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Home » Tech and Tips » Beer Guides » The Virtues of Small Beers
The Virtues of Small Beers
by Bruce Brode

There is usually plenty of enthusiasm among homebrewers for “big” beers. Many of the recent trends in homebrewing have pursued versions of existing styles with more alcoholic strength and requisite flavor presence to them (example: Double IPA), and there’s been an ongoing dialogue on such subjects within the Maltose Falcons’ membership. This is certainly appropriate. From one perspective, we might expect this in our market-driven culture with its ever-present hype, where “more is preferred to less” as the economists would say. The strong ales and lagers are more impressive than the average brew and make great special-occasion beers, and we do our share of celebrating with the assistance of such imposing creations.

Yet, the lower-alcohol styles are really an area where homebrewers can control their own drinking destiny and create marvelous beers. Among the most impressive of these are the Bitters and Mild Ales of the Real Ale tradition in Britain. The tradition is one of smallbatch hand-crafted brewing by independent breweries, just as the recent trend has been in various regions of the United States. In general, though, the British have a concept of beer that is less powerful in its alcohol content than what we have come to consider the “norm.” Ah, but this is an area where less may actually be more! Let’s look at the particular virtues of “small” beers:

  1. Less alcohol in the beer means you can drink more of it. This makes it easier to control your intake and maintain your health and good behavior, while still enjoying the experience.
  2. Most homebrewers are impatient to drink what they have brewed. Bitters and Milds generally set up within a month, sometimes in as little as two weeks, so you don’t have to wait very long.
  3. A beer that doesn’t develop as much alcohol doesn’t require as much yeast to yield a successful fermentation, so less yeast needs to be to grown up for the brew.
  4. With a bit of concentrated wort boiling, you can make more volume of beer on your system with a small beer than you can when making a stronger beer.
  5. A small beer can be made successfully from the second runnings of a lauter, so you can get two beers from one brewing session and still get your “big” beer.
  6. While they lack the refreshing carbonation ‘sting’ and smooth (some would say absent) palate presence introduction to homebrewed beers for the uninitiated, as they are easy to drink, not intimidating, and therefore comfortable to encounter. Brew beer, win friends and influence people!

Alright, enough of the arguments in favor. Here are some keys to crafting a successful small beer:

  1. Water treatment helps a good deal in creating British- style Bitters and Milds. The minerals found in many water sources where British Real Ales are brewed provide an important aspect to the flavor and texture, helping the beers to taste more full and rich than would be the case with softer water. Many tap water sources already have a pretty detectable load of minerals, notably calcium, carbonate and bicarbonate, and a number of “brewing salts” are available to experiment with. One of the most valuable is calcium chloride, which provides the benefits of calcium ion for the mash and flavor while also contributing chloride ion which helps to impart a sense of fullness. The pre-packaged “Burton Water Salts” are also useful, but note that these contain mainly gypsum (calcium sulfate) and epsom (magnesium sulfate) and in much concentration will impart a distinctly dry, acidic cast to the beer; also, the sulfates promote hops and thus they are best used with beers that will have some residually sweet maltiness to the flavor in order to balance the flavors.
  2. Authentic British malt sources are best, even for the base malt to be used. Pale malts such as Maris Otter are typically high-yielding and provide a complex flavor of their own. As a result only a very small fraction of caramel malt (often less than 5% by weight of the grist) is used to provide some depth to the malt flavor. You won’t get the same effect using North American pale 2-row malt, which is produced primarily for commercial makers of pale fizzy lagers. Small amounts of specialty grains and sugar sources can also be used to good flavor effect.
  3. Mashing can be simple. Because most British malts are already very well-modified (converted from starch to sugar) in the malting process, the traditional British single-temperature infusion mash at about 150 degrees F. can be used, with no step-mashing (and even no mash-out if you’re really lazy). Although this makes a less purely stable beer, that isn’t a big consideration in a brew that will likely be consumed within 30 days.
  4. Select yeast strains appropriate for the lower original gravities of these beers. Most often you’ll be brewing beers below 1.042 OG and as low as 1.032. As a result you need a yeast that is not a big alcohol producer but instead has clean complexity to it and settles out of suspension quickly. There are several strains now available which work well for these kind of brews; scrutinize the yeast supplier’s literature to identify those with complex flavors and lower attenuation tendencies as appropriate for use.
  5. Keep a close eye on the fermentation. It will proceed quickly, with the primary done well within a week and the secondary needed for only a week or two beyond that. Then you can package the brew with a fairly low carbonation level. Bitter and Mild in Britain are most often served on draught rather than as a bottled product. They are outstanding ales for hand pump service, as the “fluff” they get from the nozzle really softens the texture beautifully, and they just slip right down your throat!

Here’s a simple recipe for a Boddington’s Pub Ale-style brew, adapted from Brew Your Own Real Ale at Home, by Roger Protz and Graham Wheeler. This makes a quaffable brew with a rather hop-laden palate, but the hops help it to age a bit longer than most Bitters. I brewed it recently and served it at both the Mayfaire and the Southern California Homebrewers Festival.

Forever Brewing Company's Boddington's Bitter
Target yield: 10 U.S. gallons
Target Original Gravity: 1.035
Target Terminal Gravity: 1.008
Target ABV: 3.6%

Malt and adjuncts:
96.5% Crisp Maris Otter British pale malt, 14.25 lbs.
0.5% Black Patent malt, about 1 oz.
3.0% cane sugar, 4 oz., as a kettle addition

Water: tap water, amended with 2 tsp. Calcium chloride and 1 teaspoon Magnesium sulfate (Epsom salt)

Bittering Hops: Boil for 60 to 90 minutes
30 IBU total for bittering, including:
14 IBU Fuggle pellets @ 5.1% Alpha Acid (A.A.), about 1.4 oz.
10 IBU East Kent Goldings pellets @ 5.7% A.A., about 1 oz.
6 IBU Whitbread Goldings pellets @ 7.1% A.A., about 0.4 oz.

Flavor hops: Add for the last 15 minutes of the boil
0.2 oz. Northern Brewer or Northdown pellets
0.3 oz. Bramling Cross pellets
0.6 oz. East Kent Goldings pellets

Yeast: Possible choices:
Wyeast 1275 Thames Valley Ale
Wyeast 1968 ESB
White Labs WLP002 English Ale

Mash crushed malt in water (1.25 quarts per pound or similar ratio) at 150 d. F. for 60 minutes. Then lauter and boil with hops and sugar adjunct as indicated, finally cool the wort and pitch the yeast.

Want to make your own beer at home? Get started on the right foot. Check out the Falcon's sponsoring shop, The Home Beer, Wine, Cheesemaking Shop. John Daume, proprietor, has been serving the home brewing and winemaking needs of Angelenos since 1972, over 30 years! (Falcon Members receive a 10% discount on supplies)
Looking for older Falcons' information?, The Westval Maltose Falcons Webpage (Locally cached) (The Original Falcon's Roost, prior to 1999)
Looking for a home wine making club in the Los Angeles area? Check out our sister club, The Cellarmasters, over 30 and still stomping grapes.