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On Tap: The Lighter Side

by on March 30, 2017 4:36 PM

Before there was light beer, there was “small” beer, a colonial staple made from the weaker second or third runnings from a brewer’s mash. Small beer was served as a nutritious, low-alcohol beverage that was consumed by nearly everyone on a daily basis, even children.

How times have changed.

Light beer, as we know it today, rules the beer market, making up more than half of all domestic production, yet the category is barely 40 years old. How did we get here, and who made this possible?

Make all of the predictable jokes you’d like about light beer, because it’s the punch line for plenty of them, but it deserves more respect than anyone realizes. For one, it’s really hard to hide flaws in a beer with so little happening. There’s no room for the smallest imperfection, and considering the national brands are produced in dozens of breweries across the country, the consistency of the product is impressive.

Light beer also shares its pedigree with the very beginning of the craft beer movement. No, really, and it all begins with one man.

Dr. Joseph Owades (oh-WAY-dees) was one of the greatest brewing minds ever to work in the industry. Starting his brewing career at the Rhiengold Brewery in Brooklyn in 1960, Owades expanded the brewery’s laboratory until it became the most renowned in the city, routinely analyzing samples for other area brewers such as Schlitz, Ballantine’s, Piel’s, and Anheuser-Busch. He was the only PhD in the American brewing industry at the time.

One day, Owades asked one of Rheingold’s owners if he’d be interested in a low-calorie beer that would contain very few if any residual carbohydrates. The man pointed to his own ample waistline and gave his blessing to the concept.

Owades devoted a year to the project, searching for an enzyme that would consume nearly all of the starch in the malt extract from the brewer’s mash. Once identified, that enzyme, amyloglucosidase, was incorporated into a brewing regimen for commercial production. Working with brewmaster Anton Kreis, the team brewed the first low-calorie, low-carbohydrate beer, called Gablinger’s, in 1967.

Because of the revolutionary nature of the product, Rheingold’s ad agency had a tough time coming up with a positive concept for the brand, and it failed after just three years. The struggling Rheingold Brewery folded along with the brand in 1969. But wait, there’s more! Enter the Peter Hand Brewery of Chicago.

Hand contacted Owades, expressing an interest in producing a light beer. As his brewery was on its last legs, Hand was hoping for salvation, and he was betting on Owades’s formula. In 1971, Hand put his brewery’s Meister Brau Lite (note the spelling) on the market. It, too, was a flop, and the Hand Brewery closed soon after.

That same year, Miller Brewing Co. was purchased by Philip Morris, pumping cash into the brewer and looking for what might be new and innovative in the industry to help them succeed on a grander scale. Miller purchased the assets of Peter Hand, including Meister Brau Lite. Miller recognized the potential it held and came up with “Lite Beer from Miller,” eventually becoming simply “Miller Lite,” launching nationally in 1975.

Miller executives noticed that Meister Brau Lite, despite its overall failure, had been really popular in the small steel town of Anderson, Indiana. After some research there, they determined that men were indeed interested in light beer if it tasted good, and didn’t think that being low-calorie meant that it was for women only. This changed the way Miller approached its marketing for the brand.

Emerging into an era that embraced diet soda and low-tar cigarettes, Miller’s strategy was to market the brand to men, using former sports stars as pitchmen. As we all know, the campaign was a rousing success. To give you an idea of the impact of the brand, consider this: three years before Lite was introduced, Miller’s sales were 5.4 million (31-gallon) barrels. Three years after Lite became part of its portfolio, it was brewing 32 million barrels per year. Anheuser-Busch, the leading brewer, was at 41 million barrels at the time.

I worked for the now-defunct Centre Beverage in State College then, and I can tell you that Miller Lite was the hottest property in town. We received multiple truckloads per week from Miller’s Fulton, New York, brewery, and entire pallets of it went out the door as soon as they arrived. Multiply this effect hundreds of times and you can see how the phenomenon snowballed nationally.

OK then, what’s the craft connection, you ask. Obviously, it’s Dr. Owades. He was not just the “Father of Light Beer,” he also was in demand for his knowledge of better beer. Owades started his own consulting firm in 1975 and worked with both big brewers and those just getting started, most of whom were then “contract brewers,” companies who owned brands that were brewed by regional brewers under contract. Those regionals were struggling with their own brands, and the contracts provided much-needed income, keeping many afloat during difficult times.

Owades’s services were recruited by the likes of pioneers New Amsterdam (NY), Christian Heurich (DC), and Pete’s Wicked Ale (CA). After a move to California, Owades was approached by a fellow named Jim Koch, who had a beer recipe that had been his great-grandfather’s. It called for obsolete strains of barley and hops, and Owades adapted the recipe using compatible modern ingredients and techniques. That recipe became Samuel Adams Boston Lager.

Owades taught courses in the art and science of brewing at Anchor Brewing in San Francisco until his death in 2008 at age 86, leaving a lasting legacy on the industry and the country’s beer drinkers.

Light beer may not be your tipple, but it has had an undeniable impact on the beer-drinking landscape. When you’re out doing yard work this summer, don’t be ashamed to knock back a cold light beer or two. Then have a Sam Adams and consider the fact that the same man is responsible for both. Thanks, Joe!

I am indebted to brewmaster extraordinaire Jaime Jurado, whose scholarly work, “A Brewing Legacy: The Story of Joseph Owades,” provided much of the information herein.


Sam Komlenic, whose dad worked for a Pennsylvania brewery for 35 years, grew up immersed in the brewing business. He slung kegs at a distributor in State College while attending Penn State, and represented local beers as a salesman here during the 1990s. He has toured scores of breweries, large and small, from coast to coast. When he’s not writing about beer, he’s enjoying it with good friends!
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