We took a trip down to Small Beer’s brewery in South Bermondsey - and you could too. If you purchase one of their gift packs you’ll be in with a chance of winning a brewery tour and tasting for 6 people. Read on to whet your appetite...
Down a small unsuspecting back street in South Bermondsey sits Small Beer. To an untrained eye it seems like any other brewery; giant stainless steel vessels imposingly tower over us as we set foot into the impressive space, as the hum of machinery and the distinctly floral smell of hops fills the air.
Yet, Small Beer is far from ‘any other brewery’, as Felix - one of the Co-Founders - would soon be telling us with the passion and enthusiasm you only get from someone who’s devoted their life to something they love.
We were lucky enough to visit the brewery just as Felix was about to start the brewing process for their Steam Amber Ale - a robust and flavourful ale that uses four different types of malted grain (Barley, Wheat, Rye and Oats). In many ways, this special beer perfectly encapsulates what Small Beer is all about.
So what makes it so special? Well, let’s focus on the words ‘robust’ and ‘flavourful’. Two words not usually associated with beers that are low in alcohol. But that’s exactly what Small Beer manages to achieve - a range of beers that are below 2.8% ABV, yet are brewed to “taste like beer”. Felix and James, both at the beginning of their journey as fathers, bonded in the pub over the frustration of not being able to find something that would satisfy their desire for brilliant tasting beer, whilst minimising the chances of a nasty headache in the morning.
And so alongside their recent offspring, Small Beer was born.
It’s tricky to fully appreciate the passion and commitment that goes into the development and creation of an independent business when all you get to see is the end product sitting on a shelf (or indeed a website). Fortunately for us, we had front row seats to see this passion vigorously bubble to the surface as Felix willingly welcomed us to join him in the brewing process, and learn what makes Small Beer’s approach so special.
Bespoke equipment that brews beer to strength
Felix talked about brewing with all the affection of a true beer enthusiast. But not in the boring kind of way that can send an audience lulling into a confused daydream. No, it was the infectious kind (can we say that in a Post-Covid world?) - the passion that’s backed up by a sheer wealth of knowledge that you can’t help but want to soak up.
It’s a knowledge that allowed Felix to design completely bespoke brewing equipment specifically designed to create Small Beer. “You could use this equipment to brew a 5% beer, but it would be like using a flat head screwdriver on a philips screw”, he tells us. (If you’re not into your DIY, you’ll have to Google that one). It’s bespoke because it allows them to brew their beer to strength.
What does that mean?
Well, instead of brewing a normal strength beer and then extracting out the alcohol at the end (which inevitably extracts flavour too), they are able to use the same amount of ingredients to make a full flavoured beer, while ensuring it only produces a lower alcohol content in the process.
“That seems a little wasteful” Felix explains, because “traditionally what brewers are looking for is brewing efficiency where you try to produce the most amount of alcohol from the ingredients, but what we’re looking for is flavour efficiency - seeking to extract the most flavour”.
It’s the ‘mashing in’ that’s the real key here (i.e. the part where you put all the ingredients into a big vessel with hot water to mix together before leaving it to ferment to create alcohol). We stand there admiring the 31 bags of barley, rye, wheat and oats, neatly and precisely laid out ready to be added to the mash tun. Everything from the quantities, to the timing and order of adding the ingredients is all meticulously planned to deliver a liquid that will have all the flavour they want, but will create lower alcohol in the subsequent fermenting process.
It’s all totally fascinating, and far more detailed than we can truly comprehend or adequately replay here. But it’s what makes the story of Small Beer unique - this is special stuff: the result of real innovation. Knowing this makes the complimentary half pint we’d been offered taste even better.
Becoming a B Corp: the little things that make a big difference.
Beyond big flavour though, lies big impact. Because Small Beer is a B Corp. That’s a formidable accreditation that recognises them as a business that balances profit with doing good for people and the world.
This is no ‘sustainability afterthought’, far removed from the contentious world of ‘greenwashing’. This is serious stuff that’s built into the very DNA of the business and its operations.
The evidence of this commitment was littered throughout our time at the brewery, in a way that was so implicit and entrenched. Amongst many things, what Small Beer do really well is minimise water wastage. Where the brewing industry on average uses 8 pints of water to make 1 pint of beer, Small Beer only uses 1.5. It’s an impressive statistic that Felix proudly shares - and rightly so.
“Breweries are normally very wet places” he tells us, “where people in wellies and waterproofs hose down equipment to keep things clean”. It’s why Small Beer are proud of their dry floor policy - something pretty unusual in the brewing world. It has the pleasing effect of the brewery looking more like a swish Gin Distillery - and it’s only one small thing of many that they do to reduce their water consumption.
Minimising waste isn’t reserved only for water, as we watch on at Felix diligently stripping the cotton fastening from every single bag of malted grain, carefully placing it in a wooden box to be later recycled. “We’ve done this on every bag of ingredients since we started” he tells us, hypothesising about the number of jeans that could have been made as a result. “These bags are the only ugly thing in our process” - unfortunately at this scale all the ingredients you can get your hands on come in plastic sacks. Nevertheless, Small Beer finds a way to do something good - passing them onto a local gardening charity who re-use them for compost to bring greenery to urban areas.
What started as a small independent brewery, is now doing big things. Their motto, proudly plastered around the place, is ‘Think Big, Drink Small’. We certainly walked away with our minds expanded, and our eyes open to the big possibilities of what can be done when something is built on pure, unfiltered passion.
If you want the chance to experience a taste of what we got to, then you can! This Father’s Day, we’re offering one special winner the chance to win a brewery tour and tasting experience at Small Beer for 6 people. All you need to do to enter is buy one of their Gift Packs before 5pm on Sunday 20th June.