Posted on August 21st, 2012
Why a long forgotten type of beer is having a 21st century renaissance. By Steve Morrissey
No one really uses the phrase “small beer” any more, but most people know that it means something of little or no importance, a trifle. But if recent developments worldwide are anything to go by, then it looks like small beer may soon be mixing it with the big boys.
Thanks to a change in the tax regime in the UK, which halved duty on beers under 2.8 per cent abv, brewers are rushing to make weaker beers. And the public are lapping them up, with leading supermarket trader Tesco reporting sales up by 47 per cent in a year. The story is the same further afield, in continental Europe, in the USA, Australasia, thanks to concerns about health, a tightening of drink/drive laws, a resurgence of interest in artisanal brews and a general realisation that increased abv isn’t the same as a better taste (the same trend is visible in the world of wine, incidentally).
Which is why we’re seeing a return of a type of beer that had died before grandpa was going down the pub. But what is small beer? And does it taste any good?
According to Fergus Fitzgerald, head brewer at Adnams in Suffolk, UK, there are two distinct ways of making small beer. “You either made a batch that was going to be small beer, in which case you put a lot more water through the grain, which dilutes down the sugars, and when you ferment it you get a much lower alcohol beer. The more common method is to try and use the last runnings of strong beer. If you’re making a beer you’re planning on keeping for a year or more, then by necessity you’d end up with some sugar being left in the grain (because you didn’t want to put more water through to get it or you’d dilute the beer). So you’d collect the strong wort by itself and you’d then put more water through and collect the weak wort which you’d then ferment as a small beer.”
The importance of small beer in days gone by can’t be overstated. Farm labourers and workers in heavy industry would drink maybe ten pints of it a day to keep them hydrated, energised yet not drunk – it was 2.5 to 3 per cent abv. More importantly, it provided a supply of safe drinking water (the boiling killed waterborne bugs, the alcohol helping too). The notion that disease was spread through bad water wouldn’t arrive until the mid 19th century but even so, Europeans in the middle ages must have instinctively known it because they rarely drank water. Small beer was your man, even at breakfast.
At Adnams Fitzgerald experimented with the “last runnings” version of small beer a couple of years ago. The result? “A bit tasteless, really” admits Fitzgerald. “So we used it to make a small ginger beer, adding some orange peel, lemon and lime, some lemongrass.” And very fragrant it is too.
“We’ve got a beer at 2.7 (Sole Star) – it’s not last runnings but it is legitimate to call it small beer. It’s going very well, once you’ve got over people’s preconceptions that a beer with a low abv isn’t going to taste of much.”
As for the future? “That tradition of heavy labour, industry, has gone now but even so most brewers I know have tried something that’s less than 2.8 per cent. Which is down to the tax break, for sure, but also to a change in focus. It’s now more about the flavour, the product, the appreciation of those flavours, the skill, the art and the whole process. Which fits well into the idea of small beer – you’re drinking it because you like the flavour not for the sake of drinking.”
Five to Try
Wadworth Small Beer (2.8%abv)
Six different malts, three different hops to deliver layers of complexity and character
Anchor Small Beer (3.3%abv)
A “second running” of the San Francisco brewer’s Old Foghorn, with extra Goldings hops
Adnams Sole Star (2.7%abv)
Black malt and citrusy hops help deliver that missing alcohol wallop
60 Shilling Mild (3.2%abv)
From the New Jersey Beer company, a sweet, grainy mild made from the second running of Wee Heavy
Limb & Life (4.2%abv)
A second running of the 10%abv Life & Limb, aged in maple, fragranced with American hops,
a local Sierra Nevada specialty