History and Tradition
For the uninitiated, lager is a traditional beer fermented by a specific family of yeasts. Although these yeasts are not completely understood, they are believed to be the love children of a native cold-hardy Saccharomyces from the Patagonian Andes, who mysteriously met with established ale-fermenting microflora within ancient Bavarian brewery caves. Although the story of how this might have happened some 500 years ago has been sewn into the wilderness of history, the world of brewing has since then had the fortune to discover and work with these lager yeasts that are unusually cold tolerant, and capable of fermenting highly complex, dry, crisp, flavorful beers.
After these wild lager yeasts took residence in the wooden fermentation vats of the Bavarian Alps, a highly localized lager brewing tradition quietly developed around them in Germany and Czechia over a period of several hundred years. Then, in the late 1800s, lager brewing suddenly flared to life and spread throughout the world. These yeasts were fermenting beers that people just couldn’t resist. Very different in character than the opulent, strongly flavored fruity ales of the time, they instead offered something much more subtle and crisp, yet incredibly complex, and deeply enticing.
The demeanor of these lager yeasts and the brewing techniques that arose around them yielded beers that, compared with previous ales, perhaps offered a more transparent lens to the underlying brewing ingredients, and stylistically were more refined, intricately balanced, and brighter, having been long matured in cold underground lagering vats. In the excitement of the Industrial Revolution and its 20th-century aftermath, however, lager beer experienced widespread commoditization and mass production, and ultimately a great loss of heirloom methods and materials. What resulted became known as the “international” lager beer that is ubiquitous today.