Beer is one of the world’s oldest ever drinks and has had more variations, shifts and alterations to the core formula than perhaps any other drink in existence.
The rise of low alcohol, low-calorie beer would appear to be a recent trend. However, the thirst for lighter, smaller beers that were ideal to drink with meals and could be consumed by all ages dates back as far as the 10th century.
There are many different reasons for this, but before we start, we need to explore a commonly held myth that is not the case.
Did People Drink Beer Instead Of Water?
There is a common myth that has built up since the Age of Enlightenment that people during the ‘Dark Ages’ drank beer because in many places they had polluted water supplies so badly that beer was safer so people spent their lives drunk.
This isn’t really true, for a few reasons. The first is that the water was never as polluted as was claimed due to very low population numbers, and the second is that the beers and wines drunk at the time had very low ABV levels.
Beer was often enjoyed at mealtimes, but because the ABV was often less than one per cent, it was instead a source of carbohydrates and calories, making it more akin to an energy drink.
These were known as small beers or table beers and workers would sometimes drink more than 5.7 litres (ten imperial pints) to quench their thirst, similar to how beer was consumed by the Ancient Egyptians.
From the 10th century to late in the 18th century, it was socially acceptable to drink, to the point that the temperance-supporting portrait Beer Street in 1751 advocated for it as an alternative to the social damage caused by Gin Lane.
This would only end with the rise in availability and popularity of tea, although table beers would still be popular in the UK and continental Europe.
The Temperance Movement And The Second Rise
The second rise of low-alcohol beer would come with the rise in popularity of the temperance movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, culminating in the passing of the Volstead Act in the United States which made Prohibition law.
This limited the alcohol content of all beverages to 0.5 per cent ABV, and most breweries would remove the alcohol from their existing drinks and sell them as tonics and alcohol-free beers.
This lasted from 1919 until 1933 when the repeal of Prohibition meant that breweries no longer needed to remove alcohol by law.
Light beers would next rise to prominence in the late 1980s, as people looked for alternatives to heavy, high-alcohol beers and turned to light beers instead, helped by a lower rate of beer duty introduced in 2011 in the UK for beers with an ABV of 2.8 per cent or less.
This has led to a surge in popularity over the past decade, in particular, with sales of low-alcohol drinks increasing by up to 30 per cent in the UK from 2016 to 2020.