Small beer

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.

Small beer
A modern Belgian tafelbier
TypeLager or ale
Country of originEurope and North America
Alcohol by volumeBetween 0.5% to 2.8%


At mealtimes in the Middle Ages, persons of all ages drank small beer, particularly while eating a meal at the table. Table beer was around this time typically less than 1% alcohol by volume (ABV).[4]

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.[5]

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 ...".[6] 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.[7]

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. 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.[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. 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. "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. "What Is Table Beer, the Beer We've Been Seeing Everywhere?". Bon Appettit. 28 August 2017. Retrieved 25 March 2018.
  5. Peter Mathias (1959). The Brewing Industry in England 1700–1830. Cambridge University Press. p. xxv.
  6. Darwin, Erasmus (1797). "Page 110".
  7. 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.
  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. George Washington (1757), "To make Small Beer", George Washington Papers. New York Public Library Archive.
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