by Mike Retzlaff
Small beers have been around for a long time. They were generally brewed as an alternate to almost non-existent potable water. Creeks, rivers, and lakes could be contaminated with amoebae and various animal parasites. Cholera, Typhoid, and other nasties could leach into dug wells. City life sported neighborhood wells but most of them were barely adequate for clothes washing. Public service announcements containing “boil orders” didn’t exist although that’s exactly what kept most folks alive.
Small beers have less alcohol and fewer calories but they really aren’t diet beers! In the past when they were popular and widespread, some governments greatly reduced the tax rate or exempted such beers from taxation when the alcohol content dipped below a particular level. So, just what is a Small beer? True Small beers have less than 3% abv. Some ran about 1% abv and have been called table beers or dinner ales or even table water in some cultures. They were given to children with their meals as any fermented beverage was safer to drink than water! Small beers were extensively brewed in the American colonies.
“Only a pint at breakfast-time, and a pint and a half at eleven o’clock, and a quart or so at dinner. And then no more till the afternoon, and half a gallon at supper-time. No one can object to that.” John Ridd in the novel Lorna Doone
Brewing medium to semi-high gravity beers is normal and the relatively easy thing to do. Most home brewers go through the phase of “how strong a beer can I make?” Eventually, most of us find out, but going to the other extreme is a horse of a very different color and the path seldom chosen. Using subdued malt bills will produce beers with far less alcohol. Too many commercial brewers have turned creative control over to the tunnel vision of their accountants. All that’s left is to convince consumers that this pre-processed urine is what they’ve always wanted or “what it takes to hang out with the cool kids.”
Traditional Small beers minimize alcohol and therefore calories but can certainly make up for the lack of mouthfeel with lower attenuation. When brewed correctly and with the right yeast, they can be enjoyable and add much to the limited hours available to share with friends. To intentionally brew a beer with such a low OG is tough. It is quite a feat to feed the mash tun virtually nothing and still produce a beer worth drinking. However, when you plan for it, brewing such a beer with mouthfeel and flavor is not only possible but can be just shy of a sure thing!
The Scots, Brits, Belgians, Germans, and many other brewing cultures have been making small beers for a very long time. In Britain the process used was called parti-gyle. Ordinary Bitter was normally a product of the parti-gyle system as were many Mild Ales. They, and any number of beers, had been the second, third, or even fourth runnings drawn from a single mash. This method is being phased out by many though still in use by some older, traditional breweries such as Fullers in London.
The Belgians used “Turbid Mashing.” There is an article elsewhere on this website explaining this process. The historical Belgian beers which follow used this incredibly complex mashing method.
Historical Liege Saison beer had an OG from 1.020 to 1.025 SG and would be fermented to half gravity.
Historical Louvain White beer used about 50% raw wheat and had an OG between 1.025 and 1.030 SG.
Historical Louvain Peeterman beer used lots of raw wheat and flour. It was brewed to an OG of 1.016 and was lightly hopped with year old cones. As a mixed-ferment in a closed wooden barrel, it usually would emit the odor of ethyl butyrate (pineapple) as it vented.
Grisette was to miners what Saison was to farm workers. Grisette could be brewed from 1.004 – 1.028 SG for Catégorie 3 but could rise to over 1.060 for a Catégorie 1 beer.
The German tax code lists a simple or basic beer with an OG of 1.008 – 1.022 SG. The next step up the list is a Tap or Draft beer with an OG of 1.028 – 1.032 SG.
My introduction to Small beers came when I brewed a number of Bremerweisse and Grätzer beers at less than 3% abv. These beers were very drinkable and didn’t taste thin or watery. Perhaps I’d just gotten lucky but doing my homework, developing an understanding, and not deviating from what seemed to be a well marked path surely helped a bit.
Small beers will never give you the mouthfeel of a Doppelbock or a Wee Heavy but that’s not in their nature. The concept is to create wort which will produce a beverage low in alcohol but still retains flavor and drinkability. It seems a bit nebulous until you break the whole thing down. Carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram. Ethyl alcohol has 7 calories per gram. Reducing the alcohol but sustaining or even boosting the carbs of the beer will maintain mouth feel and actually make everything work. There is a point at which the carbs can cause the beer to become overly sweet and cloying. All you have to do is find that point and back away from it a bit! Simple, huh? Well, maybe not but the brewing of Small beers is just another challenge for a home-brewer with moxie. These beers can really test the skill level of any brewer as there are fewer places in the finished beer for flaws to hide.
In another article I’ll talk about Session beers; Small beer’s big brother, well, slightly bigger brother.