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Further Reading #1: Understanding Lager

The cover of this made up paperback, Pelican style.

A few times now we’ve been asked, or seen others being asked, to recommend a single great book that tells the story of lager. Unfortunately, as far as we know, no such book yet exists.

Last time our answer amounted to a short reading list — this article, that book, this blog post — which made us think that it might be useful to put this together in a single place. That is, here. Partly because it’s fun, and partly to add a bit of weight to the idea, we’ve decided to think of it as a virtual anthology.

Where we have been able to identify free-to-access sources we’ve provided links and in the cases of material you have to pay for we’ve tried to suggest free alternatives.

What we really wanted to find but couldn’t was something to act as a foreword — a rip-roaring, passionate ‘In Praise of Lager’ piece. Most we dug up were either too dry, too specific (Czech beer, German beer) or laced throughout with digs at IPA and craft beer culture. If you know of the perfect piece, mention it in the comments below or drop us an email:

The Origins of Modern Lager

Of Spaten and Sedlmayrs
Ian Hornsey
A good summary of the part played by one Munich brewing family in the creation of lager as we now know it, with Anton Dreher (above) in a supporting role.
Brewer and Distiller International, December 2007 (PDF)

On the Founding of Pilsner Urquell
Evan Rail
The best account of how the golden lager we know today came into being in the Czech town of Pilsen, with myths and misconceptions busted throughout., August/September 2012 Part I | Part II | Part III

Emil Chr. Hansen and the Yeast Revolution
Lars Marius Garshol
A snappy telling of the story of how scientific advances in the late 19th century made the mass-industrial production of clean, consistent lager possible.
larsblog, September 2017

Detail from an advertisement for Allsopp's Pilsner, 1920s.

Lager Spreads

German-American Brewers Before Prohibition
Lisa Grimm
The story of how lager came to America from the 1840s onwards along with mass migration from Germany, and how it spread outward from the eastern seaboard as the century wore on, leading to the total domination of American beer by lager in the 20th century.
Serious Eats, October 2011

Martyn Cornell
The single most comprehensive account of how lager came to Britain covering an early false start in 1835, the rise of lager brewing in Wales and Scotland, and the fits and starts with which it grew to popularity through the late 19th and 20th centuries.
In the book Amber, Gold & Black, 2010.

(Open access alternative: Ron Pattinson’s ‘History of British Lager’ for Scandinavian Brewing Review, 2012-13, Part I | II (PDF).)

A Czech Influence on Belgian Brewing
Evan Rail
These days, on the other side of the craft beer revolution, ‘Belgian beer’ has come to mean something strong, strange and unique. This article reminds us that lager is also a core part of Belgian beer culture and has been for more than a century., May 2016

A Short History of Beer in Hong Kong
Martyn Cornell

This is a case study in how lager became the dominant style beyond ‘the West’: “The end of the 19th century, however, seems to have witnessed a complete change in Hong Kong’s tastes, with British ales and stouts being replaced by lagers from other lands. As early as May 1876 Lane, Crawford was advertising Danish beer from the Tuborgs Fabrikker’, Tuborg then being just three years old.”
Brewery History Society, Winter 2013 (PDF)

Carling Black Label beer mat.

Lager in the Modern World

“You Have to Think About Growth”
Maureen Ogle
This substantial chapter of Ambitious Brew whizzes through several decades of beer history from the end of prohibition to the birth of ‘craft beer’, explaining how the American palate evolved to crave lighter, blander beers, and then just as the brewers had the got the hang of that, began to demand the opposite.
Ambitious Brew, 2006

Saccharomyces Carlsbergensis: how lager (eventually) conquered Britain
Pete Brown
As a former advertising executive Pete Brown has acute insight into how lager was sold to British drinkers and what this account lacks in footnotes it makes up for in entertainment value and verve.
Man Walks into a Pub, 2003, pp.237-268

How Brazil’s Favourite Beer Arrived from Scotland
Martyn Cornell
The story of Carling, SKOL and the birth of the multinational lager brand., May 2012

The Trouble with German Beer
Ron Pattinson
In this informed opinion piece Ron Pattinson, who lives on the Continent and knows Germany well, not least because that’s where he met his wife, sets out why he believes German beer is not what it ought to be in the 21st century. “Around 99% percent of beer styles disappearrd in the 50 years before the First World War. Compared to the current choice of pils, pils or more pils, the diversity of styles pre-1850 is dazzling. ”
European Beer Guide, c.2001

Skyscraper Brewer: 30 Years of Jim Koch and Sam Adams Beer
Tom Acitelli
The author of The Audacity of Hops reflects here on the legacy of Boston Lager: “The recipe, legend has it, came via an ancestor who was a brewer. Koch’s father, Charles, had been a brewer, too, though he grew disenchanted with the consolidating industry that was dominated after World War II by the sort of fizzy bastardized pilsner his son would one day describe to me as ‘alcoholic soda pop.’”, January 2014

Why the Busch Family Mattered
Maureen Ogle
In 2008 the firm behind Budweiser ceased to be in any sense a family firm when InBev acquired Anheuser-Busch to create AB-InBev. Here Dr Ogle, the author of Ambitious Brew, a book-length study of the history of American brewing, reflects on this moment in the grand scheme of history.
Modern Brewery Age, October 2008 (PDF)

Renaissance of British Craft Lager
Adrian Tierney-Jones
Published in 2010 before Camden came on the scene and before Meantime was taken over by a multi-national, this piece captures a moment in time when only a handful of British breweries were dabbling in lager., September 2010

* * *

We’ll keep an eye out for more and will aim to add to and update this list as we go.

28 replies on “Further Reading #1: Understanding Lager”

Ha! We did consider it. It (the passage from the novel) concludes ATJ’s anthology Beer in So Many Words.

It feels to us that, at this stage, most of the research is there; what’s lacking is the narrative to pull it together.

Fair enough. Suppose it depends on the book you have in mind. What we want to *read* and be able to recommend (see above)is a 280-350 page narrative history, but you might be envisaging something more along the lines of Gourvish-Wilson. A five-year book rather than a two-year, more for reference rather than reading.

Actually I think the biggest hole is coverage of our understanding of what is a “lager yeast”, which has been transformed in just the last couple of years thanks to studies of its DNA. Suregork and I have worked out a lot of the identities of the yeast genomes sequenced by Gallone et al in 2016 – see There’s a lot we haven’t sussed (we’re pretty confident about most of the White Labs ones though), but there’s still hints in the paper – BE039/40, two closely related yeasts making lager in the US and Czechia are part of the saison family (along with a couple of English yeasts), whereas WLP800 Pilsner, allegedly from Urquell, seems to be an ale yeast that’s most closely related to WLP320 American Hefeweizen, which in turn is part of the kolsch group.

Around 10% of the “ale” yeasts sequenced by that team are actually being used for commercial lagers – conversely Frohberg “lager” yeasts like 34/70 and S-189 seem to work pretty well at ale temperatures. As we gain better understanding of phenotypes and DNA, the boundaries between “lager” and “ale”, hybrid and “pure cerevisiae“, bottom-fermenting and top-fermenting , cold-tolerant and not – all seem get very blurry. To be honest anything is out of date that was written about the biology of the organisms making lager more than three years ago, and even today what’s happening in molecular biology is not really making its way into general beer writing, there’s a huge gap there.

We were certainly drawn towards more recent writing. The Pete Brown piece is the oldest, and much writing on lager from the 80s and 90s is really too wrapped up in the real-ale-craft-beer vs. big-beer conversation. It was good to revisit Ogle and be reminded of its value as a book that looks beyond craft. (Your Ontario book is similar in that regard.)

I for one welcome the advances of biology and hope we can stop reading the endless definition of lager in terms of where the yeast sits when it ferments. I’ve yet to seen a meaningful explanation of why that might matter — it’s about as useful to the drinker as talking about the difference between cheddar and brie cheeses in terms of the color of the coats of the cows the provide the milk, or the clothes worn by the cheesemakers.

Lager makes more sense when described in terms of the methods of brewing and storing it, not the trivia of where you might find active yeast during fermentation.

Inclined to agree. In practice, if it looks and tastes like lager, and is presented like lager, we’d generally accept it as lager, regardless of the technicalities of the yeast. People who would guess that, say, Früh Kölsch isn’t ‘technically’ a lager in a blind taste test have better palates than us.

The top and bottom thing kinda made sense when that was the only thing people had to go on – but it’s very fluid. The Fuller’s yeast went from top to bottom within a few generations after they switched from open fermenters to cylindroconicals. Now anyone with a PCR machine can do a simple test to see if a) a yeast is a pure cerevisiae or a hybrid and b) which of the two kinds of hybrids it is.

Even canonical stuff like the cold temperature now seems to look a lot more fluid than it did.

I may be misremembering, but my recollection of a conversation with John Keeling is that the Fuller’s ale yeast took to conical fermenters essentially straight away, and was very happy to settle at the bottom of the tank from the moment it was thrown in. It was from that moment that the beers starting winning awards …

That’s my understanding too. You have to remember that a fermenter is a fantastic environment for artificial selection, instead of a few hundred individuals like you have when breeding cattle or sheep, you have trillions if not quadrillions of individuals, all mutating away in a stressful environment. Top vs bottom fermenting is just a matter of density, and there’s hundreds of genetic factors that can affect that – sugar storage, ion pumps, membrane permeability and so on.

Then you end up binning all the floating ones and keeping the ones that sink, however slowly – that’s brutal.

Thanks guys, fascinating stuff. Amazing it adapts so quickly, even with so many individuals.
As students, a group of us did a lot of home brewing – we were broke, and in Brum, so we really needed a cheap source of something drinkable. We acquired a batch of a commercial ale yeast (Davenports, from memory) and produced a fairly strong bitter from malt extract with just a little crystal malt (and quite a lot of hops) – at the limits of our equipment. We made it in two places, our university-owned flat, in standard Boots brewing bins, and in a much cooler house using a 25 litre wine fermentation vessel with a narrow neck and a lid with just a small airhole. This latter one used yeast from the first “brewery”, which would have mutated several generations from the original. We did notice at the time that the second “brewery’s” beer became more lager-like with time, we thought because of the cooler fermentation and conditioning temperature – which we thought also explained the less visible action of the yeast. I guess now that in reality, we were seeing evolution in action.

That’s interesting research for sure, although still a bit dense for us to follow. We have generally been drawn to writing that explains lager in cultural terms rather than the dry pedantry of ‘Well, that’s technically an ale…’

Well the nice thing about the molecular stuff is that it backs up that approach – the detail of the biology is fascinating in its own right but if people are making commercial lager on two continents with a kind of saison yeast, that proves you can use just about anything.

The lab in Leuven that published the big genomics paper has been including lagers in recent presentations, so I imagine that they’ll publish something definitive this year or next. Unfortunately you then have a double-blinding problem, they don’t say what strains they’ve used, and yeast banks and homebrew companies are very reluctant to link their strain names to breweries.

But for now it’s enough to say that the old boundary between lager yeast and ale yeast is looking very porous. There’s a lot of cold-adapted ale yeast out there, and lager hybrids that work well at ale temperatures.

Ha ha, we did think of you! But lots of those pieces have stuff like “I have said it many times, anyone can throw boat loads of hops into the kettle and get something the lupulin loonies will lavishly laud to the heavens” or (quite a good one this) “Sure you can make your triple black IPA aged in soured gorilla snot barrels…” which is what we wanted to avoid. Would be interesting to read you In Praise of Lager but literally *just* in praise of lager. If anyone can do it, you can!

The biggest gaping hole in the history of lager is still when, where and how the hybridisation between Saccharomyces cerevisiae and S eubayanus took place to produce S Pastorianus, which, since “wild” S eubayanus has still not been found in Europe, remains a huge puzzle. There ARE plausible answers to that puzzle, but so far they remain annoyingly evidence-free. We don’t even seem to know when “unterhefe” became a “thing”: and in any case, as qq said above, since S cerevisiae strains will settle to the bottom sometimes, someone writing about bottom-settling yeast is no proof that S pastrorianus was about. It’s also clear that cold-lagering must have been taking place for a while before that hybridisation happened, or the conditions couldn’t have existed for S cerevisiae to get jiggy-jiggy with S eubayanus, which won’t thrive except in the cold, and make S Pastorianus. So until those questions are answered, I don’t think it’s worth writing The Big Book of Lager. Still, we only learnt about S eubayanus in 2011, so progrss is bing made …

I was talking with Carlsberg’s yeast scientist last year. He told me that when they looked at yeast DNA many of the strains identified as Brettanomyces were actually Saccharomyces. It looks like there’s still loads to learn about all types of yeast.

WLP644 is a famous one that is now being sold as Saccharomyces. You have to remember that all species names are slightly artificial “boxes” but once you start looking in detail at DNA you find that things aren’t as black and white as they first appear. I guess it’s a bit like the stew “genus”- although “species” like carbonade, Irish, bourgignon, hotpot etc are quite well defined, in the real world cooks will do their own variations that blur the boundaries.

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet…

There wasn’t one hybridisation event, there were two, one for the Saaz group and one for Frohberg. It has been proposed to bring back the S.carlsbergensis name alongside S.pastorianus as the two hybrids are so different, but even that’s looking outdated as people like Suregork generate new cerevisiae x eubayanus hybrids.

Personally I’m intensely relaxed about the whole S. eubayanus thing. You have the example of S.kudriavzevii, which is a cold-tolerant species that hybridised with cerevisiae to make certain wine yeasts. It was first found in Japan, but people tried and failed to find it in European vineyards and tried to construct all sorts of theories about how hybrids happened with this “Japanese” yeast. Then it turned up 8 years later on oak trees in Europe, they just hadn’t been looking in the right place. In fact oak trees seem to be the primary host of Saccharomyces species, then they come down from the trees to feast on the glut of sugar in fruit when they’re in season. Beer through history has spent most of its time in contact with oak wood, so there’s the opportunity for beer yeast and wild yeast on oaks to get together.

People started getting excited when eubayanus first turned up in Patagonia, but it’s now been found everywhere from NZ to Canada and Tibet. Not yet in Europe, but I’m sure something so ubiquitous will be found eventually. Cold lagering is something that would have happened naturally to beer made at harvest-time and then left over winter, it doesn’t need too much deliberation for that to happen. Particularly during the Little Ice Age.

I’m sure that when the Leuven lab publish their next paper they will have some thoughts on what the DNA tells us about the timing of all this. But based on the limited data we have, it looks like the ale component of lager yeasts split off from the German wheat beer yeasts early in the radiation of the Beer 1 group, which Gallone et al put at 1573-1604 based on assumptions I don’t quite agree with. 🙂 That doesn’t mean the hybridisation happened then, merely when the ale parent became isolated – it could have ended up in a remote Alpine valley, or in a royal brewery with a monopoly on wheat beer production. We’ll see what they say when they publish.

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