Five Points Ale / WIRED
Sam McGregor spends his days brewing beer at an industrial park near Blackhorse Road in London, so it should come as no surprise that he also wants to spend his days drinking it. That raises a problem: if he and the rest of the crew at Signature Brew indulged as they liked, the headaches would be brutal. “We wanted a lower ABV beer that we could drink ourselves and not have to be super hungover,” he says. So they made Unplugged, a micro IPA at 2.8 per cent.
He’s not alone. Call it a micro, super session, table or small beer, the trend for an ABV (alcohol by volume) of two per cent or three per cent is growing. The past few months have seen the arrival of Howling Hop’s Pocket Rocket Tiny IPA (2.7per cent), Gipsy Hill’s Carver Micro IPA (2.8 per cent), Beavertown’s Nanobot (2.8 per cent), Five Points Micro Pale (2.8 per cent) and Signature’s Unplugged — although The Kernel Brewery’s Table Beer (2.9 per cent) has been around since 2012, emerging as one of its best sellers, and while Small Beer Brew Company has been brewing just that and only that since 2017.
But for every small beer announced by a brewery, there are already several strong beers in the lineup, with the average ABV holding fast at 4.2 per cent, according to the Society of Independent Brewers (Siba). Craft beer is still boozy and small beer remains, well, small. While the number of Siba members that started making no- or low-ABV beer leapt by almost two-thirds over the past year, that’s still just eight per cent — fewer than the number of breweries producing gluten-free beer. Sales of lower ABV beer rose 381 per cent over the last two years, according to trade organisation and retailer EEBRIA, but small beer (defined there as products below 2.8 per cent but above 0.5 per cent ABV) make up just 1.3 per cent of the craft market.
The amount may still be small, but a meteoric upward growth is predicted to continue in small beer. Siba’s annual survey shows 41 per cent of retailers expect to see the no-alcohol and low-alcohol category grow this year, and one in three 18-24 year olds opting for alternatives. Kantar says current sales in the lower ABV end of the market are led by alcohol-free products, and small beer is worth about £31 million a year in the UK. “But I do expect to see that segment grow,” says Richard Lee, head of alcohol at consulting firm Kantar.
And that means that craft aficionados who want to reduce but not entirely cut out alcohol finally have options beyond insipid American light beers.
“There was a time when low/no beers were crap — either tasting like metal, or just watered down equivalents of their siblings,” says Michael Alcock, CEO of online retailer HonestBrew. “But now it’s a totally different story.” You could start a session with Ramsgate’s Gadd’s No. 11, follow that with Burning Sky’s Petite Saison or Northern Monk’s Striding Edge, and finish with Pomona Island’s Killian Is Lying To You table beer, never stepping above 3.5 per cent ABV and without ever suffering a watery waste of a pint.
And it’s not just about hangovers, but the entire drinking experience. “There’s that perfect two-pint moment, where you feel on top of the world,” says Small Beer co-founder Felix James. “And yet, if you have two more pints after that perfect feeling, you’re on a downward trend, you’re slurring and forgetting. But if you drink small beer, you never really get beyond that two-pint feeling, even when you have six pints.” He pins that to balance, notably the fact that any beer under 2.8 per cent will rehydrate rather than dehydrate. “If you’re drinking below three per cent, you’re hydrating as you drink,” he says.
Perhaps all that mid-week drinking is why small beer proved popular during lockdown — even more so than entirely alcohol free, sales of which dipped when the pandemic hit, says Kantar’s Lee. When Beavertown launched Nanobot in May, founder Logan Plant says it made up 15 per cent of sales that week — helping the brewery hit record sales. Five Points also released its Micro Pale this spring. “It’s been one of our top-selling products during lockdown,” says co-founder Ed Mason.
And no wonder, says James Grundy, co-founder of Small Beer. “You’re juggling homeschooling, health and wellbeing, or getting up early to cram in a couple of hours worth of emails before the kids get up,” he says. “But it’s still lovely to have that luxury at the end of the day of opening a beer and not feeling the effects of that the following morning.”
Health could also be at the heart of the small beer renaissance. Siba’s annual report reveals that contrary to out-of-date assumptions about beer bellies, two-thirds of beer consumers follow a “healthy lifestyle” and are actively seeking alternatives in drink just as they do with food — small beer is to moderate drinking what flexitarian diets are to the rise in veganism. “People are more aware of what they’re consuming, and craft-beer drinkers are no exception to this,” says Northern Monk’s head brewer Brian Dickson. “I think it ties into this overall wider concept of no, low, and free from, and the rise in veganism. People are wanting to eat and drink more consciously and in a healthier way.”
Shaving a few percentage points off a pint will unquestionably benefit your health. “If we say a reduction from five per cent to three per cent beer, then that’s a 40 per cent reduction in alcohol intake pint-for-pint,” says Gautam Mehta, principal clinical researcher at UCL’s Institute for Liver and Digestive Health. “The benefit of skipping a round depends how much you drink, but you can have three pints of three per cent and still drink less alcohol than two pints of five per cent.” That should translate to a roughly linear reduction in the risk of cancer, heart disease and stroke, Mehta says.
There are other benefits. Tim Stockwell, director of the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria, says it’s very hard to drink 2.5 per cent beer at a normal rate and go above the legal limit for driving — though please don’t see that as a challenge — so a wider shift to lower strength beer could cut drink driving. It could also reduce fights. “People’s tendencies to get involved in aggression and violence is very closely linked to blood alcohol concentration,” he says.
That said, small beer could make it easier to drink more often, negating some of those health benefits. “The potential risk is that low-alcohol beer is ‘easier’ to drink, so increases the range of situations in which alcohol is consumed,” Mehta says. “It also potentially could lead to more alcohol users, as industry targets these lower alcohol drinks to different markets.” Beer conglomerates have long been eyeing China with lighter variants on European classics; Carlsberg, for example, sells a range of pale lagers at three per cent ABV in that market.
But research suggests that people don’t drink more to compensate for lower ABV. A study from the University of Victoria showed that if you didn’t label the strength of beer that test subjects were drinking, they rated their level of intoxication and their pleasure exactly the same whether it was low alcohol or high alcohol. A separate study gave students unmarked kegs of seven per cent or three per cent strength beer. “Pretty much the same volume of liquid got consumed,” Stockwell says. “They had a good time.” But those on the stronger beer had double the blood alcohol concentration.
That suggests we can take some alcohol out of beer and continue to have tipsy fun, but there’s one reason to keep alcohol in beer: taste. Small Beer only makes small beer, so its bespoke brewing kit was designed specifically for lower ABV lagers and ales. The differences are subtle — the equipment filling their Bermondsey brewery looks like any old brewing equipment — but co-founder James explains above the din of production that the mash tun has a unique shape and size ideal for their own traditionally inspired processes. That changes the grain bed height, the heat distribution and more, all helping to brew at a lower ABV.
Alongside choosing ingredients that don’t leave behind alcohol but do boost body and mouthfeel – oats give a smooth, creamy texture, James says, while rye adds body and mouthfeel – Small Beer also uses a more traditional fermentation process. “We don’t arrest fermentation, we let it do its work naturally,” he explains.
The level of alcohol in beer is a historical accident, Stockwell says, adding that when he was growing up in England most beer was 3.5 per cent. “You go around different countries, the typical strength of beer varies,” Stockwell says. In Canada, there’s very little low strength beer, while in parts of Germany it’s above seven per cent. “Go around the world, and it’s absolutely accidental what the strength is,” he says.
That makes small beer a sound government policy. In Australia in the 1980s, Stockwell says, the government tweaked tax laws to encourage the production and purchase of lower ABV beer. The UK has done similar. In 2011, it halved duty for beer below 2.8 per cent and pushed the industry to lower ABVs through a Responsibility Deal, though the delay between those measures and the current innovation in the market suggests those changes didn’t make much of a dent in British drinking.
Perhaps the introduction of decent tasting small beer on the menu in pubs and grocery stores could have more impact. “It’s a move I’m pleased to see the industry make,” says author and beer judge Melissa Cole. “It means there is a range of options open to the consumer, and it also shows that people in the beer world are smart enough to recognise that there is a challenge from a healthier, or busier, shift in people’s lifestyles.” Craft brewers need not ditch those eight per cent double IPAs, but expanding the range to small beer to let drinkers pace themselves is good news for our health and our morning-afters.
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