Brewing Table Beer: The challenges of making a 3% ABV beer

Triple NEIPAs and maple-Bourbon imperial stouts grab a disproportionate share of the hype, but quietly “session” beer is garnering excitement in the craft beer world. While there are classic session beer styles, as a style-modifier “session” denotes lower alcohol (typically 3-5% ABV). Session IPAs in particular have become big business. Typically they have enough character to scratch that hop-itch, while allowing hopheads to extend their drinking and enjoyment. As homebrewers we can go even lower though, under 3% ABV into table-beer territory.

Originally table beers were brewed to be consumed by the whole family with each meal (including breakfast). Beer was safer than water, but low alcohol was necessary to avoid both dehydration and perpetual drunkenness. Homebrewed beers under 3% ABV are still common in many parts of the world such as Africa (where four out of every five beers consumed is homebrew)1 where the solution is often to drink beer that is still fermenting and thus not boozy. Table beers haven’t experienced commercial success because most people aren’t willing to pay for a beer that doesn’t have the usual effect.

When brewing between 1-3% ABV technical problems abound. There is little malt or hop character to hide flaws. Even more significantly, the miniscule amount of base malt required with typical processes and recipes leads to a diluted malt “backbone.” Many such attempts taste watered-down and unsatisfying: Thin, bland, and without much head.

While parti-gyle (aka combined grist brewing) was the traditional English process for crafting table beers, this technique often produces underwhelming results. The first runnings contain most of the protein, color, and flavor leaving the second runnings beer even thinner and blander than the low gravity suggests. As an alternative method to split a batch, dilute the first runnings for the small beer, and add an extended-boil for the remainder of the wort to increase the gravity of the strong beer!

In order to produce a table beer that resembles beer rather than malt-seltzer, a brewer must take the recipe and brewing techniques for session beer and push them further: Finding ways to extract the compounds that contribute body, aroma, and color while minimizing carbohydrates; or loading up on high-protein grains to boost protein and body, mashing at a remarkably hot temperature to create mostly unfermentable dextrins.

General Considerations

Whether you are brewing a session or table beer there are general considerations for enhancing malt flavor, boosting body, and maintaining balance. Pick and choose what makes the most sense for your batch.

Enhance Malt Flavor
  1. Select a flavorful base malt like Maris Otter, Vienna, Munich, or dark wheat.
  2. Keep a constant amount rather than percentage of specialty malts compared to standard-strength recipes.
  3. Eliminate refined sugar, and low-protein adjuncts like corn and rice, which add carbohydrates without increasing flavor or body.
  4. Conduct a no-sparge mash to prioritize extraction of color/flavor compounds, and minimize tannins.
  5. Increase the saccharification rest temperature to favor alpha-amylase. This allows for more grain and a higher original gravity without yielding more alcohol.
Boost Body
  1. Add high-protein grains (especially oats and rye).
  2. Pitch a low-attenuating yeast strain. Alternatively, select a strain that produces a high amount of glycerol. French saison strains are an excellent choice.
  3. Reduce carbonation. High carbonation causes table beers to taste seltzer-like. Serving on nitrogen through a stout faucet is a great option.
  4. Select calcium chloride rather than gypsum for water treatment as chloride helps to increase the impression of body. Aim for a higher target than usual as grain itself adds chloride (and sulfate) – See “Mineral Profile in the Glass” — BYO September 2017.
  5. Add lactose to taste at packaging to increase body and sweetness.
Maintain Balance
  1. Reduce the IBUs proportionally to the lower expected residual extract. Maintaining BU:GU works too, but can lead to under-bittering if the beer has a high FG.
  2. Do not trim late-boil and dry hop additions excessively; try to sustain hop aroma.
  3. For dark beers, consider cold-steeping the dark grains to reduce harshness while preserving color and flavor.
  4. Use a more expressive yeast or warmer fermentation temperature because less fermentation will result in a cleaner profile.
  5. Serve the beer fresher as the lack of alcohol gives the beer a shorter shelf-life.
  6. Increase acid additions, the minimal fermentation can leave the beer with a high final pH.

Cold Mashing

Rather than raising mash temperature, a recently suggested option is lowering the temperature of the mash so far that the enzymes are barely active. The goal is to extract the flavor, color, free amino nitrogen (FAN), enzymes, and the proteins responsible for head-retention and mouthfeel while at the same time leaving behind most of the carbohydrates. Only about 25% of the gravity is soluble at lower tempera-tures for base malts, closer to 50% for crystal malts.

Several informal tests have failed to find significant connection between dextrins and perceived body. Most of what dextrins contribute are empty calories. Beer was once an important nutritional store for the annual grain harvest, today that isn’t a concern for most of us. Lowering the amount of carbohydrates is all the more justification for an extra pint of table beer!
Dan Bies of Briess Malt & Ingredients gave an excellent overview of the process entitled “How Cold Steeping Malt Can Elevate Your Beer,” at the National Homebrewer’s Conference in 2016. Cold mashing can be used to make stronger beers as well (use the cold-extracted wort subsequently to mash-in a standard grain bill), but I won’t cover that here. He also advocates using the leftover starch-rich spent grain as an adjunct to replace refined sugar, corn, or rice in macro lagers, tripels, and double IPAs!

I brewed a 2.2% ABV bitter using an adaptation of the process Dan described in his presentation.

  1. Mill the malt erring toward a coarse crush. I used a grain bill designed for 6 gallons (22.7 L) of 1.060 extra special bitter (10 lbs./4.5 kg Maris Otter, 1.25 lbs./0.6 kg Carafoam, and 0.5 lb./0.2 kg Simpsons Extra Dark Crystal.)
  2. Mix the grain with cold water (at least four times the weight of the grain). I added all of the water required, 8.5 gallons (32.2 L) for a no-sparge.
  3. Let it mash for 8–16 hours cool. For times towards the long-end, refrigerator temperatures avoid bacterial spoilage.a. Alternatively, if you have a pump, you can do a continuous vorlauf for one-to-two hours.
  4. Separate the wort from the spent grain. The wort will be milky, but most of the starch will be left behind in the grain bed.
  5. Heat to desired conversion temperature and hold for 30 minutes. Stir occasionally as there will be unconverted starch and grain particulate coating the bottom of the kettle.
  6. Continue with your typical brewing process: Boil, hop, chill, ferment, and package.

I added a single dose of Challenger hops with 10 minutes left in the boil for 18 IBUs. Fermentation with Safale S-04 took the beer from 1.027 to 1.010 for 2.2% ABV. The finished beer appears close to the predicted 11 SRM and has good clarity and head retention. The malt aroma is delightful: Biscuity-toasty, with a hint of burnt sugar. There is a real grainy freshness to the flavor, helped by the fact I was able to keg it six days after brewing. Head retention was remarkably good! The body is OK, but certainly not close to what a 1.060 beer would have.

he malt and hops were characterful enough to make it a true beer, albeit one that was slightly thin. It was pleasant enough that I often found myself going back for a guilt-free second pour.

All Rye and Oats

Another approach to supply extra body and mouthfeel is with loads of oats and rye. Rather than use these as adjuncts, use malted versions for your base malt. Both oats and rye malt contain enough enzymes to self-convert. The beta glucans (soluble fiber) contribute to their silky, almost oily body, (and to how painfully slow they can make lautering). Cold mashing leaves beta-glucans mostly behind so these two techniques aren’t compatible.

Inspired by James Spencer from Basic Brewing Radio and Video, who shared a bottle of one of his rye-heavy table beers with me, I decided to go with a brew-in-a-bag technique. I opted for 70% rye malt and 30% Simpsons Golden Naked Oats. I held the single-infusion mash at 162 °F (72 °C), hoping to encourage low attenuation and thus yield less alcohol from the 1.029 wort. Despite not starting with a beta-glucan rest or adding rice hulls the wort was easy to extract from the mesh bag.

One of my favorite rye IPAs is Alpine Brewing’s Nelson, which derives most of its aroma from the titular Nelson Sauvin. This New Zealand-grown variety has become scarce and expensive with rising popularity, so I replaced it with German Hallertau Blanc and American Mosaic®. All three varieties contain the thiol 3S4MP (3-sulfanyl-4-methyl-pentane-1-ol) which contributes a “grapefruit-like and/or rhubarb-like odor, similar to that of Sauvignon Blanc.”2 I made my only hot-side addition after force-cooling the wort to 185 °F (85 °C) to reduce the amount of bitterness contributed during the 30-minute whirlpool steep. I’d learned my lesson with a previously over-bittered 2.3% ABV NEIPA. I then dry-hopped two days into S-04’s brief fermentation.

Don’t trust FG . . . at 1.014 (52% apparent attenuation) this 1.85% ABV batch has a higher final gravity than many double IPAs, but it certainly doesn’t taste nearly as sweet. That’s because the considerably higher amount of alcohol in a DIPA “hides” the true residual extract. For example a 9.0% ABV DIPA that goes from 1.080 to 1.012 actual has a residual gravity of 0.023 (compared to 0.017 for this batch). Alcohol itself also adds perceived sweetness. To put the strength in context, a 64 oz. growler contains less alcohol than a single 12 oz glass of Russian River Pliny the Younger’s 10.25% ABV.

The result is fairly convincing as a session IPA. The earthy flavor of rye is a wonderful complement to wine-like hops. The beer doesn’t taste excessively thin or watery. During a blind judging at DC Homebrewers’ “Irresponsibly Hopped” meeting, my friend Jake Grover jotted down “creamy” as well as “light” in his notes. The assertive dry hopping helps to distract from the lack of strong maltiness. The combination of Hallertau Blanc and Mosaic® is certainly Nelson-ish, with herbal notes mixed with the classic Sauvignon Blanc aroma.

Join the Table

While it is an amazing technical achievement to brew a 15% or 20% ABV beer that “hides its alcohol well,” it isn’t one that captures my attention. I don’t mind alcohol, but I’d rather drink two than one all else equal! What I’m excited to brew are beers that drink bigger than they are, full of malt and hops, not compromised “lite” beers. Sometimes we learn the most by pushing recipes to the breaking point. Even if you aren’t planning a 2.0% ABV porter, you might apply elements of these techniques to create a 4% session beer that drinks like a full-strength version, or a 10% beer that is as thick as malt extract!

When it comes to brewing table beers, don’t limit yourself to classic low-ABV styles, rather than a slightly smaller mild or Berliner weisse, don’t shy away from brewing beers that have big flavors like coffee sweet stouts or fruited Gose. Drinking in moderation doesn’t need to mean drinking moderately! They are still remarkably food-friendly as well, especially with spicy food.


Issue: October 2018