We’re kicking off our Dry January coverage with a visit to the Small Beer Brew Co., a brewery that proves that low-ABV does not have to equal low flavour with its historic style of beer. . .
It’s January, folks, and that means we have to entertain ridiculous notions of ‘detoxing’ after the excesses of the festive period. Yay. Among the surge in gym memberships, people giving up booze en masse has now apparently become a fixture of the first month. While we’d always advocate drinking responsibly, it’s not a pledge I intend to take up. Not only is it not particularly productive for a drinks writer, but I prefer moderation to abstinence.
Besides which, you can still enjoy alcoholic beverages without excess, particularly given that the burgeoning low ABV category is offering more and more appetising options. That’s why our take on Dry January will feature some low-ABV drinks, beginning with the nation’s most popular booze of choice: beer. It’s seemed for some time the only genuine alternative for those who want to imbibe in a lighter capacity was horrible ‘zero’ editions of already pretty poor bottlings. Dull and diluted doesn’t solve anybody’s problem, as far as I’m concerned. So who can quench a thirst for decent low-strength session beers?
Perhaps the answer is the Small Beer Brew Co., the world’s first dedicated brewery dedicated to small beer. Founded in South Bermondsey in 2017 by James Grundy and Felix James, the ambition behind the project was to reignite the lost art of brewing beer below 2.8% ABV and providing a genuine alternative to those who want to enjoy a fantastic beer without any adverse effects.
We spoke to Felix James in a visit to the brewery to talk about the history behind small beer as a style, the unique production process the brewery uses and what the future for the category is.
The history of small beer
Before we talk about The Small Beer Co., James and I discussed small beer as a style, because it didn’t begin with James and Grundy. It has a historical precedent. In fact, it’s an important chapter of drinking history, particularly in the UK, and it’s one that’s often overlooked. It was such a fundamental part of British society that it’s actually surprising to me that nobody has tapped into it before. Evidence shows that small beer existed in medieval times and possibly even before that. James is passionate about its importance. “Small beer was so prevalent that it was a staple of British daily life. It’s mentioned in Chaucer and Shakespeare. George Washington had his own recipe. And it’s been almost written out of history.”
You might have heard of small beer being used as an alternative for hydration during the 1600s to the 1800s when clean drinking water was scarce. This is a little exaggerated. Drinking water was available, but small beer was certainly seen as a rejuvenating refreshment. “It was a working man’s drink. We’ve all heard of people drinking small beer instead of water which is a bit of a myth. There’s a general misconception that everybody was just walking around drunk all the time. But small beer or small ale was something that you could drink throughout the day for hydration and energy. It was even consumed by school children,” says James. “It also tasted better than water. There weren’t any processing plants then and a lot of the time the water that was used for washing, cleaning, drinking came from the same place and ended up in the same place. You couldn’t drink water before boiling it, and if you were going to boil it you might as well make beer and then you might as well get a bit of flavour. By boiling up your mash again and getting some of the tannins you got something that didn’t just taste like putrid water that you’d boiled.”
Traditionally small beer was made by making a bigger beer (ie. higher ABV) first, essentially as a byproduct. “You’d make your mash to make the beer and then after the mash, you’d then add more water, boil the mash-up or sometimes just do a second running through the mash,” says James. “This wasn’t something that was mass-produced, it was all produced at home. Typically it was the woman of the house who would make the beer in the kitchen. You’d make lots and lots of small beer and you’d store that for the week. You’d have a small amount of bigger beer that you’d keep for special occasions. There weren’t big breweries churning this stuff out”.
James attributes this culture as one of the reasons why small beer died out. “These were often illiterate people who weren’t writing down recipes. In the same way that we don’t write down our recipe for porridge, it just gets passed down through generations. I make porridge the way my dad and my mum make porridge. Frankly, it was the same with small beer,” says James. Small beer as we know it was almost entirely wiped by the beginning of the 20th century, with the prevalence of palatable and readily available drinking water among the factors that spelt its end.
The production process of small beer
Now reviving the style in a modern context, the biggest obstacle for James and Grundy is ensuring that flavour isn’t compromised in the process of creating low-ABV beer. Drink producers, whether brewers or distillers, will readily admit that it is incredibly difficult to reduce strength without reducing character. It took two years of experimentation to master the process at the Small Beer brewery. “Before we built anything we’d just brew every single weekend. We’d taste beers, research into methods of achieving that perfect balance of fermentable versus unfermentable in the mash tun and look into the ways of extracting hop aroma and flavour,” says James. “We realised that you just don’t get the right amount of flavour from fermentation unless you allow the yeast to do exactly what it wants to do. The brewer should always be working with the yeast in mind. If you treat the yeast well it will return the favour. That was the first step in our flavour and recipe development.”
The core of the process ultimately comes down to one underlying philosophy: making small beer from scratch tastes a hell of a lot better than the traditional method of making small beer from the second runnings of bigger beer. “We make all of our small beers from scratch. We don’t have a sidearm of our business that creates really big beer and ships that off and then makes the small beer as second runnings,” says James. “One of the first things that we did was take a second runnings beer just to see what that tasted like versus making a beer from scratch. The latter tasted a hell of a lot better. With second runnings beer, you’re not getting quite as much of the malty character. You’re pretty much getting the husk, which means you get the tanninc, astringent and more bitter effects from the malt. As a brewer, you want hop bitterness but not malt bitterness”.
Despite the Small Beer Brew Co. being a newcomer on the scene, James and Grundy have previous experience in the industry, having met while working for Sipsmith. James himself spent time at Fuller’s and AB InBev (working with the likes of Budweiser), where he picked up an appreciation for perfectionism. “Our approach of constantly working at that coalface is something I learnt from the bigger guys. There’s a good reason why Budweiser told everybody 50 odd years ago that they were the most expensive beer to make in the world, it’s because they genuinely were putting a hell of a lot of effort into dedicated research to make their beer. I’ve been around a lot of other breweries and I’ve never seen quality standards as strict as they are at Budweiser. We used to throw our toys out the pram when they tiniest little speck deviated from these very, very tight margins,” he says. “For us, that means that, while we’re set on the recipes now, we will always strive to get better. Whether that means increased head retention, or a quicker pour, or finer bubbles, or slightly less oxidisation, or longer shelf life. A lot of breweries will create a few beers and then innovation becomes just creating more beers. Some craft breweries end up with 60 different recipes. That won’t be us”.
Spending time at the brewery with James, it’s clear that a defining characteristic of the Small Beer Brew Co. approach is the challenging of conventional wisdom. “You go into one of those lecture halls and they will tell you that running your sparge temperature too high will give you tannins. Who said that? Where is the primary source? When is it that someone last tried that? We always question everything because malting may have changed in the last 50 years,” James explains. “With every assumption that we hear we go straight back to brewing and we try it just to see what happens. It’s a liberation from classical brewing teaching. We of course still use some classic brewing methods but we’re not just following all the rules in the book. That’s our approach to the technical aspect of brewing. We’ve got some bloody good recipes and I’m really proud of the beer now. It’s taken us a hell of a long time to get here.”
The novel approach to creating beer at The Small Beer Brew Co. means there is no vacuum distillation, no reverse osmosis, no filtration, no processing, no pasteurising, no sterile filtering, no added stabilisers, no arrested fermentation, no clarifiers and no isinglass. Just the chosen ingredients and natural carbonation. It also means that sustainability and ethical production are prioritised. The Small Beer Brew Co. runs the country’s only entirely dry floor brewery, where hoses are not permitted. A pint of small beer is produced using only 1½ pints of water versus an industry standard of 8-10 pints of water. The site is run entirely on wind, water and solar power. The brewery is cleaned with recovered heat & water, 12% of the gas it uses is green and the remainder is frack-free and the labels, boxes and business cards are all 100% recycled.
Ultimately, attention to detail and commitment to an extensive process that puts flavour first is the key. It’s all about flavour efficiency. The Small Beer Brew Co. uses more than twice the amount of ingredients per % point brewed than you’d find in an average beer. It lagers its beers for a minimum of six weeks vs the industry standard 9-11 days. “We have to invest a hell of a lot more than other breweries to create our beer. We’ve got the extended brewing period which means that we have to hold onto the beer for longer. That, therefore, means that we have to have a big buffer stock. It means we have to have a lot of vessels and pay for this massive facility here to store it in, and rent is not cheap in London,” explains James. “We’re not doing things on the cheap, we’re doing things to make the very best quality small beer because if we were anything but, people would immediately play that card and go ‘well it doesn’t taste as good as real beer, so why would I want to drink it?’ So we have a duty to show people what it can taste like and that then hopefully will bring back small beer”.
The Small Beer Brew Co. range
The result of this exhaustive process is a modest but respectable core range of beers. The Small Beer Brew Co., at the time of writing, has introduced four expressions to the market: iLager, Dark Lager, Steam and the recently launched Session Pale. The Lager and Dark Lager were the first launched, the latter of which is my personal highlight from the range (more on that later).
The Lager was made in the classic Pilsner-style with the Saaz as well as Mosaic and Galena hops before it was bottled at 2.1% ABV (or 0.7 UK units/per bottle). James says that they always wanted to create a lager because it’s still the biggest part of the industry and perhaps the most underappreciated. “We might be beer connoisseurs and though craft beer has been growing massively, it still only represents a tiny part of the industry. The vast majority of people are drinking lager,” he says James. “From a brewing perspective, lagers are technically the hardest beer to brew. If you’re a craft beer drinker, it’s quite hard to tell when an IPA hasn’t gone quite right because there’s so much flavour there you assume that it’s all intentional. Whereas with a lager, it’s pretty clear when they don’t taste right. For a brewer, it’s true that if you can crack a lager, you can do anything else”.
Cracking the Small Beer puzzle was all about creating that lager first. Once James and Grundy have achieved this, layering up with more flavour to create an ale or stout was the next step. What the duo arrived at was its Dark Lager, a deliciously intriguing and refreshing beer style that was bottled at 1.0% ABV. “The thought process behind it was two-fold. One, what’s a really flavoursome beer style and two, how low could we go, technically, to produce something that still really tastes like beer using traditional brewing methods?,” says James. “We didn’t want to go down the chemistry route of effectively making non-alcoholic beer, we wanted to use traditional brewing methods with natural processes and those same four key ingredients: water, malt, hops, yeas. No additives, no preservatives, no flavourings”. I have to say it’s my favourite of the range and, for my money, the best example of the innovation and creativity shown at the Bermondsey brewery.
The future of small beer
Despite the quality of the product, it’s not always an easy sell, at least initially. “There is a stigma attached to small beer. When we first approach people and there’s a typical reaction of ‘why would I want to be drinking two per cent beer?’ because sometimes it doesn’t quite click with people,” says James. “As soon as they’ve tasted it, or understood the occasion, it makes sense. Everybody has had that moment when you really want another pint and you know that you really shouldn’t. That’s when people are switching onto water or soft drinks If they had just been drinking small beer from the start, then there’s no problem! As soon as that clicks with people, they just immediately get it. Then they come round to us because at the end of the day there’s no one else in this space”.
Despite my reservations about it, Dry January does present a useful opportunity to consider our drinking habits. James believes that people’s ability to have a little bit of alcohol without getting drunk is hampered by the current drinking culture. It’s why people are coming at us going ‘why would I drink a two per cent beer if you’re trying to sell it to me at the same price as a five per cent beer’. It’s happened cyclically through time,” says James. “If you go back to the 1980s it was commonplace to see a 2.5% beer on cask. That seems to have died out with this presumption that ‘premium’ means ‘stronger’. For me, a lot of breweries completely missed out on an entire set of drinkers who would rather drink something that’s not going to get them completely plastered”.
James makes it clear that he and Grundy are not afraid of growth. “I think it’s ridiculous for brewers to say ‘you’ve sold out’ because you’ve gone into a multiple or you’ve gone into Greene King pubs or whatever it is. As long as you’re staying true to what you believe in, to the brand, and as long as your product hasn’t changed because you’ve gone into those places, then I think you’re doing the right thing,” he explains. “We went as big as we possibly dared and the demand is absolutely showing itself – we’re rocketing! Now we just need to stay absolutely a hundred per cent true to our mission because, as I said before, if the quality of the product isn’t there, the brand will never succeed. Small beer won’t work unless you can really show people that it’s great tasting beer”.
For what it’s worth, we think they have just that. Which you can see for yourself below in these delightful MoM tasting notes…
Small Beer Brew Co. Lager:
Nose: Lemon sherbets, dried grass, floral honey and freshly-baked bread
Palate: Bright and crisp, the lager immediately hits all the classic Pilsner-style notes you’re looking for with biscuity malt at the core, a touch of tropical fruit and a delicate touch of cinnamon.
Finish: Refreshing and light with a slight herbal quality.
Small Beer Brew Co. Dark Lager:
Nose: Roasted espresso beans initially, then dark chocolate and caramel. There are some earthy and nutty elements underneath with a touch of black fruits.
Palate: That chocolatey, earthy and coffee-heavy blend appears again, with sweet cinder toffee elements and sour citrus sour adding depth.
Finish: Dark, dry and slightly sour.
Small Beer Brew Co. Steam:
Nose: Light and hoppy, with cinder toffee, seedless raisins and a hint of toasted grains among light hops and a touch of spice.
Palate: More rye notes at the core of the palate, with touches of burnt toast, molasses and a hint of citrus.
Finish: Dry and slightly astringent.
Small Beer Brew Co. Session Pale:
Nose: Bready malt, warm citrus, black fruit compote and a little nutmeg.
Palate: Notes of pink grapefruit, green tea and lychee emerge through fragrant hops.
Finish: Very refreshing and delicately sweet, with orange peel.