Q&A with Felix James, co-founder of Small Beer

Before moving ahead with my questions – relating predominantly to low ABV beers – Felix clarified that Small Beer isn’t technically a ‘low ABV’ brewery and brand. The company is championing a ‘new’ category of small beer while acknowledging this style is about a thousand years old.

‘Low alcohol’ describes a beverage of 1.2% and below. All Small Beer beers are ‘in the twos’, the strength of the small beer of old which was popular from the middle ages (and very likely long before) right through until the beginning of the Twentieth Century.

He highlights that it was very much a staple of everyday life, with people drinking small beer for hydration as well as for nutrition. It was popular with everyone from school children through to high society. It was also regularly prescribed warm to treat common ailments and viral diseases, notably during flu outbreaks and other viral epidemics.  

On to the questions…

What was the prompt to go down the low abv small beer route?

After forging our careers in the drinks industry, James [Grundy, co-founder] and I met working at Sipsmith gin distillery. We’d go for a beer or two after a long day at work and found it tough to get the work-life balance right when we were met with 5%+ beers.

How do you think the market has developed – more consumer appetite and more competition?

The pandemic certainly catalysed a shift toward a more balanced lifestyle. We’ve found that consumers now no longer expect lower strength to mean less flavour. If anything, we’d appreciate a little more competition in the two percent space. Six years in and we’re still the only brewery to focus entirely on the two percent space and we’d welcome support in shouldering the category education piece.  

Why do you not brew a zero abv beer?

Small Beer does what it says on the tin. We decided very early on that we would set the bracket to 1.0-2.8% to mimic the small beers of old. Non-alcoholic beer is a Twentieth Century construct and not one that we aspire to. In fact, today we have focused the range – our Lager is our lowest ABV at 2.1% and our Amber our highest at 2.7%. The 2.8% upper bracket finds its roots in the historic recipes, which themselves are based on the natural diuretic limit of alcohol – if you drink alcohol above 2.8%, you dehydrate as you drink; below 2.8% and you’re hydrating as you drink. Hence one would drink small beer throughout the working day.

We use classic brewing methods to brew our beer and rely on great quality classic brewing yeasts and traditional long lagering. To me, arrested fermentation, modified yeasts and stripping out alcohol all give you something which doesn’t quite register as beer. At Small Beer, we brew to strength using good old brewing methods and we believe that’s what makes our beer taste great.

What would tempt you to brew regular-strength beer?

Same answer – not under the Small Beer brand.

What styles are your best-sellers?

Our Lager and Pale are our best sellers and run neck-and-neck with slight seasonal variances. They’re brilliant beers and the ones we have put years of our experience honing the Small Beer method into. We now brew Organic and Hazy IPAs as well as our Amber and Stout. All superb beers in their own right – a Small Beer for every occasion.

Could you tell us about your eco/sustainable philosophy/credentials?

Our experience working in the drinks industry taught us that it’s resource intensive. This spurred us on to do better and when I designed our brewing kit. I did it with two things in mind: to brew the very best small beer the world had tasted; and to minimise our impact on water usage and effluent demand. We put in place a ‘dry floor policy’, which sees the brewery floor remain dry at all times with no floor drains or water hoses. It takes a slightly different approach, but when the drains aren’t there to use, it forces you to work differently. We took a similar approach to materials, deciding to restrict ourselves to those that made most sense from a full lifecycle, circular approach.

We became London’s first BCorp brewery in 2019 and we continue to be the only BCorp certified brewery in London to this day, something I’m not all that proud of, because we’d appreciate competition in this space. There are, however, some fantastic efforts being taken in other breweries, which we really admire (Stroud, Hepworth’s and Ramsgate to name a few) and this is where the brewing industry thrives. One in which we share, collaborate and grow stronger as a whole.

We’re also a 1% for the Planet business, donating 1% of our total revenue (not just profit) to a local initiative, Project Coral, run by the fantastic team behind the Horniman Aquarium in Forest Hill, which really has a global impact as one of the leading research facilities on coral lifecycles and development.

How do you see the low/no market developing in the future – what % of beer sales could it represent?

As mentioned, we don’t fall into the low/no category and it would be amiss for me to comment. Our aim at Small Beer though is that there is a small beer option at every beer opportunity, i.e. any outlet selling beer, whether pub, bar or bottle shop should have a two percent option for those who want to partake, but don’t want to find themselves falling asleep on the way home or struggling to focus the following day. The category really allows us all to enjoy great beer and find the much needed balance in today’s full-on lifestyle. 

What’s the sales split between DTC (Direct to Consumer) and via third-parties?

DTC represents a third of our business today, retail roughly half. We find that our drinkers like to have a Small Beer to hand at home, when they can relax with a beer without suffering the consequences – naturally lower in units and calories. With a solid footing online and in shops (predominantly pandemic-induced) we’re on a mission to see more Small Beer on draught, where it works so fantastically well in pint-sized format.

Glynn Davis, editor, Beer Insider