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Small beer
A modern Belgian tafelbier
TypeLager or ale
Country of origin Europe and North America
Alcohol by volume Between 0.5% to 2.8%

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


At mealtimes in the Middle Ages, persons of all ages drank small beer, particularly while eating a meal at the table. It is hard to establish the associated alcoholic content, since systematic records of brewing practice do not exist much before the Georgian era.

It was common for workers who engaged in laborious tasks to drink more than ten imperial pints (5.7 litres) of small beer a day to quench their thirst. Small beer was also consumed for its nutrition content. It might contain traces of wheat or bread suspended within it.

In 17th century England, it was an excise class which was determined by its wholesale price. Between the years 1782 and 1802, table beer was said to define that which cost between six and eleven shillings per barrel and the tax on this class was around three shillings. Cheaper beer was considered small beer while the more expensive brands were classed as strong (big) beer. The differences between small beer and table beer were removed in 1802 because there was much fraudulent mixing of the types.

Small beer was socially acceptable in 18th-century England because of its lower alcohol content, allowing people to drink several glasses without becoming drunk. 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.[4]

In his A Plan for the Conduct of Female Education, in Boarding Schools published 1797, writer Erasmus Darwin agreed that "For the drink of the more robust children water is preferable, and for the weaker ones, small beer ...".[5] Ruthin School's charter, signed by Elizabeth I, stipulates that small beer should be provided to all scholars, and larger educational establishments like Eton, Winchester, and Oxford University even ran their own breweries.[6]

To a large extent, the role of small beer as an everyday drink was gradually overtaken in the British Isles by tea, as that became cheaper from the later 18th century.

Contemporary usage

Small beer and small ale can also refer to beers made from the second runnings from the stronger beer (e.g., Scotch ale). Such beers can be as strong as a mild ale, but it depends on the strength of the original mash. This was an economic measure in household brewing in England until the 18th century, and still produced by some homebrewers.[7] it is now only produced commercially in small quantities in Britain, and is not widely available in pubs or shops.

In Belgium, small or table beer is known as bière de table or tafelbier and their many varieties are still brewed. Breweries that perpetuated in this type included De Es of Schalkhoven and Gigi of Gérouville in the Province of Luxembourg.[8] In the US, a Vienna lager was a popular table beer before prohibition.[9] Small beers are also produced in Germany and Switzerland albeit using local brewing methods.

In Sweden beer with an alcohol content of 2.25 per cent by volume, or less, sold as lättöl ("light beer"), is legally classified as a soft drink (lättdryck), exempt from alcohol tax and age restrictions, made by virtually all breweries, sold in all grocery stores and commonly served in company lunch canteens.[10]

In art and history


Metaphorically, small beer means a trifle, or a thing of little importance.


  • 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.[15]
  • 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. ^ For example, in Henry IV part 2, scenes i-ii, Prince Hal makes fun of Falstaff, who braggingly quaffs pints of small beer and is never really drunk.


  1. ^ "Foods of England". Retrieved 23 February 2017.
  2. ^ a b "Ex-Sipsmith Gin Duo Launch "First" Brewery Dedicated to "Small Beer"". The Drinks Business. 27 November 2017. Retrieved 25 March 2018.
  3. ^ "Could you drink beer instead of water and still survive?". 20 March 2013.
  4. ^ Peter Mathias (1959). The Brewing Industry in England 1700–1830. Cambridge University Press. p. xxv.
  5. ^ Darwin, Erasmus (1797). Page 110. ISBN 9781535808552.
  6. ^ Rogers, James E. Thorold (2011). A History of Agriculture and Prices in England: From the Year After the Oxford Parliament (1259) to the Commencement of the Continental War (1793). Vol. 5. 1583–1702. Cambridge University Press. pp. 704–708. ISBN 9781108036559.
  7. ^ Smith, Brad. "Parti-Gyle Brewing – Two Beers from One Mash Revisited". Beersmith. Retrieved 27 July 2023.
  8. ^ Tim Webb (2011), "Table beer", The Oxford Companion to Beer, Oxford University Press, p. 783, ISBN 978-0-199-91210-0
  9. ^ Alicia Underlee Nelson (2017). North Dakota Beer: A Heady History. Arcadia Publishing. p. 38. ISBN 978-1-625-85919-8.
  10. ^ Swedish law (Alkohollagen 2010:1622). "Beverages that are alcohol free or have an alcohol content of at most 2.25 per cent by volume are soft drinks". Retrieved 10 January 2020.
  11. ^ W.S. Gilbert (1889), The Gondoliers (PDF), p. 30, archived from the original (PDF) on 4 Mar 2016.
  12. ^ Wilson, William G. (1939). Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism (4th ed.). New York City: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services Inc. p. 1. ISBN 978-1893007178.
  13. ^ Smith, Adam (1776). An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. London: W. Strahan and T. Cadell. p. 13.
  14. ^ Smith, Adam (1776). An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. London: W. Strahan and T. Cadell. p. 376.
  15. ^ George Washington (1757), "To make Small Beer", George Washington Papers. New York Public Library Archive.

5 Annotations

Second Reading

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.

San Diego Sarah  •  Link

By Josiah Child’s second marriage on 14 June, 1663 ... he returned to London and built a new brewery in Southwark.

‘Much of the beer was small and stinking, and the rest ill-tasted and unfit for the sea’ but it was good enough for the navy and the royal household.


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