We live in a world nowadays where if you want to drink two pints of something in a bar, you better have an exit strategy! Walk into any bar with a reasonable selection and you’ll find yourself thinking: what has happened to the true ‘session’ beer? Well, there is a community of brewers, flying under the radar, that have noticed this issue and met it head on. Making beers that are high in flavour, rich in body and yet LOW in alcohol! And they have inspired me to join the SMALL BEER REVOLUTION!
What is a ‘small beer’?
A small beer is not a light beer, nor is it an alcohol-free beer. A great small beer is one that is low in alcohol (2-2.5%) that has all the taste of a more robust one. In my opinion, there are two distinct styles that can tow this wafer-thin line better than most: Porter and the ever-so-trendy New England IPA. Whilst these two may appear to be on two completely opposite ends of the beer spectrum, they share one defining characteristic that is the key to passing off a 2.5% beer as a 5.2% beer: BODY.
Yes, there is more to beer than body but pay close attention to this one aspect of your small beer and all else will be forgiven. Proper body and mouthfeel can appear to sweeten wort. It can make hop flavour appear more rounded. It can even give a 4% stout from Dublin the reputation of being one of the most formidable drinks in the world. To achieve the mythical high body:booze ratio, we have to take a careful look at grist.
Small Beer needs a Big Grist
Usually, body is simply a by-product of grist choice. More grain = more body right? And The problem with that equation in this context is that mindlessly adding extra grain at will also add alcohol to the finished beer. Here, we need to acknowledge the fact that not all malts are created equally and consider the idea of Potential Gravity. Not all grains will contribute the same amount to your gravity points. Happily, grains with low potential gravity also tend to have a higher contribution to body, head retention and mouthfeel. So, when making a small beer, choose grains that have a low extract potential so that you can use more of it without adding extra gravity. This is where New England IPAs and porters come in. A major component of the NEIPA style is oats, which massively contribute to body and mouthfeel. Similarly, darker malts- such as brown or chocolate malt- used in porter add a huge amount to flavour and body but are a little stingy on the sugar side of things.
Now, this doesn’t mean that you should go making an all chocolate malt beer (or does it?) My advice on building a proper grist is three-fold:
Don’t be afraid to use less than 50% base malt in your grain bill. I know that this may seem like sacrilege as many people have a 70% base malt minimum. However, modern malts convert extremely quickly and efficiently, meaning that you can use much less of the ‘bulky stuff’. Using less base malt allows you to add more specialty malts that contribute more to flavour and, you guessed it, body! Choose a tasty base grain! Favour malts like Maris Otter, Munich Malt or Golden Promise over simple Pale Ale or pilsner malts. In some styles, using these as the base grain simply won’t fit with the flavour, however, if you follow the point above, you’re going to be using less than 50% of this malt anyway so the downsides of these malts is minimised and off-set by the inclusion of >50% adjunct. Where possible, a dose of unmalted or flaked grains (wheat, oats, corn, barley) goes a really long way!
The rest of the beer is entirely up to you but building a grist in this way allows you to shoot for low gravity points with high flavour points! The only advice that I have regarding hop selection is to avoid over citrusy flavours. Whilst these profiles are popular, they give the impression of a thinner beer.
For more information on this or to see some recipes head over to Dr. TankNStein.