Words by Circe Hughes

It’s no secret that the UK loves beer. Well, maybe not as much as the Czech Republic or Austria – currently holding the number one and number two spots in the world respectively – but, on average, each person in the UK throws back 68 litres of beer every year.

If that sounds like a lot now, just think back to the period from the Middle Ages to the 19th century, when everyone drank beer – even the kids. But, in their defence, that was ‘small beer’, a mildly alcoholic drink (somewhere between 0.5% and 2.8%) that was favoured over water, which was often too brimming with bacteria to drink. In fact, workers would drink more than 5.7 litres a day to stay hydrated.

Things have gotten just a bit better since then, but small beer is still around, just for different reasons. Small Beer Brew Co is a brewery in Bermondsey that has made the low ABV bev its speciality, creating a space for moderation in between the high percentages and zero alcohol options.

Co-founders James Grundy and Felix James were both working in the alcohol industry – James in gin (at Sipsmiths) and Felix brewing at Fuller’s – when they saw a potential market for a mid-level beer. “We found that the strength of beer was just going up”, James says, and that people were risking major hangovers when “very often the joy was just having an awesome beer in hand”. The idea was to meet beer lovers halfway: to create a beer that can still deliver on flavour while eliminating a lot of the downsides.

“You won’t find another brew kit like this, globally”

That wasn’t such an easy task, though. For starters, the duo needed to build a one-of-a-kind brew kit. “You won’t find another brew kit like this, globally”, James says. Designed by Felix, the kit not only requires a much smaller volume of water than those of other breweries but it had to “maximise the flavour profiles that each ingredient delivers while minimising the amount of alcohol that we produce throughout the brew, which means that we don’t cut our fermentation short. We don’t cook off the alcohol, we don’t strip it out via reverse osmosis.”

The kit design that they came up with is such an anomaly in the brewing world that the people who helped with the build thought that there was no way it would work. “They’d built 10s of breweries, and said ‘you’ll never be able to be able to brew beer on this’ and I said ‘no, you’re right. Not beer as it’s traditionally been. But we think we can do the very best small beer anyone’s ever tasted.’”

Flavour over alcohol content wasn’t the only thing taken into account though, sustainability is also at the heart of the whole operation and Small Beer became London’s first B Corp brewery in 2019. One of the key considerations that led to that acknowledgement was their water savings, something that James and Felix thought a lot about, knowing that the drinks industry as a whole and beer, in particular, was enormously water-intensive. “Not all that long ago, the industry average was eight to 10 pints of water to brew a single pint of beer,” James explains, “but we managed to cut that down to just a pint and a half of water per pint of beer. This is the only entirely dry floor brewery in the country”.

“I think we are witnessing the biggest global shift that we’ve ever seen in drinking behaviours”

That’s not all, their brew kit also recaptures, recycles and recirculates the water that they do use; the beer is bottled in short necks, meaning that they can transport 150 more at a time than they would with long necks; and they partner with environmental initiatives – one example being Project Coral at the Forest Hill Horniman Museum that works to stimulate coral reproduction.

This year will mark six years since the team first brought Small Beer to the market back in 2017, “maybe that was a little too soon”, James says. The figure we mentioned earlier – that the UK annually drinks 68 litres of beer per capita – is actually considerably lower than it has been in the past. In 2017, it was 73 litres and back in 2008, it was 84 litres, so something is definitely shifting.

And the attitudes towards alcohol consumption in general are turning too. This year, Alcohol Change UK, the organisers of Dry January, found that nearly 9 million people said they were going to participate in the month-long alcohol-free initiative – that’s an increase of almost a million people in just one year. They also found that one in three Brits said they’d like to reduce their drinking in 2023, compared to one in four in 2022. “I think we are witnessing the biggest global shift that we’ve ever seen in drinking behaviours”, James says, “and that’s really exciting. Long may that continue”.



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