Small beer (also, small ale) is a beer/ale that contains very little alcohol. Sometimes unfiltered and porridge-like, it was a favored drink in Medieval Europe and colonial North America as opposed to the often polluted water and the expensive beer used for festivities. Small beer was also produced in households for consumption by children and servants at those occasions.
Before public sanitation, cholera and other water-transmitted diseases were a significant cause of death. Because alcohol is toxic to most water-borne pathogens, and because the process of brewing any beer from malt involves boiling the water, which also kills them, drinking small beer instead of water was one way to escape infection. It was not uncommon for workers (including sailors) who engaged in heavy physical labor to drink more than 10 Imperial pints (5.7 liters) of small beer during a workday to slake their thirst.
Small beer/small ale can also refer to a beer made of the "second runnings" from a very strong beer (e.g., scotch ale) mash. These beers can be as strong as a mild ale, depending on the strength of the original mash. (Drake's 24th Anniversary Imperial Small Beer was expected to reach above 9.5% abv.) This was done as an economy measure in household brewing in England up to the 18th century and is still done by some homebrewers. One commercial brewery, San Francisco's Anchor Brewing Company, also produces their Anchor Small Beer using the second runnings from their Old Foghorn Barleywine. The term is also used derisively for commercially produced beers which are thought to taste too weak.
Metaphorically, small beer means a trifle, or a thing of little importance.
Small ale turns up in the writings of William Shakespeare, William Thackery's Vanity Fair, and in Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael series. Thomas Thetcher's tombstone at Winchester Cathedral features a poem that blames his death on drinking small beer while hot. Graham Greene used the phrase 'small beer' in the metaphorical sense in The Honorary Consul. Benjamin Franklin attested in his autobiography that it was sometimes had with breakfast. George Washington had a recipe for it involving bran and molasses.
When David Balfour first meets his uncle Ebenezer in Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Kidnapped, Ebenezer has laid a table with his own supper, which consists "with a bowl of porridge, a horn spoon, and a cup of small beer." The small beer, along with the porridge, indicates Ebenezer Balfour's miserliness, since he could afford much better food and drink, but it may also be meant to convey the 'trifle' meaning as an indication of Ebenezer's weak, petty character.
Small beer is eaten with breakfast by prentice-lighters in D.M. Cornish's Monster-Blood Tattoo.
- "Drake’s Brewing Co. reveals 24th and 25th anniversary beers". BeerPulse. Retrieved 6 November 2013.
- George Washington (1757), "To make Small Beer", George Washington Papers. New York Public Library Archive.
- W.S. Gilbert (1889), The Gondoliers.