A Little about Small Beer

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I like my beer smooth, hoppy, and typically at 6% ABV and above.  A well-brewed session beer is a pleasant diversion for me, but I always return to stronger brews.

While the historic Small Beer is a far cry from the fine, great flavored session beers of today, e.g., Founders All Day IPA,  they do have lower alcohol content in common (although the reasons for this are quite different).  Anyway – today’s post is a little bit about Small Beer.

Brewing small beer was common practice for 17th and 18th century households in England. Small beer was made from the same mash used for the original Ale (so it was like using the same tea bag to make several cups of tea). Small beer made economic sense because the sale of small beer helped offset the costs of fuel and materials for brewing Ale (Sambrook, 1996). Small beer was often made from the third, and therefore cold mash, which meant that it was not only less potent, but also quite harsh.

Small beer was described by Randle Holme in 1688 as being “The wort of the last drawing, it is thin…called by some “put up” drink, “trough” or “penny-prick”…[small beer] is “the washings of the grains and the brewer’s apron, and to give it its true term it is no other than water bewitched”.

Sambrook (1996) notes that in Thomas Tyron’s (1690) “New Art of Brewing Beer” he is vehemently against the ‘common quality of small beer’ and referred to it as:

“…a very ill sort of drink, usually made from a third wort, when there remained nothing but a dull, heavy, gross, phlegm of a tart, sour nature…For this cause, most small beer, especially made after ale or strong beer, is injurious to health.” (Tyron, 1690:21-22)

A heavy, gross, phlegm of a tart, sour nature certainly doesn’t t sound very appealing – however – small beer was drunk daily by the masses in England, and while wealthier households could brew small beer ‘entire’, many household brewers had to make their small beer more palatable by adding molasses or honey or by mixing small beer with strong ale.  One household record notes that their small beer was strengthened with “one hogshead of ale to every case of small beer” (Sambrook, 1996:120).

Brewing records from this time suggest that despite recognizing the essential nature of small beer, making it was considered a nuisance (Sambrook, 1996:121).  One brewer, however, believed small beer to be important not only for the working population but also because ‘it stretched the skill of the brewer’ – small beer could not be brewed by the book – it required judgment, care and creativity, which sounds a lot like the craft beer philosophy of today.

Small or Big – enjoy your beer today! Hoppy Endings!

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