Hippo Manchester
November 10, 2005

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Beer: The history of beer

Ale led to lager led to civilization as we know it

By Mike Roy   beergasms@aol.com

This week’s edition of The Beer Cellar was made very easy by Erin of Nashua who asked a great follow-up question about last week’s column. The question is, “what is the difference between ales and lagers?”

The answer to this question is short and simple. The main difference between a lager and an ale is the yeast strain used to ferment the beer. Ale yeasts top ferment at warmer temperatures — they tend to add more flavor, with fruit and spice characteristics. Lagers yeasts bottom ferment at cooler temperature —  they tend to be less flavorful, very clean and crisp tasting.

There, I’m done, see you in two weeks.

OK, OK — I’m not getting off that easy, so I’ll give you the long end of it as well. To do that we have look back in history. If you’ve never heard the story of how some experts believe beer was first made, here it goes: It was an accident. Historians have theorized that someone left bread out in a bowl, and it got rained on. Then natural yeast in the air caused it to ferment. The flavor, I would imagine, was nothing like the beer we know today. In fact, it probably did not taste extremely great but it was enough to change the course of human history. Yes, that’s what I said, it changed history.

Humans were nomadic for much of our history and it’s believed that we finally settled down so that we could cultivate grain, in order to make more beer. Welcome to civilization!

Early on, brewing was a household duty, so women were the brewers for much of the history of beer. The word “alewife” stems from this and women would put a broom over their front doors as a sign that there was ale ready to be tasted. It’s said that this is where the modern pub came from — an extension of the home, eventually an inn where one could eat, sleep and have a mouthful of ale.

Ale played a huge role during the middle ages and in times of plague. Water was often contaminated and since ale was boiled, it was healthier than drinking water at the time. During this time the church began to help brewing evolve to the next level. Abbey monks applied their studious methods to brewing and made the process more calibrated. They took notes, bringing science into brewing by recording their trials and errors. They are even acknowledged to be among the first to implement hops into brewing and realize their contribution to ale.

This brings us to the 19th century, less than 200 years ago. Everything that had been brewed at this point had been what we know as ale but lager was soon discovered. Brewers in what is now the Czech Republic stored their beer in caves to slow down the spoilage process. The resulting beer was smoother and cleaner tasting while having a longer shelf life. The yeast slowly evolved into a strain that could operate at cooler temperatures and soon spread across Europe.

The Industrial Revolution brought the ability to mass produce transparent glass and the majority of beer started getting lighter in color. As lagers took over the earth, beers that were golden and poured into clear glass were all the rage in the marketplace. This was the beginning of what many of us know as beer today. Fortunately there has been a new revolution in brewing and we can now enjoy more varieties and flavors than ever before.

In the end it’s all beer, whether it be lager or ale. Appreciate both for what they are — part of our history and our existence as it is today.

Mike Roy is the brew master at Milly’s Tavern at 500 Commercial St. The Beer Cellar appears semi-monthly in the Hippo. If you have any suggestions for future columns, questions or would like to comment on The Beer Cellar send me e-mail to Beergasms@aol.com.