On a hot day, nothing hits the spot quite like a cold beer. But sometimes you want refreshment that doesn’t make your head spin. Table beers, I’ve increasingly found, are the answer. Loosely defined as anything under 4 per cent abv, table beers have their roots in the weak ales of old England, which were drunk as a tastier – and often safer – alternative to water. Table beer used to be scorned by the craft beer hardcore, but thanks to a new generation of innovative brewers it’s a style that’s now making a comeback.
The benchmark in this category is the 2.8-3.2 per cent abv Table Beer by Bermondsey brewer The Kernel. Brewed with an ever-changing line-up of hops, it’s got exceptional freshness and depth of flavour. The style is also a speciality of the Small Beer Brew Co, also in Bermondsey. The latest addition to its range – which includes a crisp lager, a pale ale and a chocolatey dark lager – is the Summer of ’21 IPA, made with British grain and marmalade-y hops (£55 for 24, theoriginalsmallbeer.com).
The danger with low-alcohol beer is that it can end up tasting mean. That’s why Beak Brewery in Lewes uses high-protein grains in its deliciously rounded 3.5 per cent abv Lulla table beer. Frothy and hazy-gold, it’s pierced with notes of citrus, pine and stone fruit. I love the passionfruit attack of the 3 per cent abv Table Beer: Mosaic by Newbarns (£3.39, honestbrew.co.uk), the more swarthy Striding Edge Light IPA (2.8 per cent abv) from Northern Monk in Leeds, and Cloudwater’s ultra-refreshing Hoppy Little Lager (3 per cent abv).
Continental brewers have an established tradition of making zero-alcohol beer, but the Brits have emerged as the specialists at this more intermediate strength, says Neil Walker, spokesman for the Society of Independent Brewers: “Historically we have been world leaders in great-tasting low-alcohol beers such as dark mild, ordinary bitter etcetera. Table beer is, in many ways, just the modern, hoppy take on British session beer.”
An offshoot of the table beer trend has been a revival in low-alcohol fruit/beer hybrids such as the shandy, the radler (Bavaria’s answer to the shandy) and fruited Berliner Weisse (a low-strength wheat beer that’s conditioned with fruit).
The Pastore craft brewery in Cambridge does an adventurous Berliner Weisse range that probes everything from guava to watermelon. Not every brew is a hit for me, but the Blood Orange Waterbeach Weisse (£5.45, beermerchants.com) is fantastic – tart, juicy, slightly salty. So too is the tangy Limone (£3.80, hoptimism.co.uk), a 2.5 per cent abv limited edition for summer that tastes like Sicilian lemonade, with a hoppy lager top.
“It takes real technical expertise to create a great-tasting low-abv beer,” says Greg Wells, co-founder of the London Craft Beer Festival, which will host more than 100 brewers from around the world at London’s Tobacco Dock this August. “It’s a bit of a running joke with us that whenever we start pouring a beer like this at a Festival, we quickly get a gaggle of brewers round the table.”
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