I never thought I would write these words but here goes: I have found a low-alcohol beer that I love. The product in question is Small Beer, a slickly designed 2.1 per cent alcohol craft lager brewed in Bermondsey by two former Sipsmith gin employees. Crystal clear, appetising and crisp, it’s as flavoursome as a full-strength lager, but unlike a lot of craft brews, it doesn’t leave you feeling like you’ve had a knock over the liver. And it’s a good-looking bottle too, which almost certainly had something to do with the fact that it was snapped up for the list at The Savoy’s American Bar, pretty much as soon as it launched.
Demand for low- and non-alcoholic beers is booming: according to Kantar Worldpanel, sales of beer and cider with less than 1.2 per cent alcohol grew by nearly 30 per cent last year compared to 2015. And quality is improving all the time. Not long ago, I was impressed by the range of ales from Nirvana, a new brewery in Walthamstow dedicated to producing beers that are 0.5 per cent or less. The hoppy Table Beer from The Kernel Brewery – which comes in at a still-mellow 2.8 per cent – is also fantastic. You don’t need to be a designated driver to drink this stuff.
“For a long time, we saw people spending their money on full-strength craft beers and then going budget on alcohol-free, getting Becks Blue from the supermarket or whatever,” says Jen Ferguson of Dulwich’s award-winning Hop Burns & Black, which specialises in craft beer of all kinds. “But the increase in quality means we’re now seeing people taking lower-alcohol beers just as seriously.” Since opening in 2014, Table Beer has consistently been among its top five bestsellers. “We’re also big fans of the alcohol-free lager Fitbeer and Cloudwater, a Manchester brewery that’s now doing a great range of ‘small beers’,” says Ferguson.
It’s hard to make a low-strength beer that tastes good, says Small Beer’s brewer Felix James. “The most commonly used techniques for removing alcohol – distillation and reverse‑osmosis – both compromise a beer’s flavour, either by caramelising it, which takes away the freshness, or by stripping it out.” At Small Beer, they do things differently on many fronts, “but the main thing is we treat the yeast with respect,” says James. That means letting it ferment more slowly, and then leaving the beer to condition at ultra-low temperatures for up to four weeks, rather than a few days. “This allows the yeast to work in a more precise way, resulting in a cleaner, clearer flavour,” says James. The result of this time-consuming process is a beer that’s about four times the price of Becks Blue. But if you ask me, £2.85 is a small price to pay for a good night out, and a clear head the next morning.