Beer: The history of beer
Ale led to lager led to civilization as we know it
By Mike Roy
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
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