The world’s first small beer brewery returns Britain to its historic roots, serving up beers brewed between 0.5-2.8% ABV to beer aficionados. Don’t be disheartened by the low alcohol content as these flavourful beers prove that this is simply a side note, filling a gap in the market where uninspiring drinks once dominated.
The small beer brewery is in full swing after an impressive launch in April where it introduced its upcoming live music nights Small Beer Sessions featuring Dom Pipkin’s piano blues, followed by an inventive musical arrangement by saxophonist Yasmin Ogilvie and DJ Kelly Marie. The brewery focuses as much on the experience of the drink as the beverage itself, transforming its production space into a cultural hub with a true community feel, hoping to incorporate art, yoga and talks into the mix.
Small beer is a perfect fit for a 21st century society with the brewery responding to the rise in mindful drinking and priding itself on sustainability. Eager to find out more, we made our way down to South Bermondsey to talk all things small beer with expert brewers Felix James and James Grundy, co-founders of Small Beer Brew Co.
Hi Felix and James, thanks for having us down at the Small Beer Brewery! Could you start us off by explaining the history of small beer?
Felix: Small Beer was a ubiquitous part of British daily life in the 1700s, brewed at home for hundreds of years and enjoyed by all of society. The common misconception is that society drank beer because the water wasn’t clean however people were actually unaware of the waterborne diseases at the time. They consumed beer because it tasted better than water! Brewing small beer went out of fashion in the 19th century because of the rise in clean drinking water but it’s rumoured that it was served at Eton until the 1950s.
What kinds of small beer do you offer and on what occasions would we drink them?
James: We have two original small beers. The Lager at 2.1% is a Pilsner style with a wonderful floral crisp bitterness, perfect for a summertime aperitif or a lovely accompaniment to small plates. The Dark Lager at 1% has hints of roasted coffee and chocolate, perfect with cheeses and game dishes. We also find that the small beers work really well as a pre-show drink at the National Theatre. What’s so great is that there are a lot of small beer moments.
You both previously worked at Sipsmith Gin. Did this inspire you at all?
Felix: That undying love for the absolute perfection probably emanated from working for Sipsmith. It’s a little bit ironic as we’re no longer dealing with high alcoholic drinks. One of the things that spurred us on most was that we wanted to find something that we enjoyed drinking but also allowed us to continue with our fast-paced lives and extend the social moment.
It’s great that you don’t always have to commit to a stronger drink.
James: That’s it! We found that you can either get flavour profile and a much higher ABV or you could compromise on flavour and go for a lower ABV option. There was nothing that delivered you the great flavour profile at the lower alcoholic volume and we set out to change this. We had to find a solution which allowed you to have a couple of social beers at lunch and still have a productive afternoon.
Do you think that your product plays into the mood of society with the rise in mindful drinking and increased interest in the origins of food and drink products?
James: I think it’s absolutely ripe for that. People love telling a story about where their beer is from. It’s a kind of social currency! Working at Sipsmith, we saw the fascination from the consumer’s perspective to go and see the production space and learn how the gin was made. Regarding mindful drinking, our ethos is that we want to deliver you a really phenomenal flavour experience. Take away the fact that it’s low ABV, we want to deliver one of the best tasting lagers you’ve ever tried! At the same time, you don’t need to feel guilty for having a second one.
Felix, we’ve read that you set up a brewery in your very own back garden. What made you decide to go bigger?
Felix In one way or another, I was looking to set up a brewery for 12 to 13 years. I started brewing at university and then worked for big commercial breweries like Fullers but I kept wanting to break away. I had always envisioned the brewery as a one-man brewery but the potential to make something phenomenal became more real when I met James, aka the world’s best salesman. We realised that there was this huge potential in the market to make a phenomenal beer that we really enjoyed ourselves and that everybody could enjoy on more occasions than craft beer. We had to go big and tell the world that small beer had arrived!
It’s great to see a company that takes sustainability into consideration in all aspects of the production process, from the brewing of the beer itself to the marketing and branding, with 100% recycled labels, boxes and business cards.
Felix: We both have very strong ethics when it comes to sustainability and we take it very seriously. It’s no longer a choice to be a sustainable business in the U.K. but an absolute requirement for start-up businesses. We’ve tried to minimise our use of water as much as possible to the point that we’re using 1.5 pints of water rather than the 10 pints needed to produce a single pint of beer.
We’re even looking at sustainability in the way we run our events. If we can take kegs out to events and offer draught beer then we can reduce the environmental cost of manufacturing the bottle. We hope to make the best tasting and most sustainable beer in the country, better yet the world. We’ve got to make this happen! This involves a lot of tricky discussions with suppliers and we’ve been putting a lot of pressure on the industry to make sustainability the only option.
We love the branding of the apothecary-style bottles, what was the idea behind the concept?
James: We wanted to capture something that we believed to be the globally recognised symbol for small and also something we could have fun with! The hand is modelled on Felix’s fair hand (cue Felix striking the pose) and it was built upon by a small agency called Kingdom & Sparrow in Falmouth.
Felix: We were also looking for something simple and straightforward to cut through the loud imagery surrounding craft beer.
What makes you different from the big brands like Heineken 0.0%?
James: You’ve got a lot in this non-alcoholic space of 0.5% and below. We’re not a non-alcoholic beer. It’s still about delivering that great flavour profile you should expect from a beer with a higher ABV. There has been this chasm between non-alcoholic beer and normal beer but we’re defining small beer as an entirely new category. People are looking for beer within that space but it hasn’t been available up until now.
Is the Small Beer Brewery going to get bigger in the coming years?
James: The brewery is craft in terms of the skill that goes into producing it but big in terms of vision and in terms of the messages we communicate to the wider industry. We believe there’s a real thirst for small beer and if we don’t grow then we’re not going to be able meet those occasions where we think that a small beer fits absolutely perfectly. We also need to grow to a certain size in order to put the appropriate amount of pressure on our suppliers to change their behaviours.
Felix: When people think of growth, they think of a big corporate company that cuts quality and becomes less ethical. We only see growth as an opportunity to put more resources into quality, sustainability and looking after our local community.
And finally, where can we find your drinks?
James: Our drinks are served at amazing bars such as The American Bar at The Savoy, fantastic smaller bars such as Three Sheets, all the way through to the National Theatre. In terms of retail, small beers are sold at great local delis such as Bambuni Wine & Grocery and then bigger stores like Selfridges and Whole Foods. We’re excited to announce that Majestic Wine will distribute small beer across the country in April.