Small beer? Small beer?! What kind of a name is that for a beer, especially in today’s market of bigger = better beers. When the world’s strongest beer at 41%ABV, Sink the Bismark, was recently brewed by Scottish brewery, BrewDog, where the heck does something called Small Beer fit? Well, not every big beer is a good beer, and as we’d all like to believe, it’s not the size of the beer that matters, but what you do with it that counts!
Anchor’s Small Beer is literally that, a “small beer.” In traditional brewing, there are two types of small beers. The first is intentionally brewed to have very little alcohol. These beers were popular in colonial times and before the advent of water sanitization. Drinking water was taking your hands in your own life, but a small beer, which had been boiled and had some preservatives like hops in it, would be safe to drink. That said, the alcohol could become a problem when you were, say, drinking small beers from breakfast on throughout the day!
The second class of small beer is a type of beer made from the “second runnings” of a strong beer like a scotch ale or, in the case of Anchor’s, a barleywine. During the brewing process, mashing involves boiling water and grains, which creates a wort (a solution of water and sugars from the grains). The wort is separated from the mash and has yeast added to it to break the sugars down into alcohol. Quite a lot of residual sugar can be left in the mash when the recipe for a strong beer is being made, so enterprising brewers in the found that they could add more water and do a second boil with the grains to pull out the rest of the sugars. The wort from this second boil is traditionally called the “second runnings.” Yeast is then added to the second runnings and a second batch of beer can be made. They are known as “small beers” since the sugar content is much lower than the first runnings, so the alcohol content is comparatively lower.
In the case of Anchor, the first runnings of this beer is their popular Old Foghorn barleywine. After separating the wort that becomes Old Foghorn, Anchor runs another boil on the same grains and the second runnings become their Small Beer. I wanted to get a bottle of Old Foghorn to compare side to side with Small Beer, but none was to be found.
Old Foghorn is 8-9% ABV while Small Beer, true to its name, is only 3.3%. I found this 22 oz bottle at Gomer’s in midtown Kansas City for $2.99. Taking down a bomber by myself is usually a daunting task, but that’s the real beauty of a small beer… you can drink a lot more of it!
Small Beer pours a relatively clear golden color with a small head that disappeared quickly. I didn’t get much aroma from it. The mouthfeel, somewhat expectantly, was on the watery side. There just isn’t a lot of malt or residual sugar to do much for the body. For being a small beer, though, the flavor is pretty good. The predominant flavor in Anchor’s Small Beer is hop bitterness. Unlike an IPA, the bitterness doesn’t linger, so I would compare this beer more to a hoppy pilsner. There is some malt on the second half of the sip, and by the time the mild aftertaste kicks in, the bitterness was all but washed off my tongue. It’s crisp and pretty easy to drink, without tons of carbonation, so it would be a great lawnmower beer in the summertime, without having to lie down for a nap after drinking it!
I like Anchor’s Small Beer. It isn’t anything terribly special, and it’s fairly one-dimensional and doesn’t require lots of concentration to appreciate. It’s a light, tasty, easy to drink beer. At 3.3%ABV, it’s absolutely a “session beer” or a beer that you could drink all night during a “pub session” without getting sloppy drunk or polluted (although you’d be up for the bathroom every 5 minutes all night!). Making a palatable beer with low alcohol is extremely difficult as there is not much to work with, and Anchor did a great job, in my opinion!