Scientific Reasons to Respect Light Beer

This story was written by Jed Lipinski, with photography by Tim Soter, and originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Download our new iPad app and get a free issue!

Light beer may be easy to drink, but it's hard to make. Here's why the weakest brews deserve more applause.

On a hot summer night in Manhattan, the young beer connoisseurs were talking shop inside Good Beer NYC, a craft-beer store on East Ninth Street, when the conversation turned to light beer. The consensus: Three of the top-sellers in America—Bud Light, Coors Light, and Miller Lite—were barely worth the glass they're bottled in.

"I used to hate beer because I thought it all tasted like Natural Light," said Jennifer Dickey, the store manager, who was leaning against a shelf of Stone Brewing's Imperial Russian Stout.

Al Alvarez, an accountant who spent his formative beer-drinking years in Germany, thanked God that even the diviest American bars carry Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

Melissa Brandt, another Good Beer employee, chimed in. She'd recently bought her father a case of craft beer but couldn't convert him. Once he'd polished off the gift, he retreated to his basement kegerator full of Bud Light.

"It was a sad moment," she said.

It's common to disparage light beers. As craft beers have elbowed their way into American refrigerators and taps, light beers have become punch lines. What few drinkers know, however, is that quality light beers are incredibly difficult to brew. The thin flavor means there's little to mask defects in the more than 800 chemical compounds within. As Kyler Serfass, manager of the home-brew supply shop Brooklyn Homebrew, told me, "Light beer is a brewer's beer. It may be bland, but it's really tough to do." Belgian monks and master brewers around the world marvel at how macro-breweries like Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors have perfected the process in hundreds of factories, ensuring that every pour from every brewery tastes exactly the same. Staring at a bottle, it's staggering to consider the effort that goes into producing each ounce of the straw-colored liquid. But perhaps the most impressive thing about light beer isn't the time needed or the craftsmanship or even the consistency, but how many lives the beverage has saved.

Before it was light beer, it was "small beer." A popular drink in late-medieval Europe and colonial America, small beer was necessary for certain civilizations to grow. In the days before Brita filters, beer staved off disease and dehydration by packing just enough alcohol to kill off pathogens found in drinking water. Kids drank it. George Washington brewed it. Ben Franklin guzzled it for breakfast. Populations grew. Later, during Prohibition, some breweries stayed afloat by selling a similar concoction—"near beers" or malt beverages that contained less than 0.5 percent alcohol, often described as "light." But it wasn't until 1967 that Joseph L. Owades, a biochemist for Rheingold Breweries in Brooklyn, produced a variation that would change the fate of the drink and make him the "Father of Light Beer." His invention: Gablinger's Diet Beer.

Owades's drink hoped to reverse a trend he'd noticed—people had stopped drinking beer to avoid gaining weight. To reduce the brew's calorie count, Owades employed an enzyme that broke down starches found in malt, leaving behind fewer carbohydrates. While Gablinger's Diet Beer was ahead of its time, Rheingold's marketing was not. The beer company pushed Gablinger's as a healthier alternative to traditional beer. But the poorly conceived ads featuring "a man with the girth of a sumo wrestler" devouring a plate of spaghetti, then washing it down with a diet beer, didn't appeal to the weight-conscious women it supposedly targeted. The beverage flopped.

With Rheingold's consent, Owades gave his recipe to Chicago's Meister Brau brewery, which released the equally unsuccessful Meister Brau Lite. But when Miller Brewing Company acquired Meister Brau in the early '70s, it sensed an opportunity. Miller tweaked the formula and repackaged the brand as "Lite Beer from Miller." The timing was fortuitous. Miller Lite, as it became known, debuted just in time to catch a new wave of "healthier" products, including diet soda and low-tar cigarettes.

To make a greater dent in the market, Miller would need to appeal to men. Backslapping pro-football heroes like Bubba Smith, John Madden, and Dick Butkus were recruited to shill for the brand. But the true stroke of genius was the "Tastes great! Less filling!" commercial featuring the New York Yankees' George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin. The ad managed to stress both flavor and lightness, suggesting that Miller Lite wasn't meant for weight loss, but instead to be consumed in large quantities.

By 1978, Anheuser-Busch, Coors, and Schlitz were all frantically marketing their own light beers to challenge Miller Lite's dominance. At the height of the rivalry, Miller's president, John A. Murphy, allegedly kept a voodoo doll of August Busch III (then president of Anheuser-Busch) in his office. It didn't help. After years of absurdly expensive marketing, Bud Light finally surpassed Miller Lite in annual sales in 1997. By 2004, Bud Light had strengthened its hold, becoming the true King of Beers as it overtook Budweiser. It has remained the top-selling beer in the U.S. ever since.

Most beer drinkers will tell you that light beers contain a relatively low alcohol percentage and number of calories. Bud is the real beer, Bud Light is the low-cal version. But there's a disagreement among brewers about what truly qualifies as a light beer. Peter Kraemer, a fifth-generation brewmaster and head of brewing for Anheuser-Busch InBev in St. Louis, Mo., is just the man to clear up this question. Kraemer, 46, holds a degree in chemical engineering and spent years apprenticing under August Busch III himself. All brewmasters at Anheuser-Busch undergo an extensive apprenticeship that exposes them to the entire supply chain and enables them to hone their beer-tasting skills. Today, he's responsible for making sure that every can, bottle, and glass of Bud Light in North America tastes exactly the same.

Kraemer believes that "light beer" has lost all meaning over the years. Budweiser and Bud Light are both lagers, which require an extended fermentation cycle called lagering, during which inactive yeasts are removed to allow still-active yeasts to do their job. Since Budweiser and Bud Light consist of the same ingredients (carbon-filtered water, barley malt, rice, hops, lager yeast) and require around 27 days of fermentation, Kraemer considers them both light beers.

So what's the difference? For the last 30 years, Anheuser-Busch has kept its own private barley-breeding facilities, where it breeds for a specific range of proteins strong enough to withstand the extreme conditions necessary to brew light beer. Today, two strains thrive there: two-row and six-row barley. The six-row has a higher enzyme content, which allows it to more easily convert starch into sugar, and it's been specifically designed for Budweiser and Bud Light. Where the beers truly truly differ is in the brewing process, which begins with mashing. For Budweiser and Bud Light, barley is combined with water and rice—an "adjunct" that lightens the body and mouthfeel. They're poured into a stainless-steel mashing vessel and heated. Mashing converts the starch in these grains into sugar. But whereas Budweiser is mashed for 30 minutes, Bud Light is mashed for three to four hours, allowing more starches to be converted to sugar and resulting in a lighter flavor.

Once the mashing is complete, the resulting liquid, wort, is boiled at 212°F inside a massive brew kettle. Peering into one, at Anheuser-Busch's sprawling Newark brewery, is like staring into the crater of a small volcano. When brewing any beer, if the kettle isn't perfectly clean—if there's even a trace of wort from the previous brew baked onto the kettle's interior, say—it will change the taste and ruin the drinkability. To produce beer at the stunning volume the big three do and to keep the flavors as consistent as they do, the pristine cleansing of each kettle is of utmost importance.

That's not the hardest part, though. The fermentation process is what truly separates the competition. Light beer relies on a temperamental yeast that needs to be activated, stored, and monitored at precise temperatures to yield the proper flavor. At the Newark Brewery, the lager yeast is stored at 32°F when it's not in use, slowing down the yeast's metabolism to near zero. "We basically put the yeast to sleep, so it doesn't freak out," says Tiago Darocha, the plant's general manager. When the yeast emerges from hibernation, it's given a specific mission. At all 137 Anheuser-Busch breweries around the globe, Budweiser and Bud Light undergo exactly five and a half days of primary fermentation and 21 days of lagering, all at 50°F, plus or minus one degree. Any warmer and the beer could end up thick and flabby, instead of "clean, crisp, and fresh."

That month of storage is essential to the beer's success, and trying to replicate these conditions is extraordinarily difficult for most home brewers. For Brooklyn Homebrew's Kyler Serfass, it took three months of experimentation to crack the code using an old refrigerator he discovered in the basement of his apartment building. "When I saw that fridge, it was like a light shone down from heaven," he said. Serfass made only two cases' worth of his "Budweiser clone," but the duplication was considered such an achievement that it won him a gold medal at this year's Homebrew Alley competition, held at the Brooklyn Brewery.

While brewing two cases of quality light beer is nothing to scoff at, it's a universe apart from shipping the roughly 18 million barrels a year that Budweiser and Coors Light do. "There are things you can't measure that nonetheless impact the taste of a light beer," Kraemer said, adding that certain taste compounds are present in just a few parts per trillion. To assure quality, all of Anheuser-Busch's 137 senior brew-masters taste the raw ingredients—including the water—at every stage of the brewing process. If a brewmaster samples beer from a lagering tank at the end of its aging process and detects that the beer has not fully matured, he can dictate that the tank age for an extra day or two before the beer is filtered and packaged. This level of precision exerted over so many millions of barrels of beer is stunning. And while it may not convince you to pull a cheap six-pack off the shelf, it should help you see the brew in a new light.

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10 Facts About Aspirin

Aspirin may be one of the world's best-known wonder drugs, able to do everything from cure a headache to reduce a fever, but its powers stretch beyond your medicine cabinet.

1. It's not the same as acetaminophen (used in Tylenol), ibuprofen (used in Advil and Motrin), or naproxen (used in Aleve).

2. There’s more than one way to take an aspirin. Americans swallow their tablets whole. The British dissolve theirs in water. And the French prefer theirs as suppositories.

3. The ancient Egyptians took their painkillers in the form of tree bark. Egyptian doctors used to give their patients willow bark to relieve pain because it contains salicin—the raw ingredient in aspirin.

4. Aspirin broke into the European market in 1763, after British clergyman Edward Stone chewed on some willow bark and felt a renewed vigor. He shared the stuff with his parishioners and relieved 50 cases of rheumatic fever in the process. After Stone reported his discovery to the Royal Society of London, the race was on to package the miracle cure.

5. A century later, French chemist Charles Gerhardt published an article on how to synthesize salicin in the lab, creating acetylsalicylic acid. Nobody paid attention.

6. Forty years after that, in 1897, German scientist Felix Hoffman followed Gerhardt’s process and took credit for inventing aspirin. Hoffman worked for Bayer Industries, which introduced the medicine in 1899 as the first mass-marketed drug.

7. In the mid-1940s, aspirin became a huge hit in Argentina thanks to radio jingles sung by future First Lady Eva Perón. Her country became the biggest per-capita consumer of aspirin in the world.

8. The wonder drug doesn’t just cure headaches; it can also revive a dead car battery. Just drop two tablets into the battery, let the salicylic acid combine with the battery’s sulfuric acid, and you’ve got an instant jump! Just make sure you don’t have any salt on your hands. Adding sodium to the aspirin-and-car-battery combo can cause an explosion.

9. So how does aspirin work? No one knew for sure until the 1970s, when British scientist John Vane discovered that aspirin reduces the body’s production of prostaglandins—fatty acids that cause swelling and pain.

10. Here’s another reason to eat your fruits and veggies: When the body gets a healthy dose of the benzoic acid in those foods, it makes its own salicylic acid, or aspirin.

A version of this story appeared in Mental Floss magazine.

Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
How Kiss's Alive! Saved Their Record Label—And Changed the Music Industry
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images

It was late 1974, and Neil Bogart, CEO of Casablanca Records, was falling apart. His wife of nine years had divorced him. Warner Bros., Casablanca’s onetime parent company, had cut the fledgling label loose, saddling Bogart with crippling overhead and advertising costs. The company’s headquarters—a two-story house off the Sunset Strip that Bogart (no relation to Humphrey) decorated to resemble Rick’s Café from the film Casablanca—had devolved into a hedonistic playground awash in cocaine and Quaaludes. A few years earlier, he’d made stars of the Isley Brothers and Curtis Mayfield, whose soundtrack for Super Fly had been an instant hit. Now, at 31, he was watching his career crumble.

But Bogart had a plan. As part of the split with Warner Bros., Casablanca inherited a promising project: a double LP of audio highlights from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. It seemed like a sure thing. In 1974, The Tonight Show drew 14 million viewers a night. The year before, as the CEO of Buddah Records, Bogart had sold more than a million copies of a similar compilation titled Dick Clark: 20 Years of Rock N’ Roll. Bogart was so confident in The Tonight Show project that he envisioned the album as the first of four highlight records, stretching back decades.

Before SoundScan existed to track album sales, the recording industry conferred “gold” status to any album that shipped more than 500,000 copies. Bogart shipped 750,000 copies of Here’s Johnny: Magic Moments From the Tonight Show. As it turned out, no one wanted to listen to audio clips of a late-night talk show. The album was such a flop that distributors even mailed back their free promotional copies. Industry insiders joked that it had been shipped gold and “returned platinum.” Or as Casablanca cofounder Larry Harris put it, “It hit the floor with a lifeless, echoing thud.”

By the end of 1974, Casablanca was broke. To make payroll, Bogart cashed in his line of credit at a Las Vegas casino. The label seemed doomed. It needed a cheap hit just to survive.

One of the bands on Casablanca’s roster was in similarly rough shape. Kiss, a flamboyant heavy metal outfit from New York City, had released three albums by the spring of 1975. The band had a cult following in the Rust Belt. But the moment Kiss stepped into the studio, they deflated, unable to replicate the raucous energy of their live concerts.

This may have been an impossible task. Since their first gig in 1973, the foursome had performed only in Kabuki-style makeup, black leather costumes, and towering platform shoes. Onstage, Gene Simmons, the Israeli-born bassist with a 7-inch tongue, spat fire and fake blood at the audience. Blasts of smoke and pyrotechnics punctuated hard-driving songs like “Strutter,” “Deuce,” and “Black Diamond.” At the end of each set, drummer Peter Criss rose 10 feet above the stage atop a hydraulic drum riser. This intimidating stagecraft belied Kiss’s sound: more pop than metal, closer to David Bowie than Black Sabbath on the ’70s rock spectrum. Kiss’s stage show was so over the top that Bogart pitched the band as a headline act before the foursome had a legitimate hit. Queen, Genesis, and Aerosmith all canceled bookings with Kiss because no one wanted to play after the band.

But if Kiss was a circus act, Bogart was its P.T. Barnum. At pitch meetings, he’d unleash fireballs from his hand using magician’s flash paper, declaring “Kiss is magic!” Bogart hounded DJs, TV hosts, critics, and music magazines, pushing the Kiss brand. He even convinced Kiss to record a cover of “Kissin’ Time”—a single by ’60s teen idol Bobby Rydell—as a promotional tie-in for a nationwide kissing contest called “The Great Kiss-Off.”

None of it worked. And Kiss was fed up. The band received a meager $15,000 advance for its first three albums—Kiss, Hotter Than Hell, and Dressed to Kill— and despite Bogart’s fiery efforts, it had yet to see royalties. He’d even produced Dressed to Kill himself because he was unable to afford a professional producer.

Then Bogart had an idea. What if Kiss put out a live album? It’d be less expensive than a studio recording and might preserve some of the band’s incendiary live show. At the time, live records weren’t considered a legitimate product; bands released them mainly to fulfill contracts. But Bogart didn’t care. He knew this was his last chance.

Kiss liked the concept. Within days, Bogart had arranged to record a multicity tour, with stops in Detroit; Wildwood, New Jersey; Cleveland; and Wyoming. Since Bogart couldn’t finance the tour himself, Bill Aucoin, Kiss’s long-suffering manager, put $300,000 of his own money into costumes, expenses, and effects. To oversee the recordings, Bogart roped in Eddie Kramer, a star audio engineer who’d produced albums for Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

On May 16, 1975, 12,000 people packed into Detroit’s Cobo Hall—the largest venue in a city many considered the capital of rock ’n’ roll. Bogart and Aucoin went all out on production. To fire up the crowd, a cameraman followed the band from the dressing room to the stage, projecting the shot onto a giant screen overhead. During the song “100,000 Years,” flamethrowers wrapped the band in a curtain of fire. And this time Criss’s drum kit rose to twice its usual height.

The concerts were a massive success, yet the recordings were still mediocre. The energy was there, but the band’s musicianship suffered in its frenzied live performance. In the end, sound engineers recorded over much of the material. Nevertheless, certain core elements remain, including Criss’s drum tracks, lead singer Paul Stanley’s stage banter, and the propulsive fury of early singles “Deuce” and “Strutter,” in which the band’s energy soars in response to the sound of thousands of screaming fans. The physical record was an accomplishment of its own. A double album with a gatefold sleeve, it featured handwritten notes from the band, a glossy eight-page booklet, and a centerfold collage of in-concert photos.

Alive! was released on September 10, 1975. Five days later, Aucoin sent Bogart a letter of termination: Kiss was leaving the label. In desperation, Bogart, who’d recently mortgaged his house, cut Aucoin and the band a check for $2 million to retain them. Then everyone sat back and watched the Billboard chart.

The result was unprecedented. Alive! peaked at No. 9 and remained on the charts for the next 110 weeks, becoming the band’s first record to sell more than a million copies. By the end of 1975, major rock bands from Blue Öyster Cult to REO Speedwagon suddenly found themselves opening for Kiss. Today, Alive! has sold more than 9 million copies, making it the biggest selling Kiss album of all time.

Alive! rescued both Kiss and Casablanca from oblivion. The band’s next three albums—Destroyer (1976), Rock and Roll Over (1976), and Love Gun (1977)—were all certified platinum. In 1977, Kiss topped a Gallup poll as the most popular act among American teens. The late ’70s saw a superstorm of Kiss merchandise, including Kiss makeup kits, pinball machines, Marvel comic books, and even a made-for-TV movie called Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.

But Alive! also changed the music industry. “Shortly after it hit, just about every hard rock band issued live albums,” says Greg Prato, a writer for Rolling Stone and the author of The Eric Carr Story, about Kiss’s short-lived drummer Eric Carr. “Some of those albums were the best live rock recordings of all time: Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous, the Ramones’s It’s Alive, Queen’s Live Killers, Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same, Cheap Trick, At Budokan.”

What makes Alive! a masterpiece, though, is how it captures the essence of Kiss—a hard rock band that was meant to be seen, or at least heard, live. “The emphasis on a live album is the experience itself, specifically how close the record translates and interprets the experience of actually attending the show,” says author and Kiss fan Chuck Klosterman. “[Alive!] jumps out of the speakers. It feels like a bootleg of the highest quality.”

Ultimately, Bogart’s excessive spending habits, along with his prodigious cocaine use at Casablanca HQ, led to his ouster from the label in 1980. By that point, he’d become the reigning king of disco, breaking such acts as the Village People and Donna Summer. He died of cancer two years later at age 39, having just created Boardwalk Records and signed the then-unknown rock goddess Joan Jett. In the decades after his death, the iconic metal band he’d helped bring to the top continues to tour, even making an appearance on American Idol in 2009. For 40 years, Kiss has been sending drum kits aloft (albeit with a different drummer), performing in fully painted faces, setting stages on fire, all in an effort to recapture an impossible sound. With Alive!, Bogart had created a chimera. It was a record that could never exist in real life: part raucous energy, part polished studio overdubs, a “live” masterpiece better than the best live act in rock history.

This piece originally ran in Mental Floss magazine.


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