“Small beer” and “hard cheese”

A line in David Carr’s column in the New York Times a couple of days ago caught my eye: “Fumbling an editorial change may seem like small beer when viewed against the backdrop of an industry in which bankruptcies are legion and rich business interests are buying newspapers as playthings.”

I wasn’t familiar with small beer, but it had the ring of a NOOB, so I investigated. The first OED definition is “Beer of a weak, poor, or inferior quality” (what Americans might call near beer). The second, by extension, relates to Carr’s meaning: “Trivial occupations, affairs, etc.; matters or persons of little or no consequence or importance; trifles.” Or, what Americans would typically term small potatoes.

Although Shakespeare does use the term in “Othello,” the OED quotes Joseph Addison rather purposely and self-consciously crafting the metaphor in 1710:  “As rational Writings have been represented by Wine; I shall represent those Kinds of Writings we are now speaking of, by Small Beer.” The next quotation is from John Adams, who wrote in 1777, “The torment of hearing eternally reflections upon my constituents, that they are..smallbeer [sic],..is what I will not endure.”
Adams, of course, was an American, and therefore small beer isn’t a NOOB along the lines of gobsmacked or toff. But I do classify it as a “Historical NOOB.” Back in 1777, there wasn’t any, or much, difference between the way Englishmen and Americas used the language. Over the years, however, this particular expression, like many others, acquired a British patina; all post-1777 OED citations are British. The Google Ngram chart below shows use of the phrase in Britain (red line) and the U.S. (blue line) between 1900 (by which time it was mostly used metaphorically) and 2008. Up until the mid-2000s, it was used between two and three times more frequently in Britain.
Google’s data goes up only to 2008, but I would imagine that by now blue and red lines have met, or are about to. That is, small beer is getting some U.S. traction.  Stanford Professor David M. Kennedy, writing for CNN after the recent election, regretted that “as committed a change agent as Obama is doomed to four more years of nothing more than Lilliputian, small-beer tinkering.” In September, a Los Angeles Times writer observed, “Of course, in San Diego a dispute that has lasted only a decade is but small beer.”
Another colorful British food metaphor has had less success over here. I refer to hard cheese, i.e, “tough luck.” (That brings to mind another Britishism, the one-word sentence that’s a favorites of sports commentators, “Unlucky!” No spottings here as yet and I don’t expect there ever to be.) A fair amount of hard cheese searching yielded only a couple of hits, both of them facetious. In 1990, New York Times columnist Tom Wicker channeled the notoriously preppy then-President George H.W. Bush: ”Gee, fellows, we can talk about anything but maybe the graduated income-tax thing; but, golly, if there’s going to be an increase, sorry, hard cheese, but you Democrats have to propose it. Then I’ll just have to tell the taxpayers I’m going along only because you big tax-and-spenders left me no choice.” And a St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist wrote in 2007: “It’s a cold, cruel, capitalist world out there, Bunky. You put in your 20 years in the gunk at the chemical plant and one day . . . whack! It’s all over. It’s hard cheese for you and your family.”
All the rest of the American uses I encountered referred either to dairy products or to baseball, where the expression is an accepted elegant variation for fastball. From a New York Times recap of a 2010 game: “So, at 3-0, Robertson threw Young some hard cheese at the knees for a strike.”

26 thoughts on ““Small beer” and “hard cheese”

  1. I’ve heard very few Americans use the term “near beer,” and those who did were living in the expat community in Saudi Arabia. Near beer was the descriptor for the non-alcoholic beer you could buy (Moussy) in local supermarkets. I’ve never heard “small beer” before, but based on your description I’d apply it to the mass-market light beers (Bud Light, Coors Light, Miller Lite).

    1. Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions defines “near beer” as: “beer with less than 1/2 percent alcohol content. (Originally from the Prohibition era.)”

  2. Small Beer, I am led to believe, is beer not made with hops.
    Hops were not introduced to Britain until the 16thC and before then, the rather bland tasting beer was spruced up with honey or spices of fruit.
    It is mentioned in Vanity Fair by Thackeray – I think it’s Joseph, who has a massive hangover and can only handle small beer for breakfast.

  3. I would say small beer is lighter strength beer. But of course is one of those terms that is never used when drinking beer.

    As for hard cheese I bring your attention to the alternative: “tough cheddar”.

  4. I think you should have said: ““Beer of a weak, poor, or inferior quality” (what Americans might call domestic beer)” 😛

  5. I’d like to think we’ve done our part in the last ten years or so to bring the phrase small beer over to the USA!

    BTW, small beer doesn’t mean nonalcoholic (aka “near beer”) beer. A real brewer can explain it better, but it has something to do with making a second brewing from the same mash so that you can drink your small beer in the morning instead of dying of some kind of water-borne illness.

    1. Exactly so. I first ran into the term small beer back in my brewing days, reading a book on making Scotch Ales.

      The “first runnings” of heated water through the mash produced a gyle (or wort) higher in sugar content and held aside for brewing strong ales. The small beers were brewed from the “second runnings” with less sugar and therefore lower alcoholic potential.

  6. I think you’re off the mark with the idea that small beer is inferiror. In the days before reliable, clean water supplies, it was customary for everyone to drink beer (in Norhern Europe: it was wine in the South.) The alcohol has antibacterial properties, as we now know, and was deemed safer. Even children drank beer, so for them (and women…) a weaker brew was made, called small beer.

    In the UK, we tend to use beer for the hoppy, paler, bitter brews; ale is usually darker, sweeter, and not hoppy.

  7. JohnUK is almost right: EVERYBODY drank small beer, not just women and children, it was the beer made from the second (or third) mashing of the malted grain, when much of the fermentable sugar had already been flushed out, and therefore it was automatically weaker, and it would be the standard mealtime drink for all. John Barrett is wrong: ‘beer’ was ALWAYS made with hops, and small beer contained hops because, being low in alcohol, without the hops it would go off quickly. But small beer wasn’t “near beer”: it probably contained 4 per cent alcohol by volume. Shakespeare mentions small beer at least a couple of times: small beer, according to Prince Hal in Henry IV, is a “poor creature”, and he asks Poins: “Doth it not show vilely in me to desire small beer?”

    1. The terminology of beer and ale in English has changed over the centuries. The term “beer” was introduced (borrowed from Dutch) along with the practice of adding hops to the brew. I think this was in the 16th century. It took some time before the practice of adding the hops became universal in Britain, and during that period “beer” referred to hopped brews, and the older English word “ale” referred to non-hopped brews. This vocabulary changed again when another innovation was introduced from the continent: the practice of lagering the beer (lagered beer is made from a different kind of yeast, and undergoes a two-stage fermentation – the second fermentation stage is called “lagering” from the German word for storing the beer). After that point the technical terminology of brewing changed again and the old word “ale” was now repurposed to mean non-lagered beers. So the current situation is that “beer” is a generic term, and “lager” and “ale” are species distinguished by what kind of yeast is used and the brewing process itself.
      Anyway, that’s the way the terms are used in technical discussions among brewers and xythophiles. In ordinary usage British people refer to British-style beers as “ale” and use lager to refer specifically to the light pilsener-style that are the default drinks at bars all across Europe (beers like Stella Artois, Heinecken, Becks, Carlsberg, etc. etc.)
      In America only beer-lovers use the word “lager” and they tend to use it in the technical sense.
      The article on “porter” in the old OED, by the way, included a great mini-treatise on the terminology of beer. Unfortunately the editors of the 2nd Edition of that estimable work trimmed out most of that little essay.

  8. I am surprised by your reference to, “what Americans would typically term small potatoes.” I have heard this expression in England all my life, albeit infrequently. I remember my grandmother, born in 1891 in a North Devon farming community, telling how, in their teens, she and her two sisters would doll themselves up before parading off to delight the young men at a local dance. “We”, she concluded, “thought no small teddies of ourselves.”
    Teddies being Devonshire slang for potatoes.

  9. I’m a keen English reader of this blog and have never heard the phrase “small-beer” either written or spoken, until now! You learn something new every day, I guess.

  10. Hi Ben! WE haven;t seen much of each other since New Rochelle days. Surely hard cheese, while good Brit speak for tough luck or tough times is bad baseball. It’s high cheese for the fastball up in the batter’s eyes. I suppose it could be hard cheese for a low fastball…but those are often turned around a long ways. All the best.

    David Reed

    1. David, you’re absolutely right–“high cheese” is the preferred usage. More important, great to hear from you after, oh, 35 years! I remember that you were always an astute observer of baseball lingo–in particular, a discourse about the philosophical implications of the (fielding) concept of a “chance” comes to mind. I still think about that one.–Ben

  11. Anyone remember the British actor Terry-Thomas?. He of the diastema who appeared in such films in ‘Monte-Carlo or bust’ as well as ‘School for Scoundrels’ and many others?. He was always saying ‘hard cheese’, much to the endless irritation of those he most foully outwitted.

  12. small beer was a necessity for most folk … it was the best way to remain hydrated short of taking the very real risk of contracting cholera … morning milk was not safe for children past midday so small beer was a staple of most households

  13. Alas, being a drinker of bitter rather than lager, I’m disappointed these days by the number of young bar staff who look bemused when you ask for a pint of best!

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