Small beer (also, small ale) is a beer/ale that contains very little alcohol. Sometimes unfiltered and porridge-like, it was a favoured drink in Medieval Europe and colonial North America as against the more expensive beer with higher alcohol. Small beer was also produced in households for consumption by children and servants.
Small beer was likely consumed when fresh water was not easily available. It was common for workers (including sailors) who engaged in heavy physical labor to drink more than 10 imperial pints (5.7 litres) of small beer during a workday to slake their thirst. Small beer was also drunk because it contained precious calories, and might even have bits of wheat or bread suspended in the drink.
Small beer/small ale can also refer to a beer made of the "second runnings" from a very strong beer (e.g., scotch ale) mash. These beers can be as strong as a mild ale, depending on the strength of the original mash. (Drake's 24th Anniversary Imperial Small Beer was expected to reach above 9.5% abv.) This was done as an economy measure in household brewing in England up to the 18th century and is still done by some homebrewers. One commercial brewery, San Francisco's Anchor Brewing Company, also produces their Anchor Small Beer using the second runnings from their Old Foghorn Barleywine. The term is also used derisively for commercially produced beers which are thought to taste too weak.
In art and history
Metaphorically, small beer means a trifle, or a thing of little importance.
- "Small ale" appears in the writings of William Shakespeare, William Thackery's Vanity Fair, and in Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael series.
- Graham Greene used the phrase "small beer" in the metaphorical sense in The Honorary Consul.
- When David Balfour first meets his uncle Ebenezer in Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Kidnapped, Ebenezer has laid a table with his own supper, "with a bowl of porridge, a horn spoon, and a cup of small beer." The small beer, along with the porridge, indicates Ebenezer Balfour's miserliness, since he could afford much better food and drink, but it may also be meant to convey the "trifle" meaning as an indication of Ebenezer's weak, petty character.
- In the song "There Lived a King" in the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera The Gondoliers, small beer is used as a metaphor for something that is common or is of little value.
- Small beer is eaten with breakfast by "prentice-lighters" in D.M. Cornish's Monster-Blood Tattoo.
- Thomas Thetcher's tombstone at Winchester Cathedral features a poem that blames his death on drinking cold small beer.
- Benjamin Franklin attested in his autobiography that it was sometimes had with breakfast. George Washington had a recipe for it involving bran and molasses.
- William Cobbett in his work "A History of the Protestant Reformation" refers to a 12th-century Catholic place of hospitality which fed 100 men a day - "Each had a loaf of bread, three quarts of small beer, and 'two messes,' for his dinner; and they were allowed to carry home that which they did not consume upon the spot." (Pg. 90, TAN Books, 1988)
- "Drake's Brewing Co. reveals 24th and 25th anniversary beers". BeerPulse. Retrieved 6 November 2013.
- W.S. Gilbert (1889), The Gondoliers (PDF).
- George Washington (1757), "To make Small Beer", George Washington Papers. New York Public Library Archive.