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A modern Belgian tafelbier

Small beer (also known as small ale or table beer) is a lager or ale that contains a lower amount of alcohol by volume (ABV) than other beers, typically between 0.5% to 2.8%.[1][2] Sometimes unfiltered and porridge-like, it was a favored drink in Medieval Europe and colonial North America as against more expensive beer with higher alcohol.[3] Small beer was also produced in households for consumption by children and servants.


Before the 19th century, drinking water had the potential to make one sick because of poor sanitation. Practical experience showed that fermented beverages were less likely to produce illness.[2] At mealtimes in the Middle Ages, everyone could drink small beer, including children, while eating a meal at the table. Table beer was around this time typically less than 1% ABV.[4]

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 quench their thirst. Small beer was also drunk for its nutrition content; it might even have bits of wheat or bread suspended in it. Erasmus Darwin, in his A Plan for the Conduct of Female Education, in Boarding Schools of 1797, thought that "For the drink of the more robust children water is preferable, and for the weaker ones, small beer ...".[5] Larger educational establishments like Eton, Winchester, and Oxbridge colleges ran their own breweries.[6]

In 17th century England, it was an excise class which was determined by its wholesale price. From 1782 to 1802, table beer was defined as that which cost between six and eleven shillings per barrel and the duty on this class was three shillings. Cheaper beer was classed as small beer while the more expensive band was classed as strong beer. The distinction between small beer and table beer was removed in 1802 because there was much fraudulent mixing of the types. The whole scheme was abolished in 1830, when it was replaced by a malt tax.[7]

Small beer was seen as acceptable in 18th-century England because its low alcohol content allowed people to drink several glasses without becoming intoxicated. William Hogarth's portrait Beer Street (1751) shows a group of happy workers going about their business after drinking table beer.[2] It became increasingly popular during the 19th century, displacing malt liquor as the drink of choice for families and servants.[8]

Contemporary usage

Small beer and 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.[9]) 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.

In Belgium, small or table beer is known as tafelbier and there are many varieties are still brewed. Breweries that specialised in this type included De Es of Schalkhoven and Gigi of Gérouville in Luxembourg.[10] In the US, a Vienna lager was a popular table beer before prohibition.[11]

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, and "small beer" appears in Thackeray's Barry Lyndon.
  • 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.[12]
  • 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.[13]
  • 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)

See also


  1. ^ "Foods of England". Retrieved 23 February cite.citation{font-style:inherit}.mw-parser-output q{quotes:"\"""\"""'""'"}.mw-parser-output code.cs1-code{color:inherit;background:inherit;border:inherit;padding:inherit}.mw-parser-output .cs1-lock-free a{background:url("//")no-repeat;background-position:right .1em center}.mw-parser-output .cs1-lock-limited a,.mw-parser-output .cs1-lock-registration a{background:url("//")no-repeat;background-position:right .1em center}.mw-parser-output .cs1-lock-subscription a{background:url("//")no-repeat;background-position:right .1em center}.mw-parser-output .cs1-subscription,.mw-parser-output .cs1-registration{color:#555}.mw-parser-output .cs1-subscription span,.mw-parser-output .cs1-registration span{border-bottom:1px dotted;cursor:help}.mw-parser-output .cs1-hidden-error{display:none;font-size:100%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-visible-error{font-size:100%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-subscription,.mw-parser-output .cs1-registration,.mw-parser-output .cs1-format{font-size:95%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-left,.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-wl-left{padding-left:0.2em}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-right,.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-wl-right{padding-right:0.2em}
  2. ^ a b c "Ex-Sipsmith Gin Duo Launch "First" Brewery Dedicated to "Small Beer"". The Drinks Business. 27 November 2017. Retrieved 25 March 2018.
  3. ^
  4. ^ "What Is Table Beer, the Beer We've Been Seeing Everywhere?". Bon Appettit. 28 August 2017. Retrieved 25 March 2018.
  5. ^ Page 110
  6. ^ Rogers, James E. Thorold, A History of Agriculture and Prices in England: From the Year After the Oxford Parliament (1259) to the Commencement of the Continental War (1793), pp. 704-708, 2011 reprint, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 1108036554, 9781108036559, google books
  7. ^ Ian S Hornsey (2007), A History of Beer and Brewing, Royal Society of Chemistry, p. 473, ISBN 9781847550026
  8. ^ Peter Mathias (1959). The Brewing Industry in England 1700–1830. Cambridge University Press. p. xxv.
  9. ^ "Drake's Brewing Co. reveals 24th and 25th anniversary beers". BeerPulse. Retrieved 6 November 2013.
  10. ^ Tim Webb (2011), "Table beer", The Oxford Companion to Beer, Oxford University Press, p. 783, ISBN 978-0-199-91210-0
  11. ^ Alicia Underlee Nelson (2017). North Dakota Beer: A Heady History. Arcadia Publishing. p. 38. ISBN 978-1-625-85919-8.
  12. ^ W.S. Gilbert (1889), The Gondoliers (PDF).
  13. ^ George Washington (1757), "To make Small Beer", George Washington Papers. New York Public Library Archive.

4 Annotations

Terry Foreman  •  Link

Beers -- "Strong" and "Small"

Mark McDermott on 30 May 2003

Beer at this time was brewed in households as well as taverns and monasteries. The usual method was to steep a large quantity of malted grain in hot but not boiling water, then drain and collect the runnings. The "first runnings," which had leached the most fermentable malt from the grain, would then make Strong Beer; then a "Second Running" would be collected, much weaker and lighter in color, to make Small Beer. The wort may or may not have been boiled for over an hour, depending on custom and whether hops were added (boiling would have further sanitized the water, of course, which may have added to the health benefits of coffee and tea).
Fermentation may be achieved by adding a quantity of fresh beer, the dregs from a previous brew, or even a piece of bread. Some Belgian styles depended on leaving the wort in open casks to catch a wild yeast (the role of yeast in fermentation was not known until Pasteur, perhaps people believed it was achieved by spontaneous generation).
A Strong Beer, with its extra fermantables, would yield a higher alcohol beer, although no more powerful than today's average beer, which would be safer to drink. Since there would be fewer fermantables in a Small Beer, what little alcohol it produced may have been overwhelmed by re-contamination once it was handled and served. Certainly if it was watered down, it was just as risky to drink as regular water.

Terry Foreman  •  Link

Django Cat on 1 Feb 2003

A point about the amount of alcohol consumed was that it was considered safer than drinking water in Sam's day. A weak solution of alcohol was seen as killing off bugs such as cholera (how scientific this is I don't know). The small beer given to children would have been well watered down - I suspect this may be what Pepys' daily 'Morning Draft' consisted of. (Then again, Sam obviously liked a pint!)

In the churchyard of Winchester Cathedral is the tombstone of the 'Hampshire Grenadier.' His epitaph reads:-

"In Memory of Thomas Thetcher a Grenadier in the North Reg. of Hants Militia,
who died of a violent Fever contracted by drinking Small Beer when hot the 12th of May 1764.
Aged 26 Years...
Here sleeps in peace a Hampshire Grenadier,
Who caught his death by drinking cold small Beer,
Soldiers be wise from his untimely fall
And when ye're hot drink Strong or none at all."

There's a picture of the Hampshire Grenadier tombstone at

Needless to say local brewers (until the 1970s), W Strongs of Romsey
later used the phrase "drink Strong or none at all" in their advertising copy…

Although various interpretations of Thomas' fate are possible, it seems likely that he died because the beer he drank on that hot May day in 1764 (over a century after Pepys’ time) was too weak to kill off the cholera, typhus or whatever else was in it.

Bill  •  Link

But for the Brewing of Small-Beer, or common Ale, take something above the quantity of a Barrel of Water scalding hot, which put into your Mashing-tub alone; let it cool 'till you can see your Face in it, and put to it four Bushels of Malt, pouring of it in by degrees, and stirring of it well: Let it stand on the Malt two Hours then draw it off, and let it boil an Hour and an half in Summer, or an Hour in Winter; and when it is boiled enough, it will look curdled. Of this first Wort you may make a Barrel of Ale: After this is boiled, scald about a Barrel of Water more, and put it upon your Malt, letting it stand an Hour and an half: This draw off, and put the same quantity of hot Water on again, observing the same Rules, as before directed, of this you may make an Hogshead of Small-Beer.
---The Whole Art of Husbandry. J. Mortimer, 1716.

San Diego Sarah  •  Link

"I do now remember the poor creature, small beer."

Shakespeare -- King Henry IV, Part II, Act II, Scene II.

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Chart showing the number of references in each month of the diary’s entries.