A Lesson in Restraint: Getting to Know Table Beer

Credit: Photograph by Andrew Testani

Beer, at its best, is a communal liquid: a conversation starter, the excuse we offer to meet and catch up. It also pulls double duty by lubricating the banter. And there are few styles better suited for this than table beer, a light-bodied, low-alcohol ale that arose in 19th-century Belgium. Its brilliance is its simplicity. There's no abrasive hop flavor or fruity kick. It's just there, going down easy. “It doesn't have to be commented upon for you to enjoy it," says Greg Doroski, head brewer at Brooklyn's Threes Brewing.

As the name suggests, table beer also goes extremely well with food — delicate enough for seafood, robust enough for roast chicken. Invite some friends, crack a bottle, set out cheese and charcuterie, and the buzz comes from good times, not from the booze.

Table beer was once so popular and widely accepted that Belgian schoolkids drank a 2- to 3-percent ABV version of the stuff well into the 20th century. It fell out of favor after hop aficionados took over the beer world. Today, though, domestic producers have embraced the tough-to-define tipple. “It's more of a concept than a style," says Jason Perkins, brewmaster of Allagash Brewing, in Portland, Maine, noting that table beer can be light or dark, malty or dry. One commonality is that it's often served in large bottles, the better to plop down with a spread of food and share.

For brewers, table beer has become a low-ABV way to create an eminently refreshing beer. For example, Threes' wheat-laced table beer has a light lemony kick, leaving you thirsty for more. “I was motivated by this idea of sitting at a table and drinking with a few friends," says Doroski. “We want a beer people can drink a pitcher of. It's beer, after all."

Four to Try

Jester King Le Petit Prince Farmhouse Table Beer, 2.9 percent ABV. This bubbly, bone-dry Texas beer with its wee ABV is a flawless lunchtime sip.

Allagash Hoppy Table Beer, 4.8 percent ABV. The Maine-brewed ale has a high alcohol content for table beer, but oats help smooth it out and American hops add grapefruit and pine aromas.

Brasserie Dupont Avril, 3.5 percent ABV. Pair the Belgian farmhouse brewery's spicy, herbal archetype with plenty of cheese, cured meats, and friends.

Kent Falls Farmer's Table, 3.8 percent ABV. The Connecticut brewery's table beer crackles like tinder, its citrus scent courtesy of Cascade hops.