One of the most enduring trends of this year has been the growth of the ‘low-and-no’ alcohol category – and bartenders have come up with plenty of ways to appease drinkers watching their waistlines and wallets.
But, says James Grundy, beer fans wishing to knock a few percentage points off their abvs have been left high and dry.
Grundy is co-founder of the recently opened Small Beer Brew Co, the world’s first dedicated ‘small beer’ brewery. It claims to have re-invented the brewing process, putting low abvs at the forefront of production, without compromising on flavour: the company’s slogan is ‘Small Beer, Big Taste’.
Grundy and partner/head brewer Felix James, both ex-Sipsmith, have set out to transform the way people consume and think about beer, looking back through the history books to revive a style that was popular in the 1700s. Small beer was traditionally brewed at 0.5-2% abv because at that time, due to poor sanitation, beer was a safer beverage than water.
‘The idea has been in the backs of our minds for a couple of years,’ Grundy says. ‘However it was 12 months ago that Felix and I started to up the frequency of our brewing together to see how viable it really was.
‘It took numerous brews, and a re-work of the entire brewing process,’ he adds. ‘Drawing from historical methods and combining them with modern-day engineering, we constructed a kit that allowed us to maximise the flavour profile that each ingredient delivered whilst minimising the alcohol that we produced throughout the brew.’
Home sweet home
The duo found a home for their vision in Bermondsey; the heart of brewing in London. As well as their products’ ‘shim’ credentials, they say that sustainability has also been a key driver of the brewery’s operations, from the little things such as using recycled-paper labels to ‘the rarely considered resource, water’. In fact, they have greatly managed to reduce the amount of water used in brewing, from 10 pints to one pint of beer, to just one-and-a-half pints for the same amount.
‘We run an entirely dry floor policy at the brewery, as [far as] we know it's the first of its kind. So on a visit to our brewery in south Bermondsey you won’t see us hosing down the floor with gallons of water,’ Grundy says.
Enjoying occasions over a drink is at the heart of our society, but we don’t always want it to slow us down
He stresses that the process is natural; it does not involve ‘cooking off or stripping out’ the alcohol as is the case in some low-or-no abv brews – the small beer is brewed to strength - but understandably keeps his cards close to his chest about the technical ins and outs of their methods.
After observing the public’s recent swing towards lighter drinks, Grundy and James believe it’s more than a passing trend – and encompasses more than a health kick. Certainly the figures speak volumes - the BBC recently reported that the low-and-no sector had seen 27% year-on-year growth.
‘We had witnessed a very real shift in consumer drinking habits over the last three years, with people turning towards lower-abv drinks that allowed them to have all of the fun, but still get up and be as productive as they would otherwise have been the following morning,’ he says.
It’s all about understanding, Grundy continues, the occasions for lower-alcohol tipples. ‘We’re a country that loves to squeeze in a social lunch before going back to the office, a catch up with a friend early in the week, a Sunday with the family, before going to a show that you don’t want to doze off in.
‘Enjoying those occasions over a drink is at the very heart of our society, but we don’t always want it to slow us down.’
Proof is in the product
So what about the beers themselves? Small Beer Brew Co currently has two products on the market – Original Small Beer Lager and Original Small Beer Dark Lager.
The former is rooted in pilsner style, and has a continenetal Saaz hop backbone, as well as Mosaic and Galena hops, which provide hints of white fruit and nod to a New World aroma. Coming in at 2.1% abv, Grundy says it’s the perfect partner for nibbles and tapas, as well as Indian or Thai food.
The dark lager combines blackcurrants and baked cherries with hints of smoke, coffee, chocolate and toast. It’s just 1% abv, and Grundy, who recommends it with cheeses, stew or game, says it’s a beer ‘to refresh and challenge.’
The pair are encouraging people to drop by the brewery, and see what they have to offer. The beer is also available through selected online retailers, and has garnered some interest – bar manager of The Savoy’s American Bar Declan McGurk said the project was ‘forward thinking’ and ‘could open an entirely new market of lower alcohol drinks that deliver the same great flavour we would expect from their higher-strength cousins’.
Meanwhile, Grundy and James will try to keep up the innovation and bring new ideas to the sector. ‘We are true believers in the fact that anything is possible,’ says Grundy. ‘With plans for a solar panel-lined roof currently being drawn up, we are always open to new ideas on what we can do better.’