Over the past few years craft brewing has plundered the world of heavy alcohol beers – it’s become synonymous with it. Until recently, beer with a similar alcoholic content to wine was associated mainly with Belgium with its Dubbels and Tripels. British Barley wines – now commonplace – were more the stuff of legend recalled only by the flat capped toothless Djinn that haunt Britain’s pubs.
Now the hive has registered the vacuum left at the other end of the spectrum and beers from the 2-3 ABV range are legion. Not only are we lucky in abundance, but in variety too. From sours and fruit beers to milds and tonic ales, low ABV beers are a growing trend. In that culture, flavour and refreshment have blossomed and body needn’t always be compromised either. High alcohol content can hide many a sin. The low ABV beer is more naked by not having the fog of booze to blur the edges around it. Its assets and faults are fully exposed.
This appetite for “naked” beers is growing across the country and London’s no exception. Berliner Weisse sours are a particular specialty which, unlike our Teutonic cousins, we mostly drink neat without fruit syrup. Here is a roundup of some of the low beers glimmering in the big smoke. The breweries range from Hackney, Peckham Rye, Stratford and Tottenham to Kennington, Notting Hill and Bermondsey.
Howling Hops started out in the cellar of The Old Cock Tavern in Mare Street in Hackney. It’s turned the pub into a hub for beer fanatics across the capital. The interior is dark wooden panelled with shutters that open outwards to let the sunshine course in, or conversely inwards to keep the nuisance sunshine and public scrutiny out – a more urban architectural pub idiom you’ll not find. An impressive back catalogue of beers have been brewed – mostly with a high US hopped influence.
Howling Hops Brewery Riding Ale (keg 3%)
This cloudy pale beer looks a lot like a witbier. It has a moussy white head in no rush to leave. On the palate it’s puckeringly dry like chomping on grapefruit rind. All the scorching is done at the front so your tongue’s like a scrap of sandpaper. The aftertaste is quite mild though. It’s well carbonated and utterly refreshing in the summer heat. There’s also a background lemony sweetness that sees this half pint go down quickly like a glass of Victorian Lemonade.
Brick Brewery set up in Peckham Rye at the end of 2013. It’s one of four breweries listed here housed under a railway arch (the others being Anspach & Hobday, Orbit and Kernel). Little Lenny has been doused with US hops and is named after the recent birth of brewer Ian Stewart’s son – little Lenny.
Little Lenny (key keg 2.7 %)
It’s hazy bright orange with a milky hop oil head. Gentle carbonation can be seen through the glass. A fruity orange/peach aroma. A cool, tangy & calming mouthful. There’s also a starchy tuber side to it like sweet potatoes or parsnips. At the edges there’s a battery terminal bitterness too. The body doesn’t come across as being too thin. It carries the beer adequately.
I first tried Tap East’s Tonic Ale at the London Drinker festival earlier this year and it was my absolute favourite. I remember a sharp citrus and pineapple character buoyed up by the sparkling body and being amazed it had an ABV of only 3%. I have resought this beer and gone all the way to its source – Tap East at Stratford International station. My second experience however, was but a shadow of the first.
Tap East Tonic Ale (cask 3%)
Light honeydew melon in colour with a light white foam. Piquant first note on the palate. It’s citrus sour but not astringently so. The aftertaste is smooth and fruity. I get lemon juice and melon. I have had this before when I got much higher notes – pineapple and peaches. That’s the problem with cask – condition can vary. On that day at Tap East itself, the beer needed a bit of CPR.
Redemption Brewing started up as recently as 2010 but is already one of the longest in the tooth here (narrowly beaten by Kernel – see below). Core beer Trinity is so called because it’s brewed with three kinds of malt and three different hops. The generous malt dimension helps the body to carry the beer. It has won beer of the festival in the London Drinker, Luton, North Oxfordshire, Hitching, Watford and Worthing beer festivals.
Redemption Brewery Trinity (cask 3%)
Light glowing clementine with a white sponge head. First draught takes you into an orange peel compote. It oozes fruity hop oils and retains levity with a gentle peachy mouthfeel. The aftertaste is dry but in a soft way. It’s like drinking blood oranges. Again, the body carries it along so it doesn’t feel weak. There’s an after-zing like sherbert which tingles on the palate.
Orbit Beers set up in a railway arch a couple of blocks away from Kennington Tube Station last year. Right from the outset they demonstrated that they wanted to emulate beer styles from a wide scope and didn’t start with the almost compulsory massive new world hop bombs. Their beers – often a nod towards the continent – are perfectly balanced and above all refreshing. They’re perfect for drinking outdoors. Their core range includes a Koln (they can’t use the term Kolsch as it isn’t brewed in Cologne), a Rauch Alt and an Alt Bier.
Orbit Brewery Eve (key keg 3.3%)
This is an elderflower sour. It’s completely cloudy and the colour of lemon curd. A very tart bretty aroma straddles the threshold between white wine and white wine vinegar. The taste is a bit like sour underripe cooking apple skins. No head can be swirled up with this. Dry & astringent yet fruity and extremely
moreish. A drinker of more traditional bitter was visibly frightened by this beer and backed away clutching his pint.
The Moncada Brewery is in part of the London landscape that’s a bit of a desert for breweries. It dwells in the shadow cast by the foreboding Trellick Tower and is a short walk from the Grand Union Canal.
Moncada Brewery Notting Hill Summer (bottle conditioned 3.2%)
The word summer is well justified in the title. It pours a hazy orange and a white constellation builds up on the surface. Sweet citrus is prominent on the nose – it’s like the zest that sprays out from under your nails when peeling a naval orange. The hops used were Galaxy, Motueka and Mosaic. It sparkles with a tonic water carbonation. Out of all the beers in this article, it has the fullest body, maybe helped by the addition of oats in the mash which might also lend it a cereal note to the mouthfeel. There’s a refreshing chilled fruit squash quality to it and it would be perfect to sip as you watch the longboats go by along the nearby waterway.
Anspach & Hobday are part of the vibrant brewing scene in Bermondsey but even in that challenging context, manage to put out original beers. As far as I’m aware, they are the first brewery in London to start cultivating wild yeast under their railway arch (termed Archouse yeast). They have also started brewing with botanicals, have made a peated Gose and their own take on an American Cream ale which is brewed with corn and both lager and ale yeast. For real value for money though, you can’t beat their Table Porter that punches above its tiny alcoholic weight.
Table Porter (bottle conditioned 2.8 ABV)
Treacly mahogany and utterly opaque. There’s a high mocca rocky head and a deep resinous liquorice aroma verging on rubber. The aroma by itself is desiccating. The mouthfeel is silky but with a sticky edge. A red wine sourness/tartness haunts the back of the gullet. There’s burnt ash & blackjacks in the elixir. The dark caffeine flavours easily outwrestle the body but the beer sits easily on the palate. It’s a bit like having a vivid colour illustration without the page hosting it. It’s a big beer for such a low ABV.
The number of breweries along and under the railway line in Bermondsey hasn’t just developed into a weekend beer event in itself but has helped other businesses such as the Druid Street Market (pictured above). Under the glowering presence of the Shard, these quiet streets are filling up with punters once more after decades of decline; proof that beer can be good for the local economy.
I end on what I regard as THE London light: Table Beer from the Kernel Brewery just a few minutes’ walk from Anspach & Hobday.
Table Beer can be found in many self-respecting licensed venues across London.
On my most recent visit I saw it on tap in 4 bars though I wasn’t consciously looking for it. The ABV was different in each pub. This inconsistency isn’t down to a lack of discipline but is more from a point of honesty. The brewery doesn’t do “permanents”. There might be a beer that features regularly but even if it carries the same description and title, each batch is unique. The ABV is more a projection of what the beer will carry. The actual alcohol level can vary (by law) by 0.5 in either direction so the varying ABV simply reflects the batch it came from. Kernel celebrates its passion for continual experimentation and tweaking.
Letting the ingredients speak for themselves is very much in Kernel’s ethos. The beer is served fresh or bottled with minimal branding and little fanfare (though the plain cork tile minimalism has itself become iconic and imitated). You won’t find words like “premium” or “best” on their bottles, just what’s actually in the liquid. The brewery has helped educate us about hops by making them the focus. Kernel had a big part in the resurgence of older London styles like porters and is now making low ABV beers into a fine art.
Table Beer (2.9 – 3.2 Key Keg)
This beer is pale custard yellow and opaque except at the edges. Bright white foam on top. It’s sheer taste. Watermelon and blood orange. Citrus fruit rinds too. It dries the palate leaving a sensory zing. It also has a melon rind edge with a dry finish not far behind. Like all Kernel beers, the carbonation lends it a lifting tanginess which never crosses over into gassy. There’s a milkiness to the mouthfeel too. I start to get green apple peel and a cidery note too. The body still carries it all with the nano ABV. The empty glass is left with a web of milky white lacing and a longing for more.