An interesting observation at the end of Joe Sixpack's Phillie-based column today:
Craft beer's success is at least partly due to its potency. Small brewers differentiated themselves from macro-brew conglomerates by offering full-flavored ales and lagers whose higher prices were justified because you didn't have to drink as much to feel the buzz. Consumers may rightly feel they're not getting their money's worth if the alcohol content is lower, especially since the new wave of session beers are not substantially cheaper than higher-alcohol varieties. And that, friends, is why Jack Cade declared small beer a felony.
Jack Cade? As Joe explains, he is the character in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 2 who says "I will make it felony to drink small beer." Umm... except it is Henry VI not IV that has Jack in it. I didn't know that. I just saw it when I looked up the citation. Even though I have a BA in English and studied honours Shakespeare... almost 30 years ago. Such is life.
Anyway, I like Joe's point about small beer and session beer being out of the mainstream. Small beer was, as I recall, the result of a second or maybe even third run of brewing water through the mash after the stronger wort for stronger ales had been obtained. Which is Shakespeare's point. See, Cade is an actual person in history, an early fighter for reform who led a rebellion in Kent in 1450. A bad'jun. He promised much In Henry VI, Pt. 2:
Be brave, then; for your captain is brave, and vows
reformation. There shall be in England seven
halfpenny loaves sold for a penny: the three-hooped
pot; shall have ten hoops and I will make it felony
to drink small beer: all the realm shall be in
common; and in Cheapside shall my palfrey go to
grass: and when I am king, as king I will be,--
there shall be no money;
all shall eat and drink on my score; and I will
apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree
like brothers and worship me their lord.
A mad fantasy of a megalomaniac who would overturn the order of things not only in the sense of governance but of value itself. Sounds like a bit like North Korea if you think of it. The rebellion only lasted a few months but was a serious matter. 5,000 attacked London and held it briefly. Two Henry earlier, the tone is not so tough. We are, in Act II, Scene 2, in the world of a young Prince Harry rambling around London drinking with the lads around 1380:
POINS: ... I had thought weariness durst not
have attached one of so high blood.
PRINCE HENRY: Faith, it does me; though it discolours the
complexion of my greatness to acknowledge it. Doth
it not show vilely in me to desire small beer?
POINS: Why, a prince should not be so loosely studied as
to remember so weak a composition.
PRINCE HENRY: Belike then my appetite was not princely got; for,
by my troth, I do now remember the poor creature,
small beer. But, indeed, these humble
considerations make me out of love with my
greatness. What a disgrace is it to me to remember
thy name! or to know thy face to-morrow! or to
take note how many pair of silk stockings thou
hast, viz. these, and those that were thy
peach-coloured ones! or to bear the inventory of thy
shirts, as, one for superfluity, and another for
use! But that the tennis-court-keeper knows better
than I; for it is a low ebb of linen with thee when
thou keepest not racket there; as thou hast not done
a great while, because the rest of thy low
countries have made a shift to eat up thy holland:
and God knows, whether those that bawl out the ruins
of thy linen shall inherit his kingdom: but the
midwives say the children are not in the fault;
whereupon the world increases, and kindreds are
I like that passage. Small beer's shame and weakness compared to the proper royal route that the young misguided Prince Harry should be taking. Imagine only having one pair of peach-coloured socks... or having to drink small beer. It reminds us that lower alcohol beer is a phenomenon of our culture inspired by either relative poverty as in the stratified status-based pre-democratic culture or, later, forms of the temperance movement since the 1800s. In the New York of lighter lagers in the 1890s, one old man remembered the stronger mightier Albany ale of his youth with fondness.
How do session beers of today's trademarking advocates fit into that? Flavourful and flowing, we are told. Beer fit for the length of the day or at least the evening. Can the movement get all these connotations right as well as the price? These things come into play when we weaken the beer. I suppose that is what Lew is out to prove with his Session Beer Day this Saturday.