Small beer (also known as small ale or table beer) is a lager or ale that contains a lower amount of ABV (alcohol by volume) than most others, usually between 0.5% to 2.8%. Sometimes unfiltered and porridge-like, it was a favoured drink in Medieval Europe and colonial North America compared with more expensive beer containing higher alcohol. Small beer was also produced in households for consumption by children and by servants.
Before the 19th century, potable water had the potential to cause sickness because of poorer sanitation. Practical experience demonstrated that fermented beverages were less likely to bring on human illness. At mealtimes in the Middle Ages, all could drink small beer, including persons under the legal drinking age of the present, particularly while eating a meal at the table. Table beer was around this time typically less than 1% ABV.
It was common for workers such as sailors who engaged in laborious tasks to drink more than ten imperial pints (5.7 litres) of small beer a day to quench their thirst. Small beer was also consumed for its nutrition content. It might contain traces of wheat or bread suspended within it. In his A Plan for the Conduct of Female Education, in Boarding Schools published 1797, writer Erasmus Darwin agreed that "For the drink of the more robust children water is preferable, and for the weaker ones, small beer ...". Larger educational establishments like Eton, Winchester, and Oxford University even ran their own breweries.
In 17th century England, it was an excise class which was determined by its wholesale price. Between the years 1782 and 1802, table beer was said to define that which cost between six and eleven shillings per barrel and the tax on this class was around three shillings. Cheaper beer was considered small beer while the more expensive brands were classed as strong (big) beer. The differences between small beer and table beer were removed in 1802 because there was much fraudulent mixing of the types. Small beer was socially acceptable in 18th-century England because of its lower alcohol content, allowing people to drink several glasses without becoming drunk. William Hogarth's portrait Beer Street (1751) shows a group of happy workers going about their business after drinking table beer. It became increasingly popular during the 19th century, displacing malt liquor as the drink of choice for families and servants.
Small beer and small ale can also refer to beers made from the second runnings from the stronger beer (e.g., scotch ale). Such beers can be as strong as a mild ale, but it depends on the strength of the original mash. This was an economic measure in household brewing in England until the 18th century, and still produced by some homebrewers.
In Belgium, small or table beer is known as tafelbier and their many varieties are still brewed. Breweries that perpetuated in this type included De Es of Schalkhoven and Gigi of Gérouville in Luxembourg. In the US, a Vienna lager was a popular table beer before prohibition. Small beers are also produced in Germany and Switzerland albeit using local brewing methods. In Finland, new alternatives continue to be sought for the beverage.
In Sweden beer with an alcohol content of 2.25 per cent by volume, or less, sold as lättöl ("light beer"), is legally classified as a soft drink (lättdryck), exempt from alcohol tax and age restrictions, made by virtually all breweries, sold in all grocery stores and commonly served even in company lunch canteens.
In art and history
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Metaphorically, small beer means a trifle, or a thing of little importance.
- "Small ale" appears in the works of Shakespeare, (For example in Henry IV part 2, scenes i-ii. Shakespeare has Prince Hal make fun of Falstaff who braggingly quaffs pints of small beer and is never really drunk.) William Thackery's Vanity Fair, and in Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael series, and "small beer" appears in Thackeray's Barry Lyndon.
- Graham Greene used the phrase "small beer" in the metaphorical sense in The Honorary Consul.
- When David Balfour first meets his uncle Ebenezer in Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Kidnapped, Ebenezer has laid a table with his own supper, "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.
- In the song "There Lived a King" in the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera The Gondoliers, small beer is used as a metaphor for something that is common or is of little value.
- Thomas Thetcher's tombstone at Winchester Cathedral features a poem that blames his death on drinking cold small beer.
- Benjamin Franklin attested in his autobiography that it was sometimes had with breakfast. George Washington had a recipe for it involving bran and molasses.
- William Cobbett in his work "A History of the Protestant Reformation" refers to a 12th-century Catholic place of hospitality which fed 100 men a day – "Each had a loaf of bread, three quarts of small beer, and 'two messes,' for his dinner; and they were allowed to carry home that which they did not consume upon the spot." (Pg. 90, TAN Books, 1988)
- "Foods of England". Retrieved 23 February 2017.
- "Ex-Sipsmith Gin Duo Launch "First" Brewery Dedicated to "Small Beer"". The Drinks Business. 27 November 2017. Retrieved 25 March 2018.
- "What Is Table Beer, the Beer We've Been Seeing Everywhere?". Bon Appettit. 28 August 2017. Retrieved 25 March 2018.
- Page 110
- Rogers, James E. Thorold, A History of Agriculture and Prices in England: From the Year After the Oxford Parliament (1259) to the Commencement of the Continental War (1793), pp. 704-708, 2011 reprint, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 1108036554, 9781108036559, google books
- Peter Mathias (1959). The Brewing Industry in England 1700–1830. Cambridge University Press. p. xxv.
- Tim Webb (2011), "Table beer", The Oxford Companion to Beer, Oxford University Press, p. 783, ISBN 978-0-199-91210-0
- Alicia Underlee Nelson (2017). North Dakota Beer: A Heady History. Arcadia Publishing. p. 38. ISBN 978-1-625-85919-8.
- Swedish law (Alkohollagen 2010:1622). "Beverages that are alcohol free or have an alcohol content of at most 2.25 per cent by volume are soft drinks". Retrieved 10 January 2020.
- W.S. Gilbert (1889), The Gondoliers (PDF).
- George Washington (1757), "To make Small Beer", George Washington Papers. New York Public Library Archive.