No, it isn’t a style of beer made out of furniture. Nor is it even a style, really. Like many beers of the past, it has gone through several incarnations at different times and in different places. But it began as a tax classification.
You may have noticed that government legislation and taxation are a recurring theme in this column. That’s because they’ve been the main forces behind the development of British beer styles, along with technological advances. They, rather than innovative brewers magically thinking up new styles, have been the true motors of change. The superstar brewer is very much a modern phenomenon, thank god.
In the 18th century, there were three tax classes in England (in descending order of strength): Strong, Table and Small. The definition of these classes was very simple, as it was based on the wholesale price. In 1782, any beer costing more than 11 shillings a barrel was considered Strong and taxed at 8 shillings a barrel. Any beer costing less than 6 shillings a barrel was Small, and taxed at 1 shilling and four pence. Between 6 and 11 shillings was Table, taxed at 3 shillings.
Officially, the classification “Table Beer” disappeared in 1830, when the tax was shifted from finished beer to malt and hops. Though low-gravity beers continued to be brewed under the name of Table Beer, they gradually dwindled away in the second half of the 19th century (except in Scotland, where it hung on until the early decades of the 20th century).
In London, the Table Beer of the large Porter brewers was, unsurprisingly, a type of low-gravity Porter. The malt bill was similar to its full-strength sibling. Between 1820 and 1850, that meant a combination of pale, brown and black malt with the option of some amber malt. The hopping was usually much lower for Table Beer. Sometimes brewers employed the economical trick of reusing hops from another, stronger brew. At 2.75 percent to 4 percent alcohol by volume, it was between half and two-thirds of the strength of standard Porter.
Scottish brewers were famous for their Table Beer, which was exported to England in considerable quantities. Stylistically, it bore no resemblance to the Porter-like London type. William Younger in Edinburgh brewed a Table Beer that was essentially the lowest gravity of their Shilling Ales, one down from 50/-. Contrary to what you might expect, it was usually brewed single-gyle.
The copper hops were in line with its strength, but, as you can see from the table, it had a relatively large amount of dry hops added to the cask:
Don’t assume because it was dry-hopped in the cask that it was sold on draft. Like much beer in Scotland, Table Beer was poured into hogsheads (56-gallon casks), and sent to publicans and grocers who bottled it before sale.
What I said earlier about London Table Beer isn’t totally true. Barclay Perkins, one of the largest London brewers, made a Porter-like version until about 1860, when they changed it to a low-gravity pale Mild. The change is indicative of the rise in popularity of Mild at Porter’s expense around the middle of the century.
Ultimately, Table Beer was killed off by the rise of low-alcohol alternatives; first in the form of Dinner Ales and Light Bitters, beers of 4- to 4.5-percent ABV, which boomed in popularity from the 1860s on, and then by the drop in strength of standard beers after World War I.
In the 1920s, Barclay Perkins’ supposedly full-strength Porter was just 2.75-percent ABV, weaker than their Table Beer Porter of 100 years earlier. When normal beer is that feeble, there’s no space left for anything weaker.
Session beer? It’s really just Table Beer. ■