Lager is probably the most popular alcoholic beverage in the world. But especially in craft beer circles, it doesn’t always get the respect it deserves.
Mass production and mass marketing created light lager — think Bud, Coors or Miller — which is typically brewed to be lower in calories and carbs and has less malt, hops and flavor than the lager styles of the past.
In other words, it’s bland, and pretty much the opposite of the kind of big, hoppy ales most beer geeks crave.
That’s a shame, because real lager really is quite remarkable, with it’s own special majesty.
Classic European and pre-Prohibition American pilsners, dark lagers, and German Oktoberfest and bock beers are all examples of great styles that wouldn’t have been possible before the discovery of lager yeast — an unusual hybrid strain that, unlike ale, bread or wine yeast, performs well at low temperatures and ferments slowly over a long time.
Though the yeast was the essential ingredient of the light golden lager (pilsner) revolution of 1840-1860 and still drives the light lager process that accounts for the majority of worldwide beer sales now, its origins have always been a mystery.
But last week, a team of researchers from Portugal, Argentina and the United States described the discovery of a wild yeast they believe made lager yeast possible. Surprisingly, it was found in the beech forests of Patagonia, the alpine region at the tip of South America — some 7,000 miles from Bavaria, where lager beer first was brewed by 15th century monks.
The scientists named the yeast Saccharomyces eubayanus. By sequencing its genome they proved it was distinct from every known wild yeast. But it was 99.5 percent identical to the non-ale yeast portion of the lager genome.
“Our discovery suggests that hybridization instantaneously formed an imperfect ‘proto-lager’ yeast that was more cold-tolerant than ale yeast and ideal for the cool Bavarian lagering process,” explained Chris Todd Hittinger, a team member and University of Wisconsin-Madison genetics professor.
While this revelation may not make your next lager beer taste any better, it’s a fascinating reminder of the complex history and science of brewing.
Here are a few favorite German-style lagers to try while you ponder just how a microscopic bit of yeast might have made it way all the from South America to Europe.
Ayinger Celebrator Doppelbock — This classic German strong dark lager is rich, roasty, complex and full of malty goodness.
Five Seasons Seven Sisters Munchner — Locally brewed at Five Seasons in Sandy Springs, this amber lager is lusciously rich and malty.
Victory Prima Pils — A crisp, bitter and rejuvenating pilsner that’s always perfectly fresh on draft because it comes from one of the great American craft breweries.
— by Bob Townsend, AJC Drink blog