Sunday 4 May 2014

The increasing popularity of Lager-beer in North America

I came across this informative piece in a Brewers' Guardian from 1873.

I like it for a couple of reasons. For one, it explains the rapid growth in the popularity of Lager in the USA in the second half of the 19th century. It also explains why there was an exchange of techniques between Ale and Lager brewers. A process which by no means all one way.

Why was the drinking public switching to Lager?


IT is useless for ale brewers to disguise the fact that the popular taste is becoming more and more in favour of lager-beer. We need not theorise as to the causes which lead to this, for a cursory perusal of the Brewers’ List, which we have recently presented to our readers, shows how great the increase of the number of lager-beer breweries is, and further, with what a ratio of increase the lager-beer brewers are enlarging their returns. That this is due to the corresponding advance of the quality and condition of lager-beer over that of ale we are disposed stoutly to deny; for it is the rather due to the cold temperature at which, in the case of lager-beer, it is a necessity that it should be sent out. The intense heat of summer, moreover, renders a beverage, at the lager-beer temperature, particularly grateful to one's heated condition, so that it is rather by accident than by any inherent virtue or superiority that it is gaining in popularity. It is accepted on all hands that there has been a most satisfactory improvement of late years in the quality and condition of our various ales, but the circumstances of our climate militate against a corresponding advance in the demand for it. The ale may possess the luscious flavour of the malt, judiciously blended with that of a fragrant hop ; its brilliancy may be of the most transparent character, but, alas! all the skill of the ale brewer counts for nothing by the side of the coldness of lager-beer.

This is the fact. and the act must be looked fairly in the face, and boldly grappled with. How shall this be done? What shall ale brewers do about it?"
"Brewers' Guardian, Volume 3", 1873, page 171.
Pretty simple, really: because Lager was served cold and it gets damn hot in the USA.

"It may be that ale brewers may learn something from their lager-beer brethren. In former days, lager-beer brewing was, both in the recesses of mashing, as well as in that of fermentation, widely different from that of ale-brewing. The orthodox way of brewing lager-beer was by the process of the thick mash, which has thus been described :

“The malt is moistened slightly twelve or sixteen hours before crushing it, with about three-fourths of a gallon for every bushel. When crushed, cold water is admitted, and it is thus left for a few hours ; meanwhile water is made to boil in the copper kettle, and a sufficient quantity drawn off into the mash-tun to bring up the temperature to 140.5°. This stands for about an hour, when additional water is added and mashed. The whole mash, malt as well as water, is now pumped into the copper-kettle, and the heat raised to boiling point, and is kept at that temperature for half an hour. The mash is again returned to the tun, and now a portion of the wort drawn off, pumped up to the copper, and boiled, and again returned to the mash tun. The wort is then drawn off, and allowed to remain in the under back two hours, so that the wort may be pumped up clear into the copper kettle."

This cumbersome and tedious system of mashing has, we believe, become nearly obsolete. The lager-beer brewers now — the more advanced of them — mash exactly as an ale brewer does, with considerable advantage, we doubt not, for an experienced ale brewer would at once raise a host of well-founded objections to the thick mash system. Not only is the time and labour involved in carrying on the thick mash something to be saved, but the application of boiling temperatures to the malt will yield, in the worts, not merely saccharine, but also such a quantity of the mucilaginous constituents of the grains, that the ale brewer will prefer to see the extra extract thereby obtained going to the farmer rather than into his ale.
"Brewers' Guardian, Volume 3", 1873, page 171. 

If I interpret that correctly, Lager brewer shad abandoned decoction and switched to infusion mashing. It doesn't surprise me. Decoction is time-consuming and expensive compared to a simple infusion mash.

Probably one of the reasons decoction has been retained in Central Europe is tradition. But how many of the big industrial brewers still decoct, even in Germany? I'd love to know. In the DDR they started switching to infusion mashing on purely economic grounds. Logic would say that similar commercial applies in all of Germany today, where overcapacity and falling demand have put downward pressure on beer prices.

Lager brewers had learned a better way to mash from Ale brewers. What could Ale brewers learn?
"Thus we see the lager-beer brewer has taken a most important leaf out of the ale brewers' book by forsaking the thick mash, and adopting the ordinary ale mash. It appears to us that the ale brewer has simply to turn round, and, just as the lager-beer brewer has adopted ale mashing, so should the ale brewer adopt the Unterhefe fermentation, which is the simple difference between ale and lager beer. It is true that the ale brewer will have to adapt his fermenting room and his cellars so that they shall not be dependent on changes of temperature ; but this is a small matter for his energy and enterprise to accomplish. As it is always well to look before you leap, and to exercise necessary precautions before taking any step which causes any large outlay, a few experimental brewings may, with facility, be carried through ; having been fermented, and afterwards stored in a small temporarily-constructed icehouse, or, better still, in a cellar where the temperature is artificially reduced by an inexpensive ice-making apparatus. The difficulties in the way of an ale brewer engrafting on his ale brewery a lager-beer department are far less than he imagines, and will melt to nothing in the presence of the same bold front with which he deals with the perplexities by which ale brewing is attended in the height of summer. It is one of the signs of wisdom in an individual that he “accepts the situation," as the phrase goes, into which the constant change of circumstances brings him, and deals with them accordingly. Some of the most enterprising of our ale brewers have already “accepted the situation” in this respect. We have a notable instance at the present time, for, in one of the best ale breweries in New York City, a lager-beer fermenting room and store of very large dimensions is being erected. Its proprietor is well known as the leading spirit of the Association of Brewers, and therefore as one whose foresight is such that whatever he does may be taken as an example. It has always been one of the marks of men who are in advance of their age that they possess what has been called the Napoleonic gift of seeing what is coming in the future, and of acting accordingly. Such is the course taken by the gentleman to whom we have thus ventured to refer. Nor is New York City alone in this, for, in one of the largest cities in the north-west of this State of New York, the enterprising proprietor of the most reputed ale brewery in that section of the country is expending a hundred thousand dollars in doing the same thing. The importations of lager beer from this brewery to this city, last summer, were, to our judgment, fully equal, if not superior, to the best brands of lager beer sent from the enormous distances of Milwaukee and Cincinnati. In both these instances, we believe we are correct in stating that the simple difference of the brewings consist in the ale being fermented with the Oberhefe fermentation, and the lager beer with the Unterhefe fermentation, the latter, of course, in a regulated temperature. We are strongly of opinion that the course thus indicated by these men of enterprise will be largely followed by the most courageous of our ale brewers, and that the results will not merely be shown in the large increase of their returns, but that they will also have the happiness of finding that the knowledge they possess of the essential principles of ale brewing will enable them, with complete success, to compete with the present quality of lager beer."
"Brewers' Guardian, Volume 3", 1873, page 171.
Switch to bottom fermentation, that's what Ale brewers could learn. And it's true, some did do that. But there were also Ale brewers who stuck with top-fermentation yeast, but adopted Lager methods of conditioning. Most important of these was chilling and filtering. That allowed Ale to be served cold and clear.

Here's a description of the difference between top- and bottom-fermentation. One word of warning: it sounds like total bollocks to me.

"This leads us to refer to the differences of the two fermentations. it need scarcely be mentioned that the lager beer, or Unterhefe, fermentation deposits its yeast at the bottom, as the ale fermentation throws its yeast to the surface. The former has to be conducted at a temperature of about 40° or 45° F., while the latter usually has a range of from 56° to 70° F. There are, of course, many differences in the details of storage, fining and racking, but the above are the essential particulars. The great German chemist, von Liebig, in speaking of the two fementations, thus describes their difference : “When wort,” he says, “is set to ferment by the ordinary process, it evolves a large quantity of yeast in the state of a thick froth, with bubbles of carbonic acid gas attached to it, whereby it is floated to the surface of the liquid. This phenomenon is easily explained. In the body of the wort, alongside the sugar decomposing, there are particles of gluten being oxidised at the same time, and enveloping as it were the former particles, whence the carbonic acid of the sugar and the insoluble ferment from the gluten, being simultaneously produced, should mutually adhere. When the metamorphosis of the sugar is completed, there remains still a large quantity of gluten dissolved in the fermented liquor, which gluten, in virtue of its tendency to appropriate oxygen, and to get decomposed, induces also the transformation of alcohol into acetic acid. On the other hand, in the fermentation of lager beer the wort is set to ferment in open backs, and placed in cool cellars having an atmospheric temperature not exceeding 45- 50°. The operation lasts three or four weeks; the carbonic acid is disengaged not in large bubbles, which burst on the surface of the liquid, but in very small vesicles, like those of a mineral water, or of a liquor saturated with carbonic acid when the pressure is removed. The surface of the fermenting wort is always in contact with the oxygen of the atmosphere, as it is hardly covered with froth : and as all the yeast is deposited at the bottom of the back, it is hence called Unterhefe."

Dr. Ure, in referring to the distinctive difference of an ale femientation and that of lager-beer, informs us that the yeast on the surface is gluten oxidised in a state of putrefaction, while the yeast precipitated in the fermentation is gluten oxidised in a state of eremacausis, or slow decay. “The surface yeast," he goes on to say, “excites in liquids containing sugar and gluten the same alteration which itself is undergoing, whereby the sugar and gluten suffer a rapid and tumultuous metamorphosis. We may form an exact idea of the different states of the two kinds of yeast by comparing the superficial to vegetable matters putrefying at the bottom of a marsh, and Unterhefe, or deposited yeast to wood slowly decaying. The Unterhefe fermentation is merely a simultaneous metamorphosis of putrefaction and slow combustion, the sugar and the Unterhefe putrify and the soluble gluten gets oxidised by the oxygen of the air, and then falls in the insoluble state. The matters liable to decay are separated by intervention of the air at a temperature too low for the alcohol to become oxidised.”"
"Brewers' Guardian, Volume 3", 1873, page 171.
Strange that the author uses the German terms Unterhefe and Oberhefe. The description of how the fermentations differ sounds utter crap to me. Surely both types of yeast digest sugar exactly the same way. I thought bottom-fermenting yeast had gradually evolved in Bavaria because it was harvested from the bottom rather than the top of the wort. Silly me.

It is definitely not true that bottom-fermenting yeast creates almost no head on the wort. I've been in enough Franconian fermentation rooms to know that's not correct. Interesting that he says Lager was fermented in "open backs". Would Ale also have been fermented in the open in the 1870's?

"There is no ale brewer in a climate like ours, but who has experience of the severity of the conflict with acidity in the summer time. It is true that the records of experience, combined with the help of science, have enabled him to some extent to overcome these difficulties, but he knows the unceasing diligence and watchfulness which is imperatively necessary. The Gordian knot of these difficulties our Alexanders may at once cut by the sword of low temperatures. At ordinary temperatures our scientific men give us no encouragement of being able completely to overcome them. We are told that no inconsiderable portion of gluten remains undecomposed in our ale, which by its extreme proneness to corruption afterwards attracts oxygen greedily from the air, and at a temperature above 52º imparts a contracting action to the alcohol, changing it to acetic acid. At the same time we are told by the same authority that the result of an Unterhefe fermentation is beer free from acetic acid, and hardly a trace of gluten, so that it does not possess the conditions requisite to intestine change or deterioration. The writer, on whose authority the above is given, qualifies his statement by a leaf from his experience, when he says, “This perfection is rarely if ever attained, for I have met with much ill-made lager beer.”

The ale brewer, in the light of these statements, is in this position, that both the demands of his customers and also the warnings of men of science point the same way. The difficulties are rather in anticipation than in fact. When once a resolution is taken, the consequent action must be taken with no niggard hand. Parsimony, in taking insufficient measures to have a complete control of temperatures, will probably prove the truth of the English proverb, “Penny wise and pound foolish." On the other hand, if this is duly provided for, the ale brewers' knowledge of the essential elements of success, which bear equally on all malt liquors, will certainly place him on such vantage ground in brewing lager-beer, that the present lager-beer brewers will have to look well to their laurels.—The American Brewers' Gazette."
"Brewers' Guardian, Volume 3", 1873, page 171.

I can imagine brewers would have had trouble keeping their Ale sound in and American summer, where temperatures could be above 30º C for weeks on end. A week or so at 25º C can wreak havoc with cask beer in Britain. Not sure I agree with his explanation of the cause of acidity. Bacteria and wild yeast must have been the reason.


Gary Gillman said...

Interesting. Almost all craft keg ale is partly lager, really, since almost all receives a period of cold conditioning.

It's true Ron that bottom fermentation can throw a yeast layer on the wort but it will sink under the normal conditions of bottom fermentation; an ale ferment won't, in part due to the different flocculating characteristics of much (not all) ale yeast but also because the ale ferment is not as prolonged so there isn't as much time to allow its yeast to sink (which it will ultimately given enough time, as anyone can see from most bottle-conditioned beers).

He misses the one essential difference between the two forms which is that warmer ale temperatures tend to produce more esters than a lager ferment and second, much pale lager produces sulphides that often lend a rotten egg smell to the beer. It reduces with the conditioning period but to this day much quality lager (a paradox?) has this characteristic. It is possible ales fermented with equally pale malts would produce the same effect but most ales were (or IMO) on average produced with darker malts and the darker the malt, the fewer the precursors that cause the hydrogen sulphide production.

Finally though, it is the temperature of consumption that made the difference (and less acidity in the beer in the summer) which is useful to know. Ales then were consumed evidently in a less chilled state than lager, probably in a state similar to how cask beer is consumed in England today.


Ron Pattinson said...


"Ales then were consumed evidently in a less chilled state than lager, probably in a state similar to how cask beer is consumed in England today." I don't think that's true. It's clear than American Ales were already very different to British ones. One of those differences was the serving temperature.

Alan said...

I am finding lots of references to beer being served with shards of ice on a plate before, say, 1820. Also it was being stored in cellars not to keep it cool so much as to keep it below the frost line in up insulated buildings. In our town brick and stone buildings are only common after 1840. So am not sure the pattern of serving beer in North America before a certain point is well understood.

Ed said...

If I remember rightly Liebig was a very respected brewing chemist that unfortunately held resolutely to the theory that fermentation was entierly a chemical reaction, with yeast acting as some sort of catalyst.

Rod said...

Lager ferments at around 8 - 10 C, as opposed to non-lager beer which ferments at around 18 - 20 C.

This produces two effects -
1st, less CO2 is dissolved in the fermenting ale gyle than in the lager gyle.
2nd, ale fermentation takes place over a shorter period of time, and is therefore more vigorous.
It follows therefore that in a fermenting ale gyle, there are far stronger currents of CO2 streaming up the fermenting vessel, carrying yeast with them, up to the top, than there would be in a lager gyle.

That is why much of the ale yeast sits on the top of the fermenting gyle, whilst the equivalent lager yeast tends to sit in the bottom of the tank.

NB - you absolutely do get a yeast scum on the top of fermenting lager, and ale yeast absolutely does sink to the bottom of the tank, especially once fermentation starts to slow.

For these reasons, I tend to avoid the terms "top" and "bottom fermentation -to me "warm" and "cold" are preferable.

Gary Gillman said...

Ron, this makes it clear that the writer experienced ale in a warmer condition than lager:

"That this is due to the corresponding advance of the quality and condition of lager-beer over that of ale we are disposed stoutly to deny; for it is the rather due to the cold temperature at which, in the case of lager-beer, it is a necessity that it should be sent out".


Martyn Cornell said...

Ed is, I am sure, correct that all these comments are pre-Pasteur in their failure to recognise the true role of yeast: Ure was writing in the 1820s-1830s, and Liebig was notorious in refusing to acknowledge the work of Theodor Schwann, work which Pasteur later confirmed: but I note these extracts were written three years before Pasteur published Etudes sur la Biere, which is why, presumably, from a scientific point of view they're full of bollocks.

Jeff Renner said...

I addressed some of this early history in my 2000 Zymurgy article, "Revival of the Classic American Pilsner."

Pivní Filosof said...

"But how many of the big industrial brewers still decoct?"

Pretty much all of them do here, at least for some of their beers. In fact, one of the conditions for PGI České Pivo is that the beer be decocted.

Rod said...

Pivni -
I don't doubt that Czech brewers decoct, as - a) there is the legal requirement and b) in svelte beers a deep golden colour is usually wanted.
However, in Germany, where a paler, straw colour is usually wanted in Pils, I suspect that a Hoch-Kurz or infusion mash would often be preferred.