Dry January might be over, but the thirst for low-abv beer is certainly not. The go-to low-alcohol beer was once the now unpopular 'mild'; Will Hawkes explains how the new, emerging 'table beer' category might be its fashionable progeny
Plenty of Britain’s historic beer styles have been re-made and re-modelled of late. IPA is now all things to all people: hazy or bright, strong or session, always involving fistfuls of New World hops. Porter is the same as stout, except when the latter is barrel-aged and conditioned on a bed of marshmallows; bitter is now called amber ale, except when it’s called pale ale. The flavours change but the names remain the same.
And now it’s happening to mild, except in this case the name has changed: it’s been re-christened as table beer, and all the most up-to-date breweries are making it. Of course, it isn’t quite mild as your grandad knew it: despite Camra’s regular entreaties, and a growing desire for lower-abv beers, old-school mild – which made up 70% of draught-beer sales in the post-war era – is still considered far too flat-cap dull for skittish modern-day drinkers.
No, it’s evolved into something different, and in a fairly predictable way. Table beer has the same abv as mild – somewhere around 3% – but now it takes a pale, hoppy form. In Britain, its first appearance was that brewed by The Kernel in 2012, but in the past year or so any number of breweries have tried their luck with it, including Buxton, Wild Card and Lost and Grounded.
‘Table beer’ as a term has a long history, although not one that even your grandad would remember. It was a tax bracket back in the days when Napoleon was a live threat and weak, warm ale was a much, much better bet than a glass of water. It has a still extant Low-Countries cousin, tafelbier, which has inspired a number of not-quite-getting-it imitators across the Atlantic, but they’re quite different from British table beers. This is a hop-forward beer, where the malt’s job is to add as much body as it can and the yeast stays very much in the background.
The rise of table beer is potentially very good news for pubs and restaurants. For all the excitement about 10% Russian Imperial stouts and triple-strength IPAs over the past half-decade and more, most drinkers want something not too strong when they’re out. That’s why session IPA is so popular with young shavers right now: it’s got the hops that they want, but less of the abv that makes work the morning after a terrible chore.
Even session IPAs, though, are proving a bit punchy for a growing chunk of the market: ‘Millennials are shunning alcohol as getting drunk is no longer cool,’ as the Daily Telegraph put it last year (I’m not sure getting drunk was ever cool, as opposed to fun, but we’ll let that pass). Dry January is bigger than ever, and a new breed of low-alcohol beers has sprung up to serve this market. There’s lots of hype and excitement over these alcohol-free ales; everyone’s sure that this is the next big thing.
The problem is, though, that a lot of them are not actually very nice. Having tried my fair share, I can say that Adnams (with its 0.5% Ghost Ship) and Gadds (No 11) have done a very good job with their low-abv efforts, while others are passable without being particularly pleasurable. It’s no wonder that kombucha is on the rise, having recently been listed in Fuller’s pubs: it’s just a lot more satisfying than most low-abv beers (the Gadd’s beer, No 11, is somewhere between 1.1 and 1.2% abv, which shifts it towards the table beer category anyway).
Table beer ticks a lot of boxes for modern drinkers. It’s low in alcohol: a pint of 3% abv beer has 1.7 units, as compared to 2.6 for a 4.5% beer (14 units is the recommended weekly limit in the UK). It’s filled with hops, which are very popular. It’s often served on keg, which has the carbonation and temperature that most younger drinkers prefer. It’s hoppy but simply-flavoured enough to go with the sort of bold, often deep-fried, dishes that dominate a lot of pub menus. And, if it’s less than 2.8% abv, then it should be a little cheaper on the bar, too, due to the reduced rate of duty.
Cheaper and weaker? That settles it: mild is back, then, but with a different name, and more hops. And anyway, as Martyn Cornell reminds us in his magisterial history of British beer styles, Amber, Gold and Black, mild wasn’t always a dark, sweet drink: in its earlier days, it could be a distinctly hoppy beer. Thomas Sydenham, a 17th-century physician, drank small beer, ‘soft and mild, but well-hopped’ because it formed an ‘excellent diluent with food,’ he writes. Sounds a lot like table beer – or modern mild, as I’m calling it.