Evolution of Beer

A Brief Summary

                                                                         By Mike Retzlaff

It would be a lot easier to focus on a complete picture of the world around us if there weren’t all sorts of things interspersed in it causing changes to everything else.  Because of this, history doesn’t travel in a straight line.  Many beers have evolved in very odd ways during their journey into the “here and now.” 

Altbier evolved from primitive Celtic tribal roots and is arguably the oldest continuously brewed beer style in the world. 

Broyan or Mumme was a valuable commodity of the Hanseatic League during the 14th, 15th, & 16th centuries.  This well hopped, light brown ale put the German cities of Hamburg and Hanover on the world’s brewing map for hundreds of years.  The style became virtually extinct in the second half of the 20th century.  It is a distant relative of Keutebier (a wheat based ale); a much older Rhenish beer.

When pale malt became available, the brewing world seemed to go crazy.  The Pale Ales of Britain eventually had to compete with the Pale lagers from Bohemia and southern Germany.  Most of us have read of how Pilsner beer came about.  Beer of that day was generally dark and cloudy but there really was no reason for it to be any different.  However, when Bohemian glass makers starting mass producing clear glass at that time, the beer could be seen; not just smelled and tasted.  

The new Pilzen beer was an immediate success and other brewers felt the need to compete with it as best as they could.  In addition, due to the work of Schwann and Pasteur, the role of yeast was discovered. Hansen isolated strains of both ale and lager yeast. He cultured pure strains which improved fermentation.  The first German effort for a light, golden beer was from Spaten in Munich.  Helles is still being brewed today by all of the Munich brewers.  Pilsner style beers have become the most popular beers in the world, including Germany. 

Kölsch, like Alt, also evolved from Keutebier.  It emerged as a top fermented competitor to these new pale lager beers from the south.  It became the signature beer of Köln just before the turn of the 20th century.  It has evolved from using 20% wheat malt to mostly being an all barley malt beer today.

The Witbier of Belgium was little more than a memory when it was resurrected by Pierre Celis; a milkman turned brewer.  It is now a very popular summer beer and is brewed by many breweries worldwide.

In the UK, Mild, Porter, and Stout have a long but unclear history.  There is more info available about these styles in the form of myth, conjecture, and anecdote than can be found as fact.  One thing seems certain – with the advent of pale malt, many of the older, darker British ales evolved into the modern style of Bitter; even with all of its variations.

Bavarian Wheat Beer was a darker beer for most of its history but evolved into a lighter style as made by Paulaner, Erdinger, and Ayinger.  This change happened as a matter of self-preservation.  The young adults of Germany in the 1950’s, as in most of the world, were rejecting the politics and social conventions of the previous generation.  Wheat beer was considered “the beer of old folks” who found these beers a bit easier on the stomach.  By 1965, the brewers had lightened the color and flavor of these beers; they became popular again and the style rebounded.

American Pils type beers were being brewed everywhere in the States in the second half of the 19th century.  North American barley had too much protein and required dilution with rice or corn as adjuncts to produce a “proper” beer.  Prohibition ended commercial brewing of beer in the States until the early 1930’s.  Gravities of normal beers plummeted by law upon their return and many beers became only a shadow of their former selves before the “Great Experiment.”

Budweiser lager, at least since its return at the end of Prohibition, has maintained its gravity but the hop rate has fallen over the years.  Fred Eckhart’s book lists the IBUs at 15 in 1981 and 10.5 in 1987.  Today, the IBUs are estimated at 6 or 7.  A-B is probably using one hop pellet per gallon (purely a guess) to produce their flagship offering to Joe Six-pack.

I have it on good authority that the brewers of many American “light” pilsner style beers have entirely eliminated hops in their formulation and now use old socks for bittering and flavor.  And you thought that the term “Sock-Hop” referred to a High School dance held in a gymnasium!

Along with the insurgence of “craft brewing” have come the wine coolers of beer.  Bacardi Silver Pomegranate Mojito is such an offering.  These beverages have little resemblance to real beer but are strong sellers.  I surmise that the consumers of these beverages really don’t like beer but find some perverted thrill in urinating.

Home-brewing all over the globe has become a springboard for the craft brewing industry.  It is also an incubator for new beer styles which are solely reliant on the imagination of individuals like us.  Some beers of yesteryear which disappeared for one reason or another are being brought back to life although some became extinct for a good reason – they were awful.

As you fine tune your future brewing plans, try to include something a little different.  Encourage the resurgence of the old and the birth of the new; one home-brewed batch at a time. 

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