On the down low

Are small beers the next big thing?

In September 2017, Goose Island held their annual Bloc Party in Shoreditch. It was where many drinkers, myself included, were introduced to the Chicago brewery’s Midway IPA, a solid interpretation of the style clearly designed for those intent on knocking back a few in the garden on a warm day, and at the fairly innocuous ABV of 4.1%.

But wait. This was a beer two years old in the US. So why roll it out here? And why now? Josh Smith, Goose’s UK ambassador, suggested the brewery’s crystal ball had identified sessionable and low ABV beers as the next thing to take off in the UK. Meanwhile, in the background, guests swilled 9% sours and 12% Bourbon County Barleywine. The irony was not lost on me.

Months later, I asked a few beer vendors whether they were shifting many bottles at 3% ABV or lower. The answer was, save for interest in Kernel’s wonderful Table Beer, a few of Lindemans’ range, and Cloudwater’s one-off Small Mosaic, a unanimous no. All being said, is there a part of the market in which the low alcohol content bracket – one that independent bottle shops don’t necessarily occupy ­– could erupt?

The bigger picture

As I write this, the Small Beer N8 pub in north London, established by the savvy folks behind the Duke’s Head Highgate and The Prince in Wood Green, is on the cusp of soft opening. It looks to be a promising addition to London's albeit saturated beer scene, in this context especially: an exclusive 3% table beer, brewed by Anspach & Hobday, will be a part of the bar’s core line-up. 

The thing is, there are so few people willing to champion low-ABV beers like this. Certainly, it could be that they’re too niche for a considerable target audience to actually want it. But what if this kind of beer had yet to find a reason, or a brewer dedicated enough, to become more prevalent?

“We’re trying to pioneer a new movement,” says James Grundy, co-founder of Small Beer Brew Co. Along with ex-Fuller’s and ABInBev brewer Felix James, these two have opened a brewery off Old Kent Road in South East London, specifically for brewing beer under 3% ABV. I’m standing in said brewery, on a Thursday that’s being referred to as “one of those days”: its custom 30-barrel brewing kit is so close to being completed, Felix’s mum is mucking in on the bottling line, and there’s a general feeling of intrigue before the setup transfers from a home brew kit to an industrial one. This is a brewery in the process of becoming.

So, if this is what the epicenter of a new movement really looks like, it appears rather humble. But you’ve got to start somewhere. “We’re talking about an entire new category,” says James. “So there isn’t a reference point.”

True, inspiration for this brewery came from what wasn’t there, as opposed to what was. Both tell me their project emerged from wanting to deliver beer that’s big in flavour, but not in alcohol Hence their first two beers, a 2.1% lager and a 1% dark lager. “We’re not looking for big hops and tropical fruit,” says James. “There’s a time and a place for that.”

Indeed there is. And indeed there’s a place for theirs. An evening at the theatre, perhaps (particularly one where you’re not intent, as James says, on “nodding off”); Sunday lunch with the family; a quick one in between shifts at work; Friday night before driving home. In other words, something that fits into the ideal of ‘drinking on a day-to-day basis,’ suggests Felix, that we all secretly have.

“We’re all going at 110mph,” says James. “Having a beer is such a part of society and having that moment with friends, and enjoying it.” It could be that this beer is purely situational. But then, the same applies for just about any beer. You’re not, for instance, in your right mind going to go for a 12% impy stout when you’re cutting your grandmother’s lawn. Or a 6% West Coast IPA while warming your toes next to a pub’s open fire on a winter night.

No small task

As well as finding a market for it, brewing such a low alcohol beer presents certain challenges. You need a smaller amount of sugars for the yeast to convert to alcohol, which means you need a smaller mash bill. Because you haven’t got as high of a malt-to-water ratio as most breweries, that silky-smooth mouthfeel is much more difficult to attain. “We play around with our mash quite a bit in terms of temperatures, the way we mash, and the recipe we use,” says Felix. “We add oats, which gives you texture and that smooth mouthfeel, but it doesn’t give you the big, bold full mouthfeel that you get from a normal mash.”

This also means more hinges on the quality of the barley, in this case the old favourite Maris Otter, used to make the mash. Unlike many craft breweries, which will take what they can get and work with it, Felix is pernickety about what barley he will use. Perhaps this is down to his Fuller’s and ABInBev background; macro brewers are much more stringent with their barley (for clarity and consistency) than craft brewers tend to be.

Big Drop is another brewery taking the low alcohol obstacle head on, but in brewing to 0.5%, even more so. “The mash bill we use,” says founder Rob Fink, “is composed of eleven different grains – not just malted barley – across our four beers to give what I call a back bone to the beer. We use a lazy yeast most brewers would shy away from, as it isn’t very good at converting sugar to alcohol, and we use lactose to ensure the beer retains the fullness that drinkers have come to expect.”

Today’s craft beer drinker also generally expects beer high in flavour. And because of the trend for very hop-forward flavours, malt offers more of that than it gets credit for. To get round the limits a lack of malt forces, Big Drop is more liberal with its dry hopping than most breweries. In the same breath, malt is also a big influence on the look of the beer – pretty important, when we taste so much with our eyes. “We’re absolutely insistent on having a nice white frothy head,” says Felix. “As well as the depth of flavour, the malt we use is really important for that. 

This they did not understate, as I discovered when somewhat heavy-handedly pouring their lager. As for mouthfeel, it’s noticeably thinner than its counterparts, though as a clean and refreshing Saaz-based lager, I wouldn’t call this especially distracting. This is not one I’d quaff at the pub, but if ‘one for the road’ was ever to be taken literally, here you have it.

History in the making?

In medieval times, beer was available when clean water often wasn’t. Hell, even children drank the stuff; brewers didn’t have access to the kind of grain, tools and knowledge of malting they do now in order to control the amount of fermentable sugars in their mash, so ABVs were lower.

Now, things are looking as though we might be going medieval again. Minus the part about unsanitary water and kids ordering at the bar. Various media outlets, including the BBC, report that the amount of low or alcohol-free beer sold in the UK has risen by 50% in the past five years. If these figures continue to grow, we might have on our hands the small beer revival Britain hasn’t seen for quite some time. In the middle ages, drinking 0.5-3% beers was part and parcel of daily life. Could the same be true in 2018?

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