Small Beer

smallbeerCurrently I have 10 gal of a modern attempt at a small beer bubbling away in both my carboys. I say modern because even at 2.5% ABV it’s still not a true small beer. In fact most small beers out there aren’t true small beers, even the ones made using the same process. So what is a small beer?

Small beers are deeply rooted in history, and the need to provide beer for ones household. Back then beer was made in the home, usually by a woman from the kitchen. In a small family this would usually be the wife, and in a larger household a servant. Beer was in integral part of society then and much of it was made. Unlike modern day brewing though the batches were often larger, and not as diverse. One day I may brew a small beer, and the next a nice roasty stout. When you’re brewing large batches for an entire household for a large space of time though you wouldn’t do this.

So what is a small beer exactly? From what I’ve gathered by reading books on the history of beer what we call a small beer nowadays used to be called a table beer. Malt extracts are a fairly new thing to brewing, and before them all brewing was all grain. When the grains were rinsed in the tun there were multiple runnings made. The first running is what we call now call beer. This was added to the pot, boiled with hops, and turned into what we often think of as a normal beer. Once the first runnings were pulled off they sent more water through the tun and got what was called a second run. We have now arrived at what we now call small beer. This beer is usually around 3% ABV and would be drunk throughout the day and at meals. If it was possible a third running would be made to produce a true small beer. This beer was loaded with tannins, and didn’t have much flavor. It was usually reserved for servants and children.

So is it possible to brew a modern small beer using old methods? Anchor Brewing has a small beer made from the second runnings of their barlywine, and Firestone Walker makes a small beer called lil Opal from the second runnings of their wheat whine Opal. Notice both these small beers are made from big malty beers. With a big beer like a barlywine your efficiency goes down and more sugars are left in the grains. This means that when you make a second running you’ll still get alot of flavor, without a lot of tannins in the wort. This makes big beers the perfect candidates for the homebrewer to experiment with when it comes to making small beer. So if you brew all grain, and your making a big beer like a barlywine then get out an extra fermentor and make some small beer.

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