Beer styles are sort of like beer specie. They evolve over time. It’s a popular subject of any beer enthusiast discussion. What is the origin of the concept of beer being divided into two categories, ale and lager? Both terms have interesting histories but I think today we’ve lost perspective on how they have managed to be ultimately classified as yeast strain dependent.
Some homebrewing enthusiasts point to my book The Complete Joy of Homebrewing and wonder if there are any references to beer types before that was first written in the mid 1970s. The 1984 edition has loads of references to beer styles.
But I was not the culprit who initiated beer style nomenclature. As near as I can figure it was probably Louis Pasteur who in the late 1800’s looked under the microscope and realized that there were critters, now called yeasts that were responsible for beer fermentation. Can you imagine a world without knowing about yeasts? All beer in the English speaking realms was known as “ale.” And in Germany beer was just bier. The pasty stuff at the bottom of the vats was called “Godisgood.” There was ale and beer but no one really knew that there were living organisms involved; but they did know that temperature of fermentation produced certain characters in the beer.
In Great Britain one can only imagine that ambient conditions optimized the brewing of English ales at about 70 degrees F and they found that cellaring at cooler temperatures helped clarify the beer. In Belgium in the pre-Pasteur age ambient temperatures fluctuated more on the continent with summer temperatures getting higher. Belgian beer yeasts and taste preferences evolved over centuries with certain yeasts acclimating to conditions to make good beer – unbeknownst to science survival of the fittest was happening. Beer drinkers preferences evolved.
In Germany, they had cool caves and a tradition of stabilizing temperatures with ice collected in the winter months and used during summer months. They didn’t know anything about yeasts as living organisms, but they found that cooler fermentations and storing (lager is the German word for “storage”) created a smoother more consistent beer. This knowledge and evolution happened over time and in all likelihood the original mass of yeast was a collection of wild, top fermenting and bottom fermenting yeasts along with some bacteria thrown in for poor measure. Batch after batch of cold fermentation inhibited the bacteria, wild and ale yeasts and eventually the lager yeasts dominated since they were the only microorganisms that would thrive under the cold conditions.
When our friend Louis discovered yeast, the scientific world of classification kicked in and the beer world became officially and scientifically divided between top fermenting and warm fermenting strains of ale yeasts and easily identifiable strains of cold fermenting lager yeasts. The name lager yeast came from the beer that had developed through cold fermentation and it was discovered that, hmmmmm aha, it all seemed to be of a similar strain.
It’s important to imagine what the world was like in Louis’ day. No phones, very little electricity and I imagine most households were void of bookshelves, let alone books about beer.
It’s a safe bet that beer drinkers in the late 1800’s and even in the early 1900s weren’t keen on reading books about beer. Any that were around were technical. Beer geekdom hadn’t arrived. It was a simple pleasure to champion your local beer and your local pub and at best you might wonder what someone else was drinking 6 miles and a day’s journey down the road. Other than a boatload of IPA heading to India every so often and bock beers shipped to kings and vagabonds in what’s now Germany, beer didn’t move around very much. Even if there was a book on beer styles, what could it have meant to anyone, even brewers! It was all local and word of mouth was literally that.
The beer world according to Michael Jackson didn’t really kick in until the late 1970s with his quintessential game-changing book, The World Guide to Beer. Before that British homebrew books were referring to brewing ales and lagers in their quest to beat the high taxes imposed on British beer. In the process beer drinkers were beginning to become aware of what other regions of the UK were enjoying. In the USA Fred Eckhardt was pioneering beer types with his contribution to quintessentialism in his Treatise on Lager Beer, published in the early 1970s he clearly made the distinction between ales and lager. There were many other pioneers in the 1970s and 80s that reawakened the world’s awareness to the diversity of ales and lagers.
My books simply took all the available knowledge and made some practical sense of it all. I was partly driven by the need to improve the quality of homebrew competitions and desire to help others appreciate and make world class beer styles at home.
One interesting phenomenon I did encourage was the use of creative names for beer recipes. No other brewing book really featured the crazy creativity of naming beers. Homebrew recipes were frighteningly boring with names like English Ale #35a or Batch 21 or simply Irish stout. Porter would have simply been Porter and crazy name/stories such as Goat Scrotum Ale, Rocky Racoon Honey Lager and Toad Spit Stout never would have been benchmarked in homebrew culture.
So it’s time for a beer. I’m relaxing and enjoying one right now. If you want to delve more into what’s out there regarding styles and their descriptions visit the craftbeer.com website.