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Dark beer vs light beer: The difference explained

What's the difference between dark beer and light beer?

Dark beer vs light beer
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Even if you’re not an avid beer drinker, you’ve likely noticed that (even though there are countless beer styles) there are two types of beer: dark beer and light beer. When it comes to light beer options, you have the likes of pilsners, IPAs, Kolsch-style beers, wheat beers, and beyond. When it comes to dark beers, you have porters, stouts, Scotch ales, barleywines, dark lagers, black IPAs, and more.

This leads us to a few critical questions. First and foremost, what are the differences between dark and light beers? Secondly, what makes a beer light, and what makes a beer dark (ingredients, brewing processes, etc.)? Lastly, what do they taste like? Dark beer vs light beer, Let’s go!

What are the differences between dark and light beers?

Beer pour
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On the surface, it’s obvious. Dark beers are darker in appearance, and light beers are lighter. You could end the whole comparison right there, but there’s so much more to it. While we aren’t sure if this needs to be explained, when discussing light versus dark beers, we aren’t talking about “light beer” in the vein of Bud Light, Miller Lite, etc. We’re talking about the color of the beer. But that being said, those light in calorie and ABV beers fit into the light beer category.

What makes a light beer?

Two glasses of beer
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As we mentioned before, light beers are much lighter in color than dark beers (hence the name). Most light beers range from yellow to golden to amber in color. Any darker than that, you’re getting into dark beer territory. Lagers, IPAs, and pale ales get their golden hue from grains used in the brewing process. When it comes to crafting light beer, the most common ingredients are barley, rice, wheat, oats, and corn. When it comes to barley, the more you roast it, the darker the beer will be. Light beers typically aren’t made with roasted malts.

And while we aren’t technically talking about “light” beers in the health kick scenario, lighter beers (as opposed to dark beers) do tend to be lower in alcohol content, and calories, and are usually much lighter, mild, and less filling. In general, light beers are more often crisp, refreshing, and highly thirst-quenching. These are the kinds of beers you’re going to crack open after a hot afternoon of summer lawn mowing.

What makes a dark beer?

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If you didn’t guess it already, dark beers are darker in color than most beers. They range from dark amber to pitch black. Dark beers include stouts, porters, Scotch ales, barleywines, dark lagers, and even bocks and Vienna lagers. The color comes from the ingredients used to brew them. This includes toasted or roasted malts. But they can also include roasted barley, chocolate malt, Carafa malt, Black malt, Midnight wheat, and more.

Even though dark beers are darker in appearance, the slightest variation of malts can add to the dark color. This means that just because a beer is dark doesn’t mean it’s heavy. While there are some syrupy, heavy barrel-aged imperial stouts, a Dry Irish stout like Guinness is famous for its surprisingly light, drinkable flavor profile. The same goes for Vienna lagers and bocks. They can be malty, dark, and still very refreshing.

What does a light beer taste like?

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The light beer category is vast. IPAs alone range from hoppy, piney, and bitter to juicy, fruity, and hazy. Pilsners are crisp, light, floral, dry, and highly refreshing. Wheat beers are cloudy, sweet, and often yeasty with flavors like banana and clove. All in all, light beers are just that: light.

When you’re drinking a lighter beer, you can bet it won’t be heavy and is potentially going to be fairly crushable. Light beers are generally milder in flavor, crisp, refreshing, and usually have a nice hop aroma and flavor.

What does a dark beer taste like?

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Like light beers, the dark beer category is very diverse. There’s probably more diversity than light beers. There’s a massive difference between a Vienna lager and a barrel-aged imperial stout. Dry Irish stouts are filled with coffee and chocolate flavors with a bitter, dry finish. Bocks are malty, sweet, and often refreshing. Bourbon barrel-aged imperial stouts are boozy, heavy, and filled with chocolate, caramel, vanilla, and warming whiskey flavors.

In general, darker beers have roasted barley, caramel, and sometimes nutty flavors. While not guaranteed to be heavier, dark beers are often loaded with rich, complex aromas and flavors.

Bottom line

A wheat beer and a pils are standing on a table in a beer garden
Katja / Adobe Stock

Differentiating between light beers and dark beers is pretty simple now that you know what to look for. Light beers are lighter in appearance and dark beers are darker. You also now know how they differ in aroma and flavor as well.

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Christopher Osburn
Christopher Osburn is a food and drinks writer located in the Finger Lakes Region of New York. He's been writing professional
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