Beer History – Louis Pasteur and his Revenge

In the world of science sometimes you have to put a little extra money on the table in order to attract the attention of some of the world’s greatest minds. So when the French Academy of Sciences put a 2 500 Franck prize for whoever could solve a question of beer in the 1800s French scientists were excited to bring beer into their labs. But the great Louis Pasteur decided to tackle this problem not for the money but for revenge.

For more interesting history on beer check our Beer & Witches – How a Brewer becomes a Witch.

The War

A portrait of Louis Pasteur

By 1870, Louis Pasteur had already revolutionized several industries thanks to his scientific breakthroughs. Advancing germ theory, milk production, vaccinations for several diseases, and strangely enough doing work with silkworms that allowed for faster silk production. World events would set the greatest mind in biology at the time on a path of research and revenge.

In 1870, beer was probably one of the last things on the mind of Louis P. In July France declared war on the Northern German Federation. After years of provocation and some incendiary telegrams. While the French did manage to score a couple of early victories it quickly became clear that the great French military minds of two generations prior were long gone. And by September the Germans were approaching Paris. After besieging the city for 4 months the French were finally forced to surrender in January of 1871. Handing the French a humiliating defeat and set up a rivalry that would last through the end of the Second World War. the Franco Prussian has had a big effect on many French and German citizens.

Louis Pasteur work on fermentation

Louis Pasteur doing experiments with beer.

Louis Pasteur was enraged and saddened by the events. First, his son enlisted to fight in the war. And although he wasn’t a casualty there’s no doubt that parental concern weighed heavily on him. Second, his work had brought a lot of prestige to France. Making them envy of the world scientific community especially in biology. But all this national pride was quickly erased by the French defeat. Perhaps most importantly it was that Louis Pasteur was in negotiations with the French government to construct a new lab when the war broke out.

He elected to take out his frustration in the best way he knew how, with science. The French Academy of Sciences put a bounty on proving what causes fermentation. Pasteur immediately got to work on a series of experiments using filtered grape juice. When he looked at the sample under the microscope he clearly saw yeast cells. He proved once and for all that yeast were the party turning grapes into wine, barley into beer. But he didn’t stop there.

Now that he knew yeast was the microorganism responsible for fermentation he wanted to know what other microorganisms did to a batch of good beer. In 1876, he published a book Studies in beer which outlined his findings. To leave no doubt as to his motivations for studying beer Pasteur wrote the following first paragraph.

Our misfortunes inspired me with the idea of these researches. I undertook them immediatelly after the war of 1870 and have since continued them without interruption. With the determination of perfecting them and thereby benefiting a branch of industry wherein we are undoubtedly surpassed by Germany.

Lous Pasteur, Studies in beer

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