|Type||Lager or ale|
|Country of origin||Europe and North America|
|Alcohol by volume||Between 0.5% to 2.8%|
Small beer (also known as small ale or table beer) is a lager or ale that contains a lower amount of alcohol by volume than most others, usually between 0.5% and 2.8%. Sometimes unfiltered and porridge-like, it was a favoured drink in Medieval Europe and colonial North America compared with more expensive beer containing higher levels of alcohol. Small beer was also produced in households for consumption by children and by servants.
At mealtimes in the Middle Ages, persons of all ages drank small beer, particularly while eating a meal at the table. Table beer was around this time typically less than 1% alcohol by volume (ABV).
It was common for workers who engaged in laborious tasks to drink more than ten imperial pints (5.7 litres) of small beer a day to quench their thirst. Small beer was also consumed for its nutrition content. It might contain traces of wheat or bread suspended within it.
In 17th century England, it was an excise class which was determined by its wholesale price. Between the years 1782 and 1802, table beer was said to define that which cost between six and eleven shillings per barrel and the tax on this class was around three shillings. Cheaper beer was considered small beer while the more expensive brands were classed as strong (big) beer. The differences between small beer and table beer were removed in 1802 because there was much fraudulent mixing of the types.
Small beer was socially acceptable in 18th-century England because of its lower alcohol content, allowing people to drink several glasses without becoming drunk. William Hogarth's portrait Beer Street (1751) shows a group of happy workers going about their business after drinking table beer. It became increasingly popular during the 19th century, displacing malt liquor as the drink of choice for families and servants.
In his A Plan for the Conduct of Female Education, in Boarding Schools published 1797, writer Erasmus Darwin agreed that "For the drink of the more robust children water is preferable, and for the weaker ones, small beer ...". Ruthin School's charter, signed by Elizabeth I, stipulates that small beer should be provided to all scholars, and larger educational establishments like Eton, Winchester, and Oxford University even ran their own breweries.
To a large extent, the role of small beer as an everyday drink was gradually overtaken in the British Isles by tea, as that became cheaper from the later 18th century.
Small beer and small ale can also refer to beers made from the second runnings from the stronger beer (e.g., Scotch ale). Such beers can be as strong as a mild ale, but it depends on the strength of the original mash. This was an economic measure in household brewing in England until the 18th century, and still produced by some homebrewers. it is now only produced commercially in small quantities in Britain, and is not widely available in pubs or shops.
In Belgium, small or table beer is known as bière de table or tafelbier and their many varieties are still brewed. Breweries that perpetuated in this type included De Es of Schalkhoven and Gigi of Gérouville in the Province of Luxembourg. In the US, a Vienna lager was a popular table beer before prohibition. Small beers are also produced in Germany and Switzerland albeit using local brewing methods.
In Sweden beer with an alcohol content of 2.25 per cent by volume, or less, sold as lättöl ("light beer"), is legally classified as a soft drink (lättdryck), exempt from alcohol tax and age restrictions, made by virtually all breweries, sold in all grocery stores and commonly served in company lunch canteens.
Metaphorically, small beer means a trifle, or a thing of little importance.