In the days before proper sanitation, drinking water could be very dangerous. There are many waterborne parasites (like the amoebas that cause dysentery) and pathogens (like cholera) and as people formed settlements and cities, these diseases were easily spread. Fear of drinking the water was so strong that in
1620 when Puritan settlers arrived in Massachusetts instead the intended Virginia, they choose to stay rather than risk taking on water from their new landfall. They had run out of beer.
Its not the alcohol that makes drinking beer safer than drinking untreated water. When you brew beer, you boil the wort and this kills most of the dangerous microbes. Of course the Pilgrims did not know this, they just knew that when you drink water you run the risk of getting sick and when you drink beer, you don’t. Of course, there are other properties of beer, and drinking strong ale all the time has its negative effects as well, chiefly the effects of alcohol and the expense of making the beer.
Small beer is made of the “second runnings” from a strong beer’s mash. In an attempt to glean all the fermentable sugars from a wort, a brewer of small beer subjects the grains in the mash tun to second sparge, lautering a weaker but still fermentable
wort. Small beer contains much less alcohol but this wort is boiled during the brewing process also has no waterborne pathogens. Furthermore, because it is made from “left
over” grains, the cost to produce small beer is quite low making economical and safe to drink in large quantities. Small beer would be served to children, servants, and workmen engaged in heavy physical labor. This is also the beer you would serve those
unwelcome house guests imposed on you by the Quartering Act of 1765.
Because small beer is light in body and not highly intoxicating, the military soon began to refer to it with the derisive term — Act of Parliament. According to Francis Grave’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1796), an “Act of Parliament” is a military term for small beer (which by Act of Parliament, each landlord was required to provide five pints of to every soldier quartered in his property, gratis). While the Quartering Act demanded colonist provide room and board (including beer) to the British soldiers stationed in Boston, it did not have to be the best food and beer.
Soldiers, like slaves, get small beer.
So the bad news is these are beers made from the left-overs. Sort of like Bubble and Squeak, refried beans, or fried rice. The good news is you can have a couple, maybe more and suffer no ill effects. Enjoy, its safer than drinking the water!
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