'Small' Beer, a Low-Alcohol Classic, Hopes for a Big Comeback

December 06, 2018

By Jo Caird, December 06, 2018

The notion of a brewery dedicated to the production of “small beer” might have amused the generations of housewives over the centuries whose responsibility it was to brew this low-alcohol beverage. Produced mainly in the home and consumed by all classes and ages of people from medieval times until around the late 19th century, small beer was once such a normal part of English and colonial American life that it’s hard to find more than passing references to it in history and literature.

The misconception that people in the past drank exclusively alcoholic beverages has been widely refuted, but it’s certainly true to say that beer would have been preferable to water in a lot of cases. If the only water available to you was muddy or stagnant, or just tasted bad, of course you’d opt for something else instead.

People didn’t have to understand the science behind why beer was better for them—the fact that boiling water kills disease-carrying germs, and that beer’s low pH, following fermentation, makes it an inhospitable environment for bacteria—to reap the benefits. As brewers’ chemist and beer historian Ray Anderson puts it, “Beer was a healthy drink.”

The trouble is that the same process that makes beer a safer alternative to bad drinking water also makes it alcoholic, and there’s only so much alcohol you can drink and still hope to get anything done. That’s where small beer came in—traditionally made from the mash left over after extracting the wort for a stronger ale, it has a far lower alcohol content (typically just 1 to 3% ABV) and could therefore be consumed throughout the working day, even by young children, with no apparent ill consequences.

By the mid- to late 18th-century, however, small beer was being consumed less and less. Its fall from mainstream style is due to a combination of factors, Anderson explains. Improvements to the municipal water supply meant beer was no longer necessary for hydration. The industrialization of commercial breweries, meanwhile, made it more economical to buy beer rather than make your own. And changes in the labor market meant people had less time for homebrewing if they had wanted to continue doing so.

Fast-forward a century and a half and small beer is back with a bang, thanks to James Grundy and Felix James, two London-based entrepreneurs dissatisfied by the state of the low-alcohol beer market and determined to offer something better.

“Looking at the non-alcoholic space, it felt like you were missing out on the flavor profile there,” Grundy tells me on a recent visit to the headquarters of the Small Beer Brew Co., which he and James co-founded in November 2017. “We just couldn’t find anything that met what a beer lover might be looking for.”

Small Beer's brews and founders. All photos courtesy of The Small Beer Brew Co.

There are other small beers on the market—San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing has been making its Small Beer from the second runnings of its Old Foghorn Barleywine Style Ale since 1997, for example—but James and Grundy are the first to focus solely on brews at these lower ABVs. The Small Beer Brew Co., they claim, is the “world’s first small beer brewery.”

Launching with Dark Lager (1%) and Lager (2.1%), they recently added Steam (2.7%) to the mix, but have no plans to further expand the range or to ever take the ABV higher than the Steam.

“That’s the portfolio and it’s about getting that right because the stigma that we come up against is that low alcohol doesn’t taste good, because of what’s gone before. That’s something we need to be changing,” says Grundy.

To achieve the flavor results they were looking for, James designed Small Beer’s brewing kit from scratch, with an emphasis on creating plenty of space “for the ingredients to move around.”.

“We let everything flow very gently and that means that you’re not churning things up, you’re not oxidizing things, you’re allowing the process to look after itself,” James continues.

“We process the beer as little as possible. In a bigger brewery you can turn out a lager in five or six days. For us that process takes six weeks. We need quite a big brewery to turn out a smaller amount of beer, but that means that that beer retains its flavor through the whole process.”

We’re not going in high-impact, hopped to the gills, blowing the back of your throat off.”

When it comes to ingredients, Small Beer keeps things simple. Malt comes from Warminster Maltings, a company that has been making malt by hand since 1855. James and Grundy source traditional Saaz hops from the Czech Republic for the Lager and Dark Lager, and bring Chinook hops from Washington state into the mix for their Steam beer, the most craft-style of the brews.

Whatever the recipe, the emphasis, says James, is always on drinkability. “We’re not going in high-impact, hopped to the gills, blowing the back of your throat off. The idea is that we’re using those elements just to give little hints of what’s there.

“We’re both fans of craft beer but also we just like a nice classic beer that you can go back to time and time again.”

While Small Beer’s brews nod to the past, James and Grundy are keeping an eye firmly on the future when it comes to their brewing processes and getting product to market.

“We run the country’s only dry-floor brewery,” says James proudly, crediting his and Grundy’s time at gin distillery Sipsmith (it’s where they met, James as head of operations working alongside Grundy as head of sales) as the inspiration behind the decision. Vacuuming up waste, rather than hosing it away into floor drains, not only creates a more hygienic brewing environment; it also reduces Small Beer’s water use to just one to two pints per pint of beer produced, as opposed to eight to 10 pints per pint of beer in a wet-floor brewery, they say.

“Every time we think about what we want to do next with the business we’re always considering our environmental impact,” says James. Small Beer is sold in stubby bottles because they’re more space efficient, and therefore have a lower carbon footprint in transportation terms. The brewery’s boxes, labels and business cards are made from 100-percent recycled paper, and Grundy encourages the use of kegs rather than bottles at events where possible.

“We’re constantly putting pressure on our suppliers to be better to the environment,” says James. “It’s all very well, us changing our processes here, but we’re a tiny part of the industry as a whole and if we can show others what is achievable…”

He trails off, making an expansive gesture toward the bright, spacious, and sparkling clean brewery on the other side of the meeting room door.

The beer may be small, but the ambitions of the Small Beer Brew Co. are anything but.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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