A Yardful of Lawnmower Beers
It’s ninety-eight in the shade and the sun is beating down with the heat of a freshly made TIG weld. The blue smoke of small engines chokes the air. Thirst rules. The barley wine can wait until the first snowfall. Forget sipping. I need something to quaff!
Hot weather has long called for small beer that can be tossed down in quantity without fear of rapid intoxication. Crisp, cool, refreshing and plenty of it—that’s a summer beer. In earlier times, small beer was about all that was available in the summer. In most places, the brewing of full-strength beer was forbidden between April and September, due to the heat, airborne microbes and the fact that every able man and boy was needed in the fields. Besides, most of last year’s malt and hops were used up making March beer that sat in the maturation tanks, quietly taunting one and all through those long hot months.
Small beer was critical to keeping things running, as a safe form of hydration. There were rarely sources of safe water, and certainly no soda available until towards the end of the 19th century. Because small beer didn’t keep well, it was brewed frequently all through the summer. There isn’t a lot written about the small beers of those days—no poems, or celebratory prose of the sort that were lavished upon bigger beers. Wherever they were brewed, small beers were either just the last runnings of the local full-strength beer, or concocted to give similar results when brewed entirely on their own.
So, we’re on our own as far as recipes go, but there are some hints we can use from those in the past who were brewing and drinking low-gravity beers. And of course, we, as craft beer sophisticates, have a few notions of our own.
Everyday small beer was always weak. But during WWI, gravities of all beers fell to abysmal levels across Europe. After the fighting ceased, the shortage of raw materials continued, so people were looking at techniques to make weak beers brewed from substandard ingredients more palatable.
In particular, George M. Johnson was relaying information on Belgian techniques to English brewers by way of the Journal of the Institute of Brewing. He had spent decades in Belgium studying and consulting, and he reported details of very low-gravity beers there with acceptable flavor characteristics. Witbier in particular seemed to fill the bill. With up to half unmalted wheat and a mashing technique that produced a wort laden with unfermentable sugars and dextrins, these beers had a good deal of texture and a fantastic creamy mousse. Add the funkiness of Belgian yeast and the lactic sourness that came from barrel-fermentation, and there was a lot of flavor as well. Hard to do with beers in the 1025 to 1035 (6 to 9 °P) range.
That’s a couple of solid ideas to start with. Oats are another, used in many small beers because they added a creamy mouthfeel, and were cheap and available as they were useless in stronger beers meant for aging. So there’s another tool in our kit.
The wild yeast, Brettanomyces, can add another layer of flavor, but because it’s such a slowpoke, it might be best incorporated into a small beer by blending in a percentage of stronger, longer-aged beer already inoculated with its barnyard taint.
American industrial lagers and light beers already reign all across lawnmower land, but as homebrewers, we can see obvious room for improvement to suit our own ultra-refined tastes. But the basics are there, and we should be able to supercharge them while still serving quench duty in the hot season. So here are a few mini-recipes, which I leave to you to flesh out into actual malt, hops, wheat, oats and whatever else you can think of.
If you want to do this properly with unmalted wheat, seek out info on the Belgian turbid, or Slijm mashing procedure and get ready for a long brew day. Otherwise, mix about half six-row malt, half malted wheat and a small amount of instant oats, shooting for a gravity of 1.030 to 1.040 (7.5 to 10 °P). Mash it all together at 155°F (68°C) for about 20 minutes, then mash out at 170°F 77°C) to lock in the high ratio of unfermentables. A pound or so of sour malt will add a nice lactic tang if you so desire—and you should. For an extract version, do a mini-mash with the oats, a pound of six-row and half a pound of dextrine malt. The balance of the gravity should come from wheat malt extract. Hopping should be reasonably light, no more than about 20 to 25 IBU, although this would benefit from some nice aroma hops or even a little dry-hopping. A dark version of this could be made by adding half a pound of German Rostmalz/Carafa to the mix. Use a Belgian yeast strain, and ferment it fairly warm, 70°F (°C) plus.
This takes the idea of American mainstream lager and twists it to our liking. Start with two-thirds good-quality pils malt, and one-third malted wheat, to gravities similar to the beer above. Same ratio if you’re using extract, although you might want to steep half a pound of dextrine malt. Mashing can be a little lower, let’s say 152°F (67°C). I’d hop this at the 25–30 IBU level, and as with the first beer, use plenty of nice aroma hops. You could use an English ale yeast, but I think a Kölsch yeast would do nicely here, and you could even cold-condition it for a smoother flavor. Carbonate at a higher than normal level. Use Belgian yeast and you could call it “half a single.”
The Father of Our Country left us with an absolutely hideous small beer recipe in his own hand, containing little more than bran and molasses. Of course, folks in those days had limited access to quality brewing ingredients and had to make to with whatever they had. We deserve better, so let’s go for a crisp, molasses-tinged brown small ale. I’d shoot for a 4:1 mix of pale ale and biscuit malt at the same gravities as above. To that, add a pound of light molasses—dark if you’re feeling frisky. Standard 150°F (66°C) mash temperatures are fine. Extract brewers, do a mini-mash with the biscuit and a pound of pale or pils, and fill-in with amber extract and the molasses. Hopping should be around 20 IBU of English-character hops, although you could go a bit higher if you must. Aroma hops are not so important in this one. Use a good ol’ U. S. of A. ale yeast at normal cellar temperatures.
This is just a start, of course. There are many other inspirations to be sought out and twisted to our infernal purposes: altbier, American IPA, hefeweizen, and many more. Just knock ‘em down to a small size, pump up the body, and don’t go too crazy on the hops. Then, grab the handle, yank on the cord and vrrrrrrrrrrrmmmmmmm!
A brewer since 1984, Randy Mosher is a nationally recognized writer and authority on brewing and beer styles. He is the author of The Brewer’s Companion (Alephenalia Publications, 1984), Radical Brewing (Brewers Publications, 2004) and Tasting Beer: An Insider’s Guide to the World’s Best Drink (Storey, March 2009). In addition, Mosher consults on package design and branding.