The Hidden History of Lager Beer

The craft beer community is obsessed with more recent developments. But the biggest change in the beer world is far older. Historians love to study how lagers the world’s most popular beers emerged in Northern Europe in the 18th and the 19th centuries.

These beers are clear in appearance and deliver a crisp taste that makes them incredibly refreshing and popular. Such characteristics lend themselves well to the cool mountain climates of Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic.

In case you are interested to learn more about another great beer style check our History of the German Kolsch Beer.

Two glasses of lager beer on a wooden table with a bottle opener, a cap, and a bottle.
Credit: https://www.liquor.com/best-lager-beers-5089363

The popular origin story

Recent evidence suggests that another area of the world thousands of miles away may have played a key role in the emergence of this major beer family. Isolation was favorable for the monks in the Middle Ages. And when they built monasteries they carved their beer cellars into the rocky hills.

It didn’t take them long to realize that if they pack the caves they dug with ice from the rivers around them they could have cold storage for their brews well into the summer months. This storage technique made their beers much more stable. Eliminating the spoilage the brewers in warmer areas faced each summer.

Yeast would sink to the bottom of the barrel and these cool stored beers quickly began changing the yeast from generation to generation. When the 19th century brought increased trade and early refrigeration technology along with German emigration around the world. Lager beer became the global powerhouse we know today. Dominating most beer markets with a major lager or pilsner brand in every beer-drinking country.

A paiting of three monks enjoying beer around a table during the Middle Ages.
Credit: https://www.portlandmercury.com/eat-and-drink-guide-spring-2019/2019/04/22/26363135/the-monk-made-beer-of-benedictine-brewing-upholds-a-historic-brewing-tradition

Genetics reveal a different story

There has been some new evidence over the past 10 years that threatens to turn this story on its head. While the beer cave evolution theory has been the most complete. It doesn’t seem that enough time has passed and the genetics between the two yeast strains don’t quite line up perfectly.

The missing link wouldn’t present itself until the archeological dig in 2011 in South America. A study published identifies the other strain native to the chili beans in the woods of Patagonia, in Southern Argentina. It was being used to ferment a low alcohol beverage by the native populations there 400 years before Germans began storing their beer in mountain caves.

All this genetic evidence suggests that lager yeast isn’t an evolution of traditional ale yeast from Europe and the Middle East. Rather lager yeast is a hybrid of ale yeast and yeast from Argentina. Lager yeast cold tolerance didn’t come from the cold hills of the Alps.

In the mid-1500s just before lagers began to rise ships sailing between the continents of Europe and North and South America were a common sight. Researchers believe that it would have been easy for yeast floating in and around South America to arrive in Europe on ship timbers or barrels. this appears to be how it happened genetically speaking. It seems very likely that yeast could have easily made the journey. Cheers.

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