Much maligned in history and literature, small beer actually was a popular drink in medieval Europe. Essentially a low-alcohol brew made for the masses, it was considered a healthy drink in the days of unsanitary water supplies. However, in an age where strong ale was celebrated, small beer was looked down upon as an inferior and low-class product fit only for the poor, servants, laborers, or even children.
According to historical recipes, there were two methods of production. The first being a very simple form of ale brewing, usually employing a combination of unmalted and malted grain that was boiled like porridge, poorly filtered, and quickly fermented. This yielded a low-alcohol ale that was thick and almost soupy. Not very appetizing by today’s standards. Small beer was also brewed in Colonial America and was mentioned by Ben Franklin. There is even a surviving recipe attributed to George Washington that has been widely circulated among homebrewers.
The second method of production is the process of using the “second runnings” from a strong ale mash to make another brew lower in alcohol content. In modern brewing, the wort is strained from the mash, which is then rinsed to extract as much of the fermentable sugar as possible.
This process is called “sparging,” and not only rinses the mash but dilutes the wort to the desired level for the product being brewed. In the brewing of small beer, the unsparged first runnings are used to produce a strong ale or, in the case of Anchor Brewing, a barleywine. The mash is then sparged, but the second runnings, which contain much less fermentable sugar, are held aside and used to brew a batch of “Small Beer.” Small beers produced by this method could be separately hopped, were usually somewhat clarified, and typically had ABVs between 2.5% to 3.5%. In English brewing tradition, these were the original session beers. There are some references to the actual use of third runnings for the making of small beer, with the second runnings used for a standard bitter.
By the time that Anchor Brewing first produced its Anchor Small Beer in 1997, there had been no commercial production of small beer for generations as far as we could tell. Low-alcohol beers have been made from time to time by both British and American brewers, but these beers were merely a diluted version of a standard product and were not traditional small beers. In modern times, these low-alcohol beers have never achieved the level of popularity that would justify their continued production, and have largely, if not completely, been replaced by non-alcoholic or “NA” beers.
Anchor Small Beer is still made in the traditional way, from the second runnings of our Old Foghorn mash. Our use of the Goldings hop gives our beer hop character and more flavor than one would expect from a typical low-alcohol beer. Although it only has an ABV of 3.3%, Anchor Small Beer is certainly not small on flavor.