Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About

From the times of Egypt and Sumeria to the Middle Ages, brewers made beer without much control over the temperature of fermentation, and with yeasts that grew at the surface of the liquid. The beer fermented in a few days, and it was consumed within days or weeks. Sometime around 1400, in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps, there evolved a new kind of beer. It was fermented in cool caves over the period of a week or more, and with a special yeast that grew below the surface of the liquid. Then it was packed in ice for several months before it was drawn off the yeast sediment for drinking. The cool, slow fermentation gave the beer a distinctive, relatively mild flavor, and the cold temperature and long settling time produced a sparkling-clear appearance. This lager beer (from the German lagern, “to store,” “to lay down”) remained distinctly Bavarian until the 1840s, when the special yeast and techniques were taken to Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, to Copenhagen, and to the United States, and became the prototype of most modern beers. England and Belgium are the only major producers that still brew most of their beer in the original way, at warm temperatures and with top-fermenting yeasts.