Leah’s Beer School: Lesson 35

What is Table Beer?

Table beer is difficult to define as it’s an elusive term that does not align with a specific beer style, rather it represents a concept – an everyday, low-alcohol by volume (ABV) beer that’s both accessible and communal.  While table beer does not adhere to any strict guidelines, they are generally malt forward, with subtle hops and colour ranging anywhere on the spectrum from gold to black. Modern table beers tend to lean toward a saison style of beer and are typically between 1.5%-3% ABV.

Tafelbier & Bière de Table

Low-ABV beer had been around for hundreds of years, the notion of table beer gained momentum in Belgium (tafelbier) and France (bière de table) in the late 19th century. The concept of table beer was to simply to provide a casual drink to be enjoyed at meal times by everyone around the table. Historical examples of table beer are thought to have had a very low ABV of less than 1%, and even young kids drank this low-alcohol brew. Typically, traditional table beers were malt-forward, lightly hopped and meant to pair well with just about any type of food. They were often served in larger vessels designed for sharing. 

Table Beer in England

While many people attribute the concept of table beer to communal gatherings in 19th century Europe, some argue that the term ‘table beer’ originated in England. In 1782 British parliament implemented an excise tax on beer, where three tax classes were created in descending order based on strength: strong, table and small. Strong beer had more alcohol, was more expensive, and taxed at the highest rate. At the time, table beer had an ABV that fell between 2.75% to 4% and was taxed at a lower rate than strong beer, small beer was taxed the least. The official classification of table beer was dissolved in 1830, when the tax was shifted from finished beer to malt and hops using in brewing. Low-gravity beers continued to be brewed, but the concept of table beer gradually faded away by the second half of the 19th century. 

Low ABV Beer 

It’s impossible to definitively pinpoint when and where the concept of table beer was born, but the practice of brewing and consuming low-alcohol beers is historically rooted in the Middle Ages. Low alcohol brews were served all over medieval Europe, often as a source of nutrition, that was both fortifying and refreshing. They were full of calories, cheap to produce and provided important sustenance to manual labourers and the poor who had limited access to clean drinking water. Beer was a source of potable water, safe to drink due to the boiling point of wort during the brewing process, where hops helped to inhibit bacteria and preserve shelf life. 

Current craft beer trends have brought renewed attention to this historical beer concept and has created a space for brewers to add their own contemporary flair. Over the years, the alcohol percentage in table beer has climbed from the sub-one percent to somewhere between two and four. Rather than representing a true beer style per se, table beers represent an approach to drinking, with a focus on a social aspect where beer is meant to be shared and celebrated.

(Leah is a Toronto based freelance writer as well as Head Beer Weenie and a server at C’est What)