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The birth of lager

Brewed in March, matured until September

Around this time of year, brewers start to send me malty, amber-red March beers. Some are labeled in French, Biere de Mars; more in German, as Marzenbier. Most beer lovers realize that brewing was once seasonal, but a March beer is a particularly poignant reminder of that. Throughout most of beer's history, March or April was the end of the brewing season. As I sample this season's beers, I am reminded how old and elemental an activity brewing is - and how intertwined are the nineteenth-century roots of today's lager beer styles.

When human beings stopped being nomadic hunters and gatherers, and began to farm, they grew cereal grain, especially wheat and barley, and brewed beer. Farmers were the first brewers, tilling, sowing and harvesting in spring and summer, brewing in fall and winter. Those seasonal imperatives apart, beer could not be fermented in summer, because the air was too full of stray yeasts.

Not that yeast was understood for most of the history of brewing. The first beer-makers simply left their brew I open vessels, in which airborne wild yeasts settled. The brew foamed, fermented, and turned into what I imagine was a very winey-tasting beer. Brewers didn't realize that the foam on top of fermenting beer comprised millions of yeast cells. They did, though, learn to scoop off that foam and use it as a starter for the next batch. Empirically, they were breeding, by selection, top-fermenting yeasts.

The Road to Munich

The first farmer-brewers were in the Middle East, in the fertile crescent from what is now Egypt to Iraq. As the cultivation of cereal grains spread, people to the south (in Africa) grew grains like millet, the lands to the east (in Asia) were more suitable for rice, but the north and west (Europe) favored wheat and barley. I believe that one of the paths of brewing led north and west through Armenia and the lands that became southern Russia, the Ukraine, Slovakia, Bohemia and Bavaria.

The last two became famous brewing regions. Both have plentiful supplies of good water from snowy mountain ranges, and each has the soil and climate to grow excellent barley and hops. All they needed to achieve greatness was a more scientific approach to brewing.

For that we have to thank St. Benedict (480-547 A.D.). Inspired by Jesus' time in the wilderness, St. Benedict fathered modern monasticism. His rules said that monks must support themselves. The early abbeys, in Italy, farmed, grew grapes and made wine for their tables. When the movement spread north across the Alps, the cooler climate favored barley and beer. As the church and the monasteries were the early seats of study and learning, so were they the birthplaces of brewing science.

Munich, the Bavarian capital, is known in German as Munchen, which means "monks." Among today's Munich breweries, the names Augustiner, Franziskaner and Paulaner bear witness to monastic origins. Just to the north of the city, the former Benedictine monastery of Weihenstephan ("Sacred Stephen") accommodates what is claimed to be the world's oldest brewery, said to date from 1040, and the most famous university faculty of brewing. Half a dozen or so breweries in Bavaria are still owned by religious orders.

From Ice Caves to Microscopes

The rivers that flow from the Bavarian Alps form broad, fertile valleys winding around small hills. The abbeys favored the isolation of hilltops, and carved beer cellars into the rock beneath. These could be packed with ice from the rivers, lakes and mountains. Some Munich brewers took their beer to ice-cold Alpine caves to store it during the summer for later use as needed. When stored (in German, lagered) in such cold temperatures during the summer months, the beer became inherently more stable. The yeast sank out of harm's way; empirically, the brewers were breeding bottom-fermenting cultures. It has been argued that the lagering of beer is mentioned in statutes of the city of Munich as long ago as 1420. This suggestion derives not from direct, dated evidence but from a book written almost four centuries later by Lorenz Westenrieder. The same book implies that yeast especially suited to this treatment came to Bavaria in the 1500s, from Bohemia. At the time, there was no clear distinction between brewers' and bakers' yeasts.

The difference between types of yeasts could only emerge as it was possible to view the microscopic cell structures. The first microscope was developed by the Dutchman, Anton van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), but it was a couple of centuries later before yeasts were truly understood.

One person credited as the "father" of modern brewing is Benno Scharl, born in 1741 in Seefeld, Bavaria. The basis for his renown is an early textbook on brewing techniques in which he referred to lagering, although the descriptions of yeast are vague. Scharl identified his beer as being "brown." Other references to malting at this time suggest that direct heat and high temperatures were employed in the kilning, and that would naturally produce a dark color.

The importance of Spaten

The most significant German brewery in the development of lager brewing was Spaten ("Spade"), which began as a brewpub in 1397, in the Old Town of Munich. It takes its name from George Spaeth, who became owner in 1622, but the most famous proprietors were the Sedlmayr family. Gabriel Sedlmayr I had been the brewmaster to the Bavarian royal court before he took over at Spaten in 1807.

Just as the abbeys were natural homes for breweries, so were royal palaces. Any big household would have a brewery, along with a bakery and a butchery to supply its estate. But by the 1800s the Industrial Revolution was under way, changing every aspect of life. It was from this period that so many of today's beer styles arose.

Before the invention of steam power, all breweries were in abbeys, big houses or pubs. It was difficult in those days to have a brewery on anything larger than a household scale. There is a limit to how much beer can be made if the sacks of grain have to be hoisted, the mash stirred, and the pumps operated by hand. Nor, before steam, could beer be transported farther than a horse could carry it.

The steamship and railway era changed all that. It also meant that brewers could travel farther to study brewing techniques. Such travels were traditionally a part of the beer maker's apprenticeship. In the manner of the day, Sedlmayr's son, Gabriel II, traveled to Prussia, Bohemia, Austria, Switzerland, Baden-Wurttemberg, the Rhineland, Belgium, The Netherlands and the British Isles. He formed a long-term friendship with an Austrian, Anton Dreher (whose name survives in beer brands in Hungary and Italy).

Sedlmayr's journeys continued for six years or more, in the late 1820s and early 1830s. Gabriel II noted that, as compared to the Bavarians, the Belgians and British has gentler techniques for drying the malt. The Prussians and British knew more about the extraction of fermentable sugars in the mashing. The English brewer, Bass, provided him with his first saccharometer, but elsewhere in Britain, Gabriel II and Dreher recalled that they "stole" samples of wort and yeast. They even commissioned the manufacture of a metal tube, with a hidden valve, for this purpose. "It always surprises me that we can get away with these thefts without being beaten up," Gabriel II wrote.

The British probably did not care. The island nation had used its sea power to explore and colonize half the world. Britain was a prosperous and industrially sophisticated nation. British brewers, never far from the coast, were already shipping beer to northern Europe and the Empire. There were still countless brewpubs in Britain but there the era of industrial brewing had already dawned. British brewers were far more advanced in the application of biochemical research, in temperature control throughout the production of beer, and in the use of steam power.

Gabriel II and Dreher went on to Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Newcastle, Edinburgh, and Alloa, among other brewing cities, picking up what knowledge they could. I have heard it argued in continental Europe that this British trip provided the foundation for the first methodological production of lager.

Later, when Gabriel II helped other German brewers, a notable participant in his work was Heinrich Boettinger from Baden-Wurttemberg. At college, Boettinger had known Justus von Liebig, the great chemist who had done pioneering work on yeast. Boettinger at one point worked in Britain, helping the Burton brewers, Allsopp, perfect a pale ale, the precursor of Double Diamond. Boettinger subsequently returned to Germany as a stockholder in Stuttgart Hofbrau, which still operates.

In 1836-39, after the death of Gabriel Sedlmayr I, his son took over the Spaten brewery, along with brother Josef. In 1840, he began a program of modernization, and in 1844, introduced steam power. In 1845, Gabriel bought out Josef.

The brewery was at this time perfecting dark brown lagers, the style you get in Bavaria today if you ask for a Dunkel or Dunkles. In the international brewing world, it is known as a Bavarian- or Munich-style lager. It became widely popular in German-speaking Europe during the 1830s and '40s. This style typically has the cleanness and roundness of a lager, married to the flavors of dark malts, perhaps slightly coffeeish and dry, even very faintly smoky, but not overtly roasty.

Lager brewing in Munich took a further leap forward later in the century with Von Linde's work on refrigeration, notably at the Paulaner brewery. This meant that cold lagering no longer required icy caves, and cold temperatures could be guaranteed at any time of year. Brewing need no longer be seasonal, though that notion never entirely faded. Often, the new equipment was installed in natural cellars that had previously accommodated ice. I have seen several such natural cellars in many of today's Bavarian breweries, and, for example, at the Yuengling brewery established in the Delaware Valley by a family from Baden-Wurttemberg.

Sedlmayr and Carlsberg

One of Gabriel Sedlmayr's students was Jacob Christian Jacobsen, who founded Carlsberg in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1845. He started his famous brewery with Spaten yeast, and at first made dark lagers.

At Carlsberg, a single-cell, pure-culture yeast was finally isolated nearly a half century later by a young brewery scientist named Emil Hansen, helped by the work of Pasteur. The exchange of information at this time formed an intricate web. One of Pasteur's collaborators was with the Marseilles brewery of Eugene Veltens, who had also spent time with Gabriel II.

The circumstances in which Jacobsen obtained the Spaten yeast are not clear but he and Gabriel II seem to have remained in friendly correspondence. Gabriel's friend, Anton Dreher had less easily acquired his family's brewery, in Vienna in 1836-39. He had to buy it from his mother. After trying unsuccesfully to borrow the money from relatives, he finally succeeded after marrying the daughter of a rich landowner.

In 1840-41 Dreher began to brew lager in Vienna. Unfortunately, accounts of brewing at that time are always vague about the aroma, color and taste of the beer. It is recorded that Dreher was concerned that his beer should be bright. Brews subsequently made to commemorate this period have always been amber-red, and I have always believed that was the color of Dreher's lager. Judging from what little we know of his process, and from the beers that have since proclaimed themselves to be of the Vienna style, I believe these beers typically to have been malt accented, perhaps with some barley-sugar aroma and flavor, but with a good hop balance.

The Austrian beer writer, Conrad Seidl, recently wrote to me with three historical references that in various respects bear out this belief. He feels that the beer nearest to this style currently being produced in Vienna is the Marzen of the brewpub, Siebenstern, in the street of the same name. Dreher's beer was very successful, and within a couple of decades, he had bought a castle brewery at Michelob, Bohemia. Later, he bought a brewery in Budapest.

In 1842, the town of Plzen, Bohemia, produced the world's first golden lager. This town perfectly illustrates a typical brewing history. Brewing began there in a monastery in the 1200s, but by the early 1800s was being carried out in brewpubs making top-fermented beers. The owners of several brewpubs had joined forces to build an industrial brewery. This brewery, today's Pilsner Urquell, produced the golden beer from its inception Accounts seem to suggest that the pale color-which made the beer so startlingly different at the time-was a happy accident. Similar stories are told of many famous drinks, and they usually strike me as being exaggerations. The owners had recruited their brewer, Josef Groll, from Vilshofen, Bavaria, to make a lager beer. He is depicted as a rough-cut, rural character, and not a natural innovator, but he had circumstance on his side.

The local barley was very low in protein, and that would have helped clarity. The brewery, which was brand new, had British-inspired maltings, using indirect heat, which produced a pale kilning. While other brewing cities had water high in various minerals, Plzen's was very soft. In particular, it was innocent of limestone, which brings color from the malt into the beer. The plentiful local hops were used lavishly, and that would have helped clarify the beer as well as give it the aromatic accent that we now associate with a pilsner. Huge cellars had been cut for lagering. The Plzen golden style of lager would spread to other cities such as Budweis (the original home of Bohemia's royal court brewery) and to Bavaria, but not immediately.

Josef and the Oktoberfest

As late as 1871, Bavaria's lagers were all still dark. In that year, Gabriel Sedlmayr's brother Josef brewed in Munich a trial version of a Vienna-style lager. In the meantime, Josef had become a commercially successful brewer. He owned the Franziskaner brewery, which later merged with Spaten. He gathered a circle of distinguished citizens to sample his new beer, an amber-red brew that was a novelty in Munich and a step on the road to paler lagers. The first regular Vienna-style batch was made in March 1872 and lagered until September. It was thus identified as a Marzenbier and was ready in time for the Oktoberfest.

Marzenbier remained the principal style of beer at the Oktoberfest until the last couple of decades. In recent years it has been largely replaced by malt-accented beers of a similar strength (around 4.5 percent alcohol by weight, 5.75 by volume) but a bronze or golden color. Munich's everyday beers also began to turn gold in the 1890s, with Spaten again claiming credit for that innovation. Paulaner claims to have popularized the golden style of Munich beer in the 1920s and '30s. Munich's interpretation, usually identified as a Hell or Helles ("pale"), is again malt accented, but typically with an alcohol content of 3.7 percent by weight, 4.6 by volume.

By the 1870s, golden lagers had spread from the southeast of Germany to the northwest, where the city of Dortmund, in Westphalia, was developing its own style. The classic Dortmunder lager is firmer bodied and drier, with an alcohol content of around 4.4 percent by weight, 5.5 by volume. Golden lagers began to gain popularity when opaque stoneware steins gave way to mass-produced glass. When brewers of German origin introduced lager brewing to the United States, the trend toward paler colors and lighter body (two separate characteristics, though often linked in the mind of the consumer) continued for 100 years.

When Miller made Clear Beer, the trend had gone as far as possible. Now, the movement in America is in the opposite direction. It is America's turn to teach the Germans something: to show them that traditions can be rediscovered.

Published Online: AUG 25, 1999
Published in Print: MAR 1, 1996
In: All About Beer

Beer Styles - Historical

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