Low in alcohol and full of flavor, Belgian-style table beers are headed to a restaurant near you.
by Joshua M. Bernstein
Last year, an Arizona mom eating at a pizzeria made headlines when she allegedly filled her son’s sippy cup with beer. Outrage was immediate. So was her arrest. While we’re not advocating getting a toddler trashed, it’s interesting how one nation’s indignation is another country’s tradition.
French families often pour their children watered-down wine, educating them about respecting alcohol and its polite place in everyday life. While neighboring Belgium is not so wild for wine, families also teach their offspring a similar lesson with tafelbier—Flemish for “table beer.” Traditionally served with meals, tafelbiers are light-bodied and low in alcohol (usually less than 3% ABV), yet still remain flavorful. While table beers were so prevalent that they used to be served to Belgian schoolchildren in lieu of milk, the lightly boozy tradition has waned in recent years due to the rise of bottled water and, more prevalently, soft drinks.
Across the Atlantic Ocean, American brewers have begun to take a keen interest in crafting low-ABV tafelbiers. They’re affable companions to lunch, dinner or whenever you crave a beer but not a buzz. In Indiana, New Albanian offers Tafelbier, while California’s Heretic makes the slightly stronger Tafelbully with Brettanomyces. The wild yeast also appears in Stillwater Artisanal Ales’ earthy, refreshing Beer Table Table Beer, while Massachusetts’ session beer–focused Notch Brewing dials up Belgian yeast and European hops for its Tafelbier. It’s a style-appropriate 2.8% ABV, a low number that appeals to Notch’s brewer, Chris Lohring.
“For me, it’s the ultimate anytime beer,” says Lohring, who sees tafelbier as an ideal accompaniment to outdoor sports or daylong barbecuing. While his dry, thirst-quenching Tafelbier packs flavor aplenty, the dainty ABV means “you have to drink serious volume to get inebriated.”
Producing a beer suited for any-time imbibing was important for Ron Extract, the co-owner at Texas-based Jester King Craft Brewery. “We drink quite a lot around the brewery, and Le Petit Prince is our quenching beverage of choice,” Extract says of the 2.8%-ABV “farmhouse table beer.” The bottle-conditioned easy-sipper is smooth and effervescent, with a spicy, grassy profile and a touch of tartness. You can gulp Le Petit Prince like Gatorade and not feel worse for the wear. “It’s a beverage for people who enjoy the flavor of beer,” says Extract, who sees Le Petit Prince as an ideal lunchtime beer, something one person can take down by the bottle—a 750ml bottle. “It contains less alcohol than a 12-ounce bottle of most West Coast IPAs,” Extract says. “Your body will absorb the majority of alcohol before you finish the meal.”
To test his hypothesis, I took two friends and three bottles of Le Petit Prince to my favorite BYOB restaurant in Brooklyn, The Islands. The Caribbean restaurant specializes in spicy jerk chicken, curry goat and slow service—a perfect recipe for savoring table beer. After climbing the precarious stairs to our second-floor table, I filled my friends’ glasses with hazy Prince and gave simple instructions: “Drink as much as you want.” They did as bade. Consumed without food, the spritzy table beer was enjoyable, if slightly tame for taste buds accustomed to bitter IPAs and roasty stouts.
But when our platters of jerk chicken, curry goat and coconut shrimp arrived some 30 minutes later, the table beer demonstrated its merit. The Prince handily tamed the fiery fare without competing for our taste buds’ attention. The water pitcher sat untouched as the second bottle disappeared, then a third. Ron Extract was right: One wine-size bottle of table beer was the perfect amount for a single person.
We drained the last drops from our glasses, then stood up and descended the stairs, eagerly anticipating the next time we could pull up a dinner chair with table beer.