After a wait of several years, I finally got to sit down recently with a bottle each of Anchor Small Beer and the brewery's Old Foghorn barley wine. For those who don't know, these two beers from the San Francisco brewery are made from the same mash, with Old Foghorn fermented from the high-gravity first runnings and Small Beer a product of running water through the grain a second time to wash out a lesser amount of the sugars for a weaker final result. Making multiple beers of descending strengths is a throwback to the days before commercial brewing, and Anchor are the only ones I know of who are doing it today.
I started with the Small Beer, which comes in a large 66cl bottle, with the tiny label accentuating its bigness. I figured that this 3.2% ABV ale wasn't one for considered sipping, so it all went into a large mug to be quaffed. Unfortunately, it proved an impossible task: this beer is far too fizzy for that kind of thing. Genteel mouthfuls are forced upon the drinker by the bubbles, making it entirely unsuitable as a thirst-quencher and a failure as a small beer as a result. But there is a lot going for it otherwise: the body is an attractive dark red-gold colour and the nose is redolent of a hoppiness I can only describe as "beery": that funky aromatic smell that I most associate with English bitters. We don't get much of the hop flavours in the taste -- instead there's a slightly severe acid bitterness which could do with being tempered by some malt sweetness. And there's also the rough carbonation, making it quite a difficult sup, all in all. The finish combines the carbonic dryness with the hops bitters to leave the drinker in need of something altogether more quenching afterwards.
I knew Old Foghorn wouldn't be it, fully aware that the 9.4% ABV monster would be as big and bitter as the day is long. But I was wrong. Yes it's a big beer, no doubt, but big in unusual places. The hops are out in force, of course, but they're remarkably fruity, imparting a kind of fresh orange juice flavour that's actually quite refreshing. The malt, meanwhile, puts an almost chocolatey base on this: biscuity sweet and not the syrupy soupy thing you sometimes get with strong beers like this. All in all it's quite easy-going. There's maybe a slightly off-putting cloying sweetness in the aroma, but none of that transfers to the palate: there it's a gentle soothing sipper with light carbonation and only a slight aftertaste, to keep the drinker coming back for more.
I honestly can't say I see any relationship between these beers. They're both very much hop-driven, and are hopped according to rather different recipes. Why they didn't think to put more late hops for flavour and aroma into the Small Beer I will never know. Still, Old Foghorn saves the day and I'll be having this one again.