Category Archives: Lager

The Lager Revolution Part 2: Pilsner Spreads Across Europe

Last time here on Revelations in Fermentation, we discussed the origins of Pilsner in Bohemia and the quality ingredients that came together to create it.  In Part 2 of the series, we will take a look at how innovations in technology helped Pilsner spread across Europe and become the most popular beer in the world.

For most people, the first beer that they ever tried was a Pilsner.  Bud, Miller, Coors; each of these companies flagship products are brewed with a nod to the original Czech Pilsner.  How did a beer from such a small Bohemian town come to be so popular?

One of the most important innovations that contributed to Pilsner’s popularity was glass.  This may seem strange to us, as the modern drinker is accustomed to drinking beer from a glass.  Craft beer lovers would never dream of drinking their favorite brew from anything but.  Proper glassware not only allows the drinker to fully appreciate the aroma of the beer, but it allows them to appreciate the look of the beer as well.  Pour yourself a well made Czech Pilsner today and you will be greeted by the clean, spiciness of Saaz hops, a noble variety that has been prized for centuries for its aroma and flavor.  You will also be dazzled by the brilliant clarity of the straw colored liquid, as well as the thick layer of pure white foam that sits on top.

Looks tasty.

Drinking beer from a glass, however, is a relatively modern novelty, considering the 10000 plus years of brewing history.  For much of beers history, it was consumed from opaque vessels made of clay, metal, or even leather coated with tar.  Glass was expensive, and glassware had to be hand blown by highly skilled craftsman.  Thus, glass was only affordable for the wealthy.  That is, until the mid 19th century, when machine made glassware turned what was once an expensive display of wealth into the standard drinking vessel.  Now everyone could enjoy their beer from a glass.

Still, despite the ready availability of clear glassware by the mid 19th century, the dark, often turbid brews that were commonplace at this point in history were not necessarily pleasing to the eye.  Pilsner; the clear, golden, bubbly brew; stood in stark contrast to these beers.  This new beer was a sight to see, and when combined with the proper glassware, it proved to be irresistible.

No great idea remains uncopied, and beer is no exception.  Pilsner’s popularity within its home town soon led to the founding of several breweries in the area, all trying to cash in on the original product.  Thanks to the railroad, which had become a viable means of transport in Europe only a couple of decades earlier, these beers quickly spread all over Bohemia, and soon found their way into Bavaria and other European states.  This led to other brewers trying to imitate the new beer.  There were a few problems, however.

As I mentioned in the previous article, Plzen is blessed with extremely soft water, a characteristic that allowed the malt and the hops to come forward without having to compete with any flavor contributions from the water.  Munich, the lager capital of Europe, was not blessed with such water.  The high alkalinity of Munich’s water supply meant that any effort to reproduce Pilsner exactly would lead to a bitterness that was too sharp, since alkalinity exaggerates bitterness.  The Spaten brewery in Munich understood this, but also knew that they needed to create a beer to compete with the pale lagers coming from Bohemia.  There solution was to develop a lager that held all of the physical characteristics (clarity, golden color, effervescence), but emphasized the malt profile rather than the hops. In 1894 they unveiled their new beer, which would come to be called Munich Helles.

For most of beers history, brewers were limited to producing only the beers that were best brewed in their areas.  Darker beers do best with a highly carbonate water supply, which is why London and Dublin are famous for their darker ales.  Burton-on-Trent became famous for its hoppy, pale ales because the water was better suited to producing these beers than London’s was.  It would not be until the second quarter of the 20th century that brewing science advanced to the point that brewers were able to adjust the chemistry of their water to fit the profile needed to replicate any beer in the world.

Advances in the study of yeast were the next steps towards Pilsner’s dominance.  Recall from last week that Bavaria had been brewing bottom fermenting beers solely for 300 years before the advent of Pilsner.  Over those three centuries, by culturing only the yeast from successful batches, brewers were able to develop yeast cultures well suited for the cool, bottom fermenting conditions that produced the beer they loved.  This made it easy for them to go on and develop similar pale lager styles that could compete with beer flowing from Plzen.  Other brewers were handicapped until the late 19th century when Christian Emil Hansen, who worked for the Carlsberg Brewery in Copenhagen, was successful at isolating the yeast strain responsible for bottom fermentation.  Before this, all yeast cultures were a mixture of several different strains.  Hansen had created the world’s first single-cell yeast culture.  Single-cell cultures produce a more consistent beer because there is less risk of infection from wild yeast mixed in with the brewer’s yeast.  Hansen’s work meant that any brewer, anywhere could brew consistently good lagers without the centuries of trial and error that the German’s had to endure.

Artificial refrigeration was the last piece necessary for Pilsner to take its hold on the beer world.  An American, Alexander Twining, developed the first commercial refrigeration unit in 1859.  The Spaten Brewery in Munich installed an advanced model developed by German engineer Carl von Linde in 1873 and by the end of the 19th century these units were common pieces of equipment in all large scale breweries.  Artificial refrigeration was vital to the spread of Pilsner because it no longer limited lager brewing to colder climates during the colder months of the year.

In 1842, the beer that was destined to conquer the world was born.  A few innovations in science and technology were all that stood in its way towards fulfilling that destiny.  Check back next week for Part 3 of the series The Lager Revolution: Pilsner in America.

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Posted by on November 14, 2011 in Beer History, Lager, Pilsner, Uncategorized


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The Lager Revolution Part 1: The Origin of Pilsner

The story of the success of Pilsner is one of quality ingredients, innovation, and relentless marketing.  In this three part series, I will discuss the origins of Pilsner, its spread across Europe and the rest of the world, and finally finish off by focusing on its modern day manifestations.

Pilsner was invented in the Bohemian town of Plzen (Modern day Czech Republic) in 1842.  Many factors had to come together in the early half of the 19th century in order for the beer that would eventually take over the world to come into existence.

First, the invention of indirect kilning made it possible to produce very light colored malt on a large scale for the first time in history.  Other methods existed to produce light malt, such as air drying, but these were not practical on a commercial scale.  For ages, malt had been kilned using direct heat, which made it very difficult to control temperature and thus only brown colored beers were possible.  Even English Pale Ales, which had been popular for 50 years or so at this point, were only called “pale” because they were less dark than porters, stouts, and the other brown beers that were available to English drinkers at the time.

The ability to produce light colored malt is nothing, however, without good barley.  Luckily, the barley that grew in the area around Plzen was already considered some of the best in Europe.  Saaz hops, which grow native in the Czech Republic, were also prized.  Saaz is classified as one of just four noble hop varieties, which are treasured throughout the beer making world as those with the best aroma and flavor.  On top of this, the town of Plzen is blessed with incredibly soft water.  The lack of dissolved minerals in the towns water supply meant that the flavors and aromas of their cherished malt and hops were allowed to shine through without having to compete with any flavors from the water.

But wait, what about the yeast?  Beer can’t become beer without yeast.  Recall back to my last article in which I wrote about the ban on summer brewing in Bavaria in 1553.  This essentially equated to a ban on ale brewing.  Over the next three centuries, Bavaria’s reputation for producing outstanding bottom fermenting beers, by then known as lagerbier,  had spread throughout Europe.  Although single strain yeast cultures were still about a half century away, the yeast used by Bavarian brewers had become quite adapt to bottom fermentation by 1842.  Sources are unable to agree about how this yeast made its way to Plzen.  Some say that a Bohemian monk traveled to Bavaria to learn the secrets of lager brewing, and smuggled back a sample of the yeast.  Others claim that it was a run away Bavarian monk that brought it into Bohemia.  Still other sources say that both of these stories are hogwash.  No matter how it got there, the Bohemians were able to score some primo yeast.  Lager yeast, when handled properly, produces no flavors of its own, unlike ale yeast, which produces fruity esters and spicy phenols.  Much like the regions soft water, this clean fermentation allowed the malt and the hops to play the staring roles.

And so, from the combination of each of these ingredients, Pilsner was born.  Check back next week for the second installment in the series, The Lager Revolution Part 2: Pilsner Spreads Across Europe.


Posted by on November 6, 2011 in Beer History, brewing, Lager, Pilsner


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What sort of beer is Ale and Lager?

Today, at work, a man approaches me and asks me this:

“I am looking to try a new beer.  I am an ale and lager sort of guy.  What can you recommend?”

For the many of you out there that already know the difference between ale and lager, this statement should make you want to pound your head against the wall.  For the few that don’t, let me break it down for you.  All beer falls into one of two categories, those being ales or lagers.  Ales use a top fermenting yeast and ferment at relatively warm temperatures while lagers use a bottom fermenting yeast and require much colder temperatures to become active.  So basically, without realizing it, this guy told me he likes ALL beers.

I wish I could say that the above statement is unique.  Sadly, it is one of the most common things I hear working at a beer bar.  One of the first bits of knowledge that the inquisitive beer lover seeks is the difference between ale and lager.  Most casual drinkers never bother to find out and so the majority of those out there don’t have a clue.  For those that are here seeking the difference, the short answer is above, but allow me to go into the details about what these terms have meant throughout history.

The History of Ale

For much of beers history, hops were not used in the recipe.  Instead, a combination of other spices were used to balance the sweetness of the malted grains.  This mixture, though it differed from place to place, was known as gruit.  In many places, such as Germany, brewers were legally required to purchase gruit from whomever held the local right to sell it.  This was almost always the ruling power in the area and so this requirement essentially equated to an early form of tax on beer.

It wasn’t until around the year 1000 CE that hops began to be used in beer.  They first appear in Northern Germany in independent cities that were beyond control of the Church and so were allowed to use what ever ingredients that they chose in their recipes.  Word got around Europe,  albeit slowly, and by the year 1500 CE hops began to be used in England.

With the introduction of the uses of hops in brewing, the English began referring to the new hopped beverage as “beer” and the traditional unhopped stuff as “ale.”  By the year 1600, however, nearly all beers brewed in England utilized hops, and so the terms “ale” and “beer” became synonymous.  For centuries “ale” fell out of favor and beer was the word for everyone’s favorite drink.

Things changed again in the 18th century, when porter, stout and pale ale were introduced to the English drinker.  The term “beer” began to be used to refer to porter and stout while “ale” came to designate both the pale, bitter beers that were beginning to pop up around England, as well as the brown, mild beers that for ages had been known simply as “mild.”  The modern definition of ale would only emerge after the Lager Revolution in the middle of the 19th century.

The Evolution of Lager

For thousands of years, yeast was a mystery.  No one knew how wort turned into beer, they just knew that if they followed a few practices passed down to them, magic would happen.  Brewers yeast naturally grows on the surface of grapes.  Often, whole grapes were thrown into the mix, jump starting the process.  Vikings used to stir their brews with a stick that had been passed down from generation to generation.  They believed that the stick held magical properties that produced the beer they sought.  It is pretty clear to us that the stick simply had dried yeast left on it from the last brew it was used to stir.

Jump forward a half a millennium or so to Bavaria and you will discover that the original text of the Reinheitsgebot in 1516 restricts brewers to only three ingredients: Barley, hops, and water.  It would still be a few hundred years before the role of yeast was understood.

In 1553, in a continued effort to control beers purity, summer brewing was outlawed by authorities in Bavaria.  For ages, Bavarian brewers had realized that even when the recipes were exactly identical, beers brewed in the summer tasted different than beers brewed in the winter.  No single yeast cultures existed back then, and so the yeast that fermented their beers was certainly a mix of both the ale and lager species, along with a few wild yeasts here and there.  During the hotter summer months, the warmer fermenting ale yeasts became active, while during the colder months these yeasts went dormant and lager yeasts took over.  While drinkers in Bavaria enjoyed the fruity, spicy beers that were produced in the summer, warmer temps left too much room for error.  Summer brews often suffered from off flavors, yet were still passed on to the consumer.  In order to minimize the chance that bad beer was put up for sale, the summer brewing ban was put into place.  Without realizing it, the Bavarian authorities had banned ale brewing as well.

In German, beer came to be known as Lagerbier, or “beer brewed for keeping” since it was often stored in cool caves through the summer months so that it would be ready to drink by fall.  Over the next three centuries, Bavaria’s reputation for brewing outstanding bottom fermenting lagerbiers  spread.  These beers began to be replicated, first by Bohemian brewers in Plzen in the middle of the 19th century, then by brewers all over Europe.  This is when English speakers adopted the shorted version “lager” to describe bottom fermenting beers that were matured at cold temperatures.

An entire post can easily be dedicated to the Lager Revolution and its resonant effects on beer today, and one certainly will be.  For now, let this be enough to satisfy any readers out there about the origins of ale and lager.

I would also like to invite any readers out there to comment and let me know of any errors I may have made.  These articles are written based on the research I have done for the Certified Cicerone exam, and so the research is by no means compete.  I will look into any inaccuracies brought forward and possibly edit the post based on this new information.

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Posted by on November 2, 2011 in Ale, Beer History, Lager


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