Looking for a lighter lockdown libation? Peter Ranscombe may just have found the solution, courtesy of Small Beer.
IT’S the holy grail for craft brewers – making a beer that’s packed full of flavour but without blowing the drinker’s head off.
Brewing a strong beer that’s flavoursome is relatively simple, which is why many pints made by less-experienced brewers have relatively-high levels of alcohol-by-volume (abv).
The hard bit is concocting a beer at lower abv but still with concentrated taste.
It looks like Felix James may have squared that circle.
Back in 2017, he opened the Small Beer Brew Company south of the River Thames in London’s Bermondsey district with business partner James Grundy.
The pair had worked together at Sipsmith, the gin distillery, before commissioning special brewing equipment that would allow them to make lower abv beer.
Their creation is based on the table beers or small beers of the 18th century; before drinking water was clean and reliable, families would brew their own beer at home as it was safer to drink than water.
While the advent of piped water led to the practice dying out, James and Grundy have resurrected the tradition, with all their beers tipping the scales at less than 2.8% abv.
Although its launch long pre-dates the emergence of Covid-19, I can’t help but thinking that their Small Beer is an idea whose time has come.
Moderating our alcohol intake during lockdown is essential – with the UK chief medical officers advising us not to exceed 14 units a week – as the long-term effects on our health from over-drinking could be far worse than those from the coronavirus.
Small beer, big flavour
It’s very rare that I find a low- or no-alcohol beer that I enjoy – Sonja Mitchell’s 0.5% abv Yardarm lager from Jump Ship brewery was the most recent one to join my very short list – but I was totally blown-away by James’ beers.
His Small Beer Lager (2.1% abv) is not only one of the best lagers that I’ve tried in ages, but also the best low-alcohol lager I’ve tasted – full stop.
It’s got an Iberian-like nose of green apple and sweeter red apple, with those orchard fruits joined by grapefruit on the palate.
It’s crisp and bright, and the mouthfeel is light yet still flavoursome.
Equally as impressive is his Session Pale (2.5% abv), which was much hoppier on the nose, with lemon, lemon sherbet and lime.
Those lime and lemon sherbet notes came more to the fore on the hoppy palate, which shared a similar crispness to the lager.
In fact it’s so hoppy that I’d find it hard going as a “session” beer, but I can’t fault its smoothness or flavour intensity.
While the Steam Beer (2.7% abv) was less aromatic than the session pale – with more subtle grapefruit, lemon and lemon rind notes – it matched its siblings when it came to balance.
It has a maltier body and is meatier in the mouth, with a tiny bite of smoke on the finish.
The darkness and the light
The only beer that didn’t hit the spot for me was the Dark Lager (1%), which smelt like a porter and tasted like a porter.
Heavy smoke on the nose hinted at the stout-like roasted coffee flavours that dominated the palate.
Yet my dislike for the dark lager is more down to my personal preference than any fault with the beer.
Indeed, to pack so much flavour intensity into a beer that’s only 1% abv is perhaps James’ greatest achievement in the range.
The fact that the packing is awesome – with the stubby wee 350ml bottles reminding me of those awful supermarket own-brand European lagers from the 1990s – and the brewing process uses just 1.5 litres of water to make each litre of beer, compared with 10 litres of water in conventional brewing, just adds to the appeal of the brand.
Find your local stockist or check out prices direct from the brewery at https://theoriginalsmallbeer.com/
Read more of Peter Ranscombe’s blog entries about whisky, wine and other drinks on The Grape & The Grain at https://www.scottishfield.co.uk/grapegrain/