What Is Table Beer & Why Is It So Popular?
Table beer may be rooted in history, but it continues to find new audiences, with craft breweries reviving the style in recent years. As a close cousin to small beer, we wanted to dive a little more into the story of European table beer and understand how it fits into the global craft beer spectrum today.
WHAT IS TABLE BEER?
To put it simply, table beer is a type of beer that is brewed with less alcohol than other beer styles.
Flavour profiles can vary, but a table beer is typically designed to deliver a pleasant flavour and body that can be enjoyed by most palates.
In a historical context, table beer can be viewed as a continental cousin to the medieval small beer that was brewed and consumed in Britain. Throughout the middle ages, table beer - or bière de table - was often brewed in farmhouses in France and Belgium to deliver hydration, nutrition and of course, enjoyment. Similarly, the very best small beer was brewed in English country houses well into the 19th century and was vastly superior to the weak and sour small beer that was derided by Shakespeare.
Modern beer drinkers seeking premium flavour at a lower ABV can find the artisanal spirit of country house brewing continued at the Small Beer brewery in South Bermondsey, where all of our beers - brewed below 2.8% ABV - are big in taste and refreshingly lower in alcohol.
A short walk up the Bermondsey Beer Mile, the Kernel Brewery - often cited as London's first craft brewery - has found popularity with its Table Beer, which tends to fluctuate around 3% ABV and is brewed with different hop varieties from batch to batch.
Although fostered by the craft beer boom, modern table beers and artisanal small beers have emerged in response - or at least as an alternative - to the ubiquity of much stronger American-style IPAs, as was noted in an article published by Wired magazine in 2020 charting "the big rise in small beer."
"The first generation of craft beer drinkers have grown up: they want all the taste and none of the hangover."
Nicole Kobie, Wired Magazine
ARE TABLE BEERS ALWAYS LOWER IN ALCOHOL?
Referring to table beer or any beverage as a 'lower alcohol' drink can be misleading, as the spectrum of alcohol strengths - and indeed, the way we talk about them - is an ever-changing landscape.
Precise definitions of alcohol levels are difficult to pin down beyond a drink's alcohol by volume. Beyond ABV, you simply have a cultural barometer of what is considered to be lower or higher in alcohol when compared to the perceived average. That said, there is some structure to the notion of lower ABV that gives us all an idea of where everyone stands.
Different types of beer that contain less alcohol:
- Table beer (2.8-3.8%)
- Small beer (0.5-2.8%)
- Non-alcoholic beer (0-0.5%)
This is only a rough lay of the beer-strength land and it's not impossible to find a drink labelled as a modern 'table beer' that contains 4% or even 5% ABV.
WHERE DOES TABLE BEER COME FROM?
Gaining momentum most notably in medieval France and Belgium, table beer served as a universal beverage for communal gatherings, designed as a casual beer to be enjoyed around meal times by everyone (quite literally) around the table. It was usually lighter in body and flavour to appeal to the masses and was often served in a larger vessel for sharing.
Small beer served a similar function in medieval England. Some historians say that people drank small beer because they deemed it safer than water, but this is widely debated. In busy areas of London like Southwark - where Shakespeare lived for years - the water conditions were often dire, but this wasn't the case everywhere. What's true is that drinking small beer was an inexpensive source of calories and it's likely that it simply tasted better than the water available to many people.
The poor also relied on small beer and table beer as a source of nutrition when food was scarce. The fact that you can essentially boil the idea of beer down to ‘bread water’ meant that the two basic needs of human survival could be answered in one tankard.
Luckily, lower alcohol beers are now more about expanding how you choose to enjoy life, rather than preserving it. There’s a delicious conviviality around lower alcohol, with a focus on sociable settings that stems from historical roots to the present day.
HOW DOES TABLE BEER DIFFER TO SESSION BEERS?
In modern drinking culture, the concept of ‘session beers’ has gained popularity as a catch-all term for beers that can be easily quaffed over longer sessions without the drinker feeling too worse for wear.
Session beers have another health benefit. As the majority of calories in beer come from the alcohol itself, it is usually the case that the lower the alcohol volume, the lower the calories.
The trouble with the term 'session beer' is that it is used so liberally, its meaning has become incredibly loose. Some breweries will use "session" as a marketing term purely to indicate that the style and body are more appealing or accessible than other beers in their range. So if you’re on the lookout for the perfect pint to sip without losing your house keys, our advice would be to look at the numbers (ABV) and not just the wording.
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WHAT ARE THE BEST TABLE AND SESSION BEERS?
At Small Beer, we consider ourselves the home of 'the true session beer.' You could say that we’re biased, but we believe that crafting modern session beer is a continuation of a proud tradition that is centuries old.
We are the world’s first brewery dedicated to the sole production of sessions beers below 2.8% ABV. As specialists in this category, we designed our bespoke brewing kit specifically to brew beers at a lower ABV. We want to pay homage to the history of small beer and reinvent it as a tasty staple of modern living.
The Original Small Beer range is designed to showcase a variety of classic flavours and brewing styles across the global beer spectrum so that everyone can enjoy their ideal Small Beer session. Let us introduce you to three of our core beer styles below: