is the only bona fide consistent difference between them is their color.

As you will see in this article dark beers can in fact be light beers and just because a light beer is light in color does not mean that it is light in alcohol content or calories; the color of the beer has nowhere near the influence on its characteristics of flavor, taste, aroma, abv, and calorie count that many people believe it does.

Light Beer vs Dark Beer

When discussing light-colored beer vs dark-colored beer, if you painted them both with a broad brush and focused on their differences in the traditional sense one could say that light beers overall are lighter tasting, have a lighter mouthfeel, and are more refreshing drinks. They are preferably consumed on a hot summer day whereas darker beers are in general more of a drink to be consumed in the winter months due to them being heartier beers with a fuller body and bolder taste.

However, as you will see in this article these beliefs are not always accurate because both of these beers can and are so much more than how they are perceived in the traditional sense; in fact, in many cases, dark beer will have the characteristics we just described for a light beer and vice versa.

What is Light Beer?

This depends on what you mean by light beer. In the context of comparing light beer to dark beer in this article, we are referring to the actual color of the beer. However light beer can also refer to beers that are low in calories and alcohol content. Typically a light beer in that context will have an approximate ABV of 4% or less and have less than 100 calories in a bottle or can.

The thing to keep in mind is that the color of the beer has no bearing on it being light in this context, many dark beers are considered light when referring to their ABV and caloric content, Guinness Draught is one such example, being very dark almost black in color it fits the criteria to be considered a light beer in this content coming in with an ABV of 4.2%.

This is an important distinction to keep in mind when you are searching for a beer that has a low ABV and low-calorie count, do not judge the beer by its color, just because it is a lighter color does not mean it is a “light beer” in this context. In fact, numerous light-colored beers are in fact very high in ABV and calories.

For the purposes of this article when we discuss light beer we are referring to the actual color of the beer.

Light Beer Colors

Typically the darkest a beer would be to still be considered a light beer is a light amber or bronze colored beer, from there they proceed down the color spectrum from golden, to a light golden color, to straw-like hues. A general rule of thumb is light beers are no darker than medium amber which is approximately a 12 on the SRM scale, which is a scale used for measuring the color intensity of a beer.

The Flavors of Light Beer

It is very difficult to pinpoint the exact flavor of light beer, this is because there are so many factors that come into play in determining the taste of a beer. All of the ingredients play an important factor, the grains used will influence the taste, what strain of hops are used, and when they are used during the brewing process play a huge role in defining the flavor of the beer and the strain of yeast used can drastically alter a beer’s taste.

In general light, beers do have a lighter, more refreshing taste and are considered easy drinking beers. Their taste is typically influenced in a large part by their hops. Depending on the strain of hops used and whether the beer is dry hopped a light beer can have a variety of flavors, it can be bitter and dry or have what is considered a hoppy taste that is typically characterized by being citrusy, flowery, or passion fruit like.

ABV of Light Beer

Again one of the main misconceptions is that light beer has less alcohol than dark beer, this is simply not true, light beer can range in ABV from nonalcoholic beer all the way up to 30%, with the average being around 4.5 – 6%. IPA’s are one of the most popular styles of light beers and they typically range from 6 – 9% ABV.

What is Dark Beer?

Keeping in mind that some dark beers can actually have low alcohol by volume and be low in calories in the majority of cases and in the traditional sense of this beer style they are typically considered to be a richer and more robust tasting beer, with a fuller mouthfeel and a higher calorie count. Most would consider them to be a winter beer that warms the body on cold days and to some, they would be a sipping beer where one or two would be enjoyed in a sitting.

Dark Beer Colors

As we have learned these beers get their darker color from the malts that are used to brew them. Any beer with an SRM higher than 12 is considered to be a dark beer. Colors typically range from copper to ruby to dark brown and then black.

The Flavors of Dark Beer

The flavor of dark beers is typically characterized by having notes of coffee, chocolate, roasted nuts, and carmel. Some fruit flavors such as plums, raisins, and currants can be detected in some styles. Most flavored seasonal beers such as pumpkin beers are dark beers.

ABV of Dark Beer

Although the majority of casual beer drinkers consider dark beers to have a higher ABV than light beer, this is simply not true. As you have seen, the color of the grain used to brew the beer has no bearing on the alcohol content, the amount of grain used is what determines the percentage of alcohol.

As such dark beers can range in alcohol from low to high. Most Dark Lagers have an ABV of 4.5 – 6%. Stouts and Porters range from 4 – 5.5%. Black IPAs are now becoming popular and they have an ABV in line with their lighter-colored counterparts ranging from 6 – 9%.

Light Beer vs Dark Beer Ingredients

All beers regardless of their color are brewed using the following four base ingredients:

Water – brewing water is very important for good quality beer.

Grains – grains determine the color of the beer and contribute to its aroma, taste, and mouthfeel, as well as alcohol content.

Hops – add bitterness and balance the sweetness from the malt, they also provide flavor and aroma and can affect the clarity of the beer.

Yeast – is responsible for the sugars in the wort being converted to alcohol, the strain of yeast can also affect the flavor of the beer.

For the most part, the grains are what determines the color of the beer. You will see some articles claiming hops are what gives a light beer its color, this is false. Grains are harvested and become malt that is used for making beer. When grain goes through the malting process it is dried and also roasted. The higher degree they are roasted determines their color and flavor.

The darker the malt used the darker the beer will be, the opposite is also true, the lighter the malt the lighter the color of the beer will be. In some light beers, grains such as rice and corn are also used which contributes to their lighter color.

Light Beer vs Dark Beer Misconceptions 
a light beer and a dark beer on a bar top next to the words light beer vs dark beer
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We have already briefly covered many of the misconceptions about these beers but it is worth repeating and emphasizing certain misconceptions that seem to run strong with people…

Dark Beer is Higher in Alcohol – The color of a beer is directly related to the type of grain used to make it i.e. the grain’s color or degree of roast. Alcohol on the other hand is determined by the amount of sugar content available for the yeast to convert to alcohol. The more grains used, the more sugar will be available for the yeast to convert. Therefore the color of the grain has no bearing on the alcohol content and it is solely dependent on the amount of sugar made available to the yeast.

Light Beer is Healthier – The majority of calories in a beer actually come from the alcohol. Alcohol contains more calories per gram than most foods, where protein and carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram, Alcohol contains 7 calories per gram, which is very similar to fat which contains 9 calories per gram. So it is not the color of the beer that determines if it is lower in calories but rather the alcohol percentage.

Dark Beers are Always Ales – This is another misconception. The color of the grain or beer has no bearing on whether it is an Ale or a Lager. The difference between Ales and Lagers is the yeast that is used to ferment them. Yeasts that require warmer temperatures and stay at the top of the carboy or fermenter during fermentation are ale yeasts and create ales. Yeasts that require colder fermentation temperatures and stay at the bottom of the fermenter are lager yeasts and create lagers. Lagers also go through a lagering process where they are cold conditioned for 6 – 8 weeks to make the beer clear and crisp. Ales can be dark or light in color as can Lagers, their only difference is the yeast they were brewed with.

Final Word

When it comes to light beer vs dark beer there is a lot of confusion and misconceptions. Either beer can be lighter or heavier in both alcohol content and calories depending on how it was brewed. In the end, it comes down to your taste preference and the style of beer that you prefer, as both have light and heavier tasting styles.

P.S. If you brew your own beer be sure to take advantage of getting Robbs’ top 5 favorite beer recipes from his brewpub. Details on the side of the blog or bottom if on your smart device. Cheers!

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