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Ale lovers must learn to say the dreaded 'L' word

'Traditional' beer has different meaning in different beer cultures

We like to say that we campaign for "traditional" beer, but what does that mean? Which tradition?

When the first civilisations of the Middle East made beer, its fermentation seemed to be spontaneous.

In fact, the fermentation was caused by wild yeasts that settled on the grains, the mash, or the vessels used.

As brewing spread, that technique was used in the production of various "traditional" beers in Asia and Africa, and still is.

In Europe, spontaneous fermentation has survived only in the Lambic beers of Belgium, with their characteristically winey taste.

When beer is fermenting, it foams until it appears to be 'toiling", and can easily overflow.

When medieval brewers caught that overflow, in buckets, and added it to the next brew, they observed that it kick-started the fermentation.

The foam on top of the brew comprises millions of yeast cells. The stuff in the bucket was yeast.


Empirically, those brewers had isolated top-fermenting yeasts, the parents of the cultures that produce today's ales, porters, stouts, barley wines and wheat beers.


Empirically, those brewers had isolated top-fermenting yeasts, the parents of the cultures that produce today's ales, porters, stouts, barley wines and wheat beers. At least, that is how I believe it happened; no one knows for sure.

Top-fermenting yeasts work quickly, at ambient or warm temperatures, and produce beers full of complex flavours. That is why we in Britain enjoy our traditional, top-fermenting, styles.

Almost half the beer in Britain is made by top fermentation, as are many ale and wheat beer variations in Belgium, Germany and elsewhere.

The pleasure we take in these beers should not blind us to the qualities of good, traditional, beers made by bottom fermentation.

Yeasts sink to the bottom when the brew is fermented and matured, or stored (in German, lagered) at cold temperatures. Bottom-fermenting yeasts produce a cleaner-tasting, rounded beer.

Which is better: a winey-tasting Lambic; a fruity, complex ale; or a clean, rounded lager? Assuming that the beer is good my choice might depend upon the moment, my mood, and the place or time at which I was drinking the beer.

I would like all three major families of beer to survive and thrive, but for each to made in its own distinct tradition.


I have seen breweries in Bavaria that can trace their origins to the 1400s and which today have natural cellars, carved into the foothills of the Alps.


How old is the lager tradition? I have seen breweries in Bavaria that can trace their origins to the 1400s and which today have natural cellars, carved into the foothills of the Alps.

The argument is that beer was kept cool here during summer, and that the "cold storage", or Lagerung, method of maturation was thus empirically developed.

It has been argued that the cold storage of beer is mentioned in statutes of the city of Munich as long ago as 1420. This argument derives not from direct, dated evidence but from a book written almost four centuries later, by Lorenz Westenrieder. The same book implies that yeasts especially suited to this treatment came to Bavaria in the 1500s, from Bohemia.

At the time, there does not seem to have been a clear distinction between brewers' and bakers' yeasts.

The differences between brewers' yeasts, the basis for family categorisations such as Lambic, ale and lager, could only emerge as it was possible to view the cell structures. This began with the first microscope, developed by the Dutchman Anton van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), but it was a further century and a half before lager brewing was truly understood.

One person credited as a "father" of modern brewing is Benno Scharl, born in 1741, in Seefeld, Bavaria. He worked in several breweries as well as studying in the Jesuit Order.

The basis for his renown is a textbook on brewing techniques. In this, he did refer to bottom fermentation and lagering, though the descriptions of yeast are vague. He identified his beer as being "brown".


In 1833, on the eve of the steamship and railway era, they and two other German brewers organised their own study tour of Britain, at that time a more technologically advanced country.


The brewers whose names have survived more strongly are Gabriel Sedlmayr, of Spaten (which still operates in Munich), and Anton Dreher, who had his own brewery (now Schechater) in Vienna. In 1833, on the eve of the steamship and railway era, they and two other German brewers organised their own study tour of Britain, at that time a more technologically advanced country.

They visited Bass (with whom they retained contacts for some years), and various maltings and breweries in Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester. It is some measure of Scotland's importance at that time that they also visited Glasgow, Edinburgh, Alloa and Dundee.

During this visit, Sedlmayr and Dreher learned a lot about the determination of gravity and control of temperatures during malting, fermentation and maturation. I have heard it argued in Continental Europe that this British trip provided the foundation for the first methodical production of lager.

People who foam at the "L" word can make of that what they will.

In 1836, Sedlmayr took over the running of Spaten, and spent a decade or so modernising it and trying to perfect bottom fermentation. His lagers were dark brown. This is the style of lager you get in Bavaria today if you ask for a Dunkel.

In the world of brewing, this is known as a Munich-style lager. It typically has the cleanness of a lager, married to the flavours of dark malts, perhaps coffeeish and dry, even faintly smoky, but not overtly roasty.

Lager brewing in Munich took a further leap forward with Carl Von Linde's work on refrigeration, notably at the Paulaner brewery. Sedlmayr's yeast was later used in Denmark, at Carlsberg, where the first pure culture for bottom fermentation was isolated.


Published Online: MAY 30, 2000
Published in Print: SEPT 1, 1995
In: What's Brewing

Beer Styles - Historical

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