Golden Years

Mark Dredge peers back at the surprisingly modern roots of golden lager, and the unique circumstances that put it on a path to global domination


Lager is a matter of national pride, of personal preference, of habit. It’s the most social drink, the most widely-produced and enjoyed drink, but it’s a dichotomous drink; one of greatness and great derision, of enormous depth and diversity and watery mainstream mundanity, something simultaneously global and local. And it’s familiar to billions yet largely unknown, where to the majority of drinkers, beer is just beer: it’s light, it’s refreshing, it’s cheap – it’s just lager. But this undermines its real worldwide significance. And the special significance of pale lager.

It took a lot of disparate people, events and circumstances to come together to turn brown ales into golden lagers and we begin, perhaps unexpectedly, in Britain in the early 1830s. Gabriel Sedlmayr, of Spaten brewery in Munich (remember Sedlmayr and Spaten as they are recurrent protagonists), was on a beer study tour with Anton Dreher of Vienna’s Klein Schwechat brewery. These two would become the grandfathers of lager and this trip was one of education in British brewing techniques, where they brought home knowledge of British malting, of fermentation, of process, and of new tools like the hydrometer, which measures the sugars extracted from malt.

Lager in Bavaria had already been developing for a couple of centuries, primarily by brewers controlling the temperatures and conditions of their fermentations and maturation by making their beers in the cooler months and then storing those beers underground – cold lagering them – which produced better, more consistent beers. By making the beers work in the cold they were favouring clean cold-loving lager yeast instead of fruity heat-seeking ale yeast. When Sedlmayr and Dreher returned to their respective homes, they each put their new knowledge into practice and made improvements to their dark lagered beers.

By 1841, Sedlmayr and Dreher had started producing their own lighter malts using the British malting technique. These malts were respectively known as Munich and Vienna malts, which produced amber lagers. They also shared a lot of their knowledge with nearby brewmasters – and this would have an impact on the spread of knowledge, and beer, into nearby Bohemia and the city of Pilsen, the birthplace of golden lager.

Pilsen was a city of brewers, with around 250 households having the rights to make beer using a communal brewhouse. They could then drink or sell their beer, with the majority – if not all – of that beer being dark ale. But a lot of it wasn’t very good. Not only was it of poor quality but some citizens were known to be hoarding the best ingredients and others were trying to sell their beer for too much money, which sold slowly and then turned sour – and soured the city’s brewing reputation. This all caused tavern owners – led by Vaclav Mirwald, owner of The Golden Eagle – to start discussing the problem, a problem exacerbated by the recent arrival of good (and cheap) Bavarian beer. There was a fear that a Bavarian brewery would start selling lots of beer in the city and Pilsen’s proud people wanted to drink Pilsner beer.

One of beer’s most significant events happened in February 1838, when 36 barrels of sour brown ale were dumped into Pilsen’s streets, a display designed to show that bad beer wasn’t acceptable. Almost exactly one year later, on 2 January 1839, prominent tavern owners and key locals (including Frantisek Skoda, whose son would open his eponymous car factory in Pilsen), declared that they, and the citizens with brewing rights, would collectively build one new brewery for their whole town, shifting from small-scale personal brewing to industrial brewing. There were probably a lot of people who were angry at this announcement, but the decision had been made. And from day one, it was to be built and designed like a Bavarian brewery.

Pilsen was situated in an elementally-unique location: the city’s water was so soft, so pure and free of minerals (not like the harder limestone water of Munich), that it would create the purest and cleanest of beers – and specifically clean pale beers. The soft sandstone earth beneath their feet was easy to dig, meaning they could create large underground cellars to store their beer; Bohemian forests gave them wood for their brewing vessels and large lagering barrels; hops and barley grew nearby. Fire would heat their copper kettles and indirectly (the indirect part is important) kiln their barley. And on the wind came news of the appointment of a Bavarian brewmaster.

But first came the architect, Martin Stelzer, a local man of great repute, and the unofficial builder of Pilsen (who would build 200 of their city’s structures in his lifetime). He was 24-years old when hired to build the brewery, something he’d never constructed before. He travelled to Bavaria and it’d be no surprise if the Pilsen brewery was directly modelled on a Munich brewhouse with their lagering cellars and their own malthouse.

In 1842, Bavarian brewmaster Josef Groll was hired. His father, also Josef, had a brewery in Volshofen, almost equidistant between Munich (to the west) and Pilsen (to the north), and had been brewing lagers, giving Groll Jr a good start in his brewing education. Groll arrived in Pilsen as a 28-year old on a three-year contract (at the end of his tenure he reapplied for his own job but didn’t get it, perhaps due to reports of him being mannerless and rude. Another Bavarian, Sebastian Baumgartner, took his place, while Groll returned to his family brewery).

With the location set and with the cellars being dug, Groll and what was to be known as the ‘Citizens’ Brewery’ moved closer to the inaugural brew. With the Moravian barley harvest in the late summer of 1842, the grain was kilned in the British style to leave a pale and sweet malt – paler and sweeter than any malt used in a lager before. Soon after, the hop harvest arrived, bringing fragrant Bohemian hops. The pure soft water was flowing. And Groll had a lager yeast, which it’s thought that he brought with him, perhaps from Vilshofen, or perhaps it came via another Munich brewer. The ingredients were gathered and as the temperatures cooled into autumn, the first brew took place on 5 October 1842. It was matured deep underground in large oak barrels until it was ready to drink on 11 November 1842.

The original Pilsner – Pilsner Urquell – was unlike any beer that had been brewed before, a beer unique to its location and its point in time. Golden lager became a sensation, but not an immediate success; that would take time.

When that golden lager was first brewed in 1842, there were just a handful of brewers in Bohemia making lagered beers. By 1860, ale still accounted for almost 70% of Bohemian beer, but then a monumental shift happened and by 1870, ale had dropped to just 2% of Bohemian beer and lager now accounted for an astonishing 98% – it was a trend that would come to dominate beer all around the world.

This was the real beginning of the move towards drinking lagers, and a few more technical, scientific and fashion developments confirmed its ubiquity. The first was the development of artificial refrigeration (first used industrially at Sedlmayr’s Spaten Brewery). Then in the 1880s, at Carlsberg Brewery, via Spaten, who gave Carlsberg their first lager yeast in 1845, via Louis Pasteur, to Dr Emil Hansen, who was able to isolate single healthy yeast cells and eradicate mixed fermentation and give better, cleaner fermentations. And by then glasses were also the drinking vessel of choice, meaning muddy dark beers were less appealing than bright lager.

Amber Vienna lager, golden Pilsner lager and dark Munich lager spread through Europe and around the world. In the middle of the 19th century, millions of Germans left their homeland and arrived in Mexico, South America, and a large number into America. These thirsty Germans couldn’t leave behind their love for lagers, and this changed drinking cultures (good fact: by 1897, lager was America’s national drink and there were as many as 250,000 German lager bars in North America – today there are around 70,000 total bars in the whole country) and influenced many of the most-famous American brewers, including Anheuser-Busch who released their Budweiser beer in 1876 to join their range of over a dozen lagers. Something about the lightness and brightness in that beer saw it replace amber-coloured St Louis Lager, then Anheuser-Busch’s main beer, and first become the brewery’s best-seller, then America’s, then the world’s.

Back in Munich, brewers resisted light beers for a long time (although amber lagers were introduced at Oktoberfest in 1841 and got paler in 1872, both times by Spaten), and it wasn’t until 1894 when – guess who – Spaten released Munich’s first Helles, distinctively different from Pilsner by being softer with malts and lighter on bitterness.

Even ale-guzzling Londoners were drinking European lager, with a number of Austrian beerhalls opening around The Strand and Piccadilly Circus as early as the late-1860s, and Spaten (who else) opened a beerhall there in 1895, although forthcoming anti-German sentiment saw an end to those. By then, British brewers had started making their own pale and dark lagers, but it was a slow start: cask beers, cool cellars and an unwillingness to ice bottles made for an icy reception to warm lager. Still, lager sales went from 1% in 1960 to 20% in 1975, surpassing ale sales in 1989, and then levelling-out at around 75% of the overall market. By that point, the rest of the world was almost all drinking just pale lager.

It’s easy to assume that beer has always been bright, light and fizzy, but it hasn’t. And it took a varied combination of people, places and events to come together to turn brown ales into golden lagers and then for them to take over the world. It’s a collection of stories that often go untold, or unknown, but they are among the richest and most important in beer’s 10,000-year history.

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