In 1976, on the eve of the craft brewing renaissance, a beer called Perfection 9 Month Old Lager was released by a small regional, Horlacher Brewing, based in Allentown, PA and founded in 1882. It was a revival of a Horlacher brand from before WW I.
Despite the release of Perfection and another new brand, Brew II, Horlacher struggled to stay in business. It was the era of macro beer dominance. Sadly, Horlacher closed in 1978.
I never had the chance to taste Perfection, so to speak. It was mentioned in the beer books which started to proliferate at the end of the 1970s, but as a curio lost to time. One writer did taste it, Jim Robertson. He said the beer was very good and his two or three year old bottle had survived remarkably well, but his notes are not detailed.
The significance of that release would be so different today, when many beer fans understand the history of lager and what it means for a beer to be lagered almost a year, especially one of regular strength.
Today I will salute Perfection beer and the vision of Horlacher, bootless as it proved to be, but first some background.
I’ve discussed a number of times how both in America and finally Europe lager beer changed from a long-aged (six-nine months) “summer” brew to essentially a “winter” beer.
As handed down in Bavaria, there was, i) schenk or winter beer, and ii) summer beer, which was lager properly speaking. Schenk was brewed in cold weather when wild organisms in the atmosphere wouldn’t sour the beer. It was given little aging and consumed as released. Summer beer was the same brew laid down in cold caves or cellars and consumed many months later, in spring or summer when brewing was suspended due to the warm weather.
When I say “same brew”, that was not always technically true, sometimes the summer lager was hopped more or made a little stronger to assist the long keeping. But basically the two forms of beer, and whether light or dark, differed little but for the aging aspect.
The true lager of old Germany was the summer form. What was initially a strategy to ensure beer was available in the non-brewing season became the prized form. People liked the long-aged beer due to its good carbonation, clarity, and matured taste.
Both schenk and summer lager are bottom-fermented, whereas before their emergence, top-fermented ale, porter, and some old European styles (weisse beers, Gose Bier, Broyan) were the norm.
Bottom-fermented beers tended to be more stable and clean-tasting due in part to the nature of bottom yeast but also their long cold sojourn which inhibited souring and other infection.
Also, and this is an insight I gleaned from numerous 19th century American accounts, the long aging would have knocked down the bitterness. And people liked that.*
How bottom-fermenting yeast evolved is a controversial subject. For a long time, many felt it was a derivative of a top-fermenting yeast (Saccharomyces Cerevisiae) and developed empirically under unique conditions of cold fermentation and aging.
Recent studies suggest lager yeast is a hybrid of a Cerevisiae yeast and a non-Cerevisiae yeast whose origins have been traced, strangely, to Argentina, Mongolia, and Tibet.
However the new beer yeast emerged, its use over centuries in Bavaria convinced people of its superiority over top-fermented beer especially as I have said in the classic aged form. This style took over finally in the north and east of Germany as well, and in adjoining Bohemia. Finally, lager came to North America (1840s) and in time became the dominant beer style everywhere in the world.
And yet. The lager which became a world-beater was not the long-aged brew cracked open only in the summer. It was really schenk beer which earlier was just one form of lager and not the most reputed. There is no question that in the 1840s and 50s, the true, long-aged summer beer was in the market and captured the public imagination. Schenk was drunk in winter, but that was not what put lager up in lights.
By the 1870s, harvested natural ice and finally refrigeration equipment became routine aids in the brewery. With their help, brewing could occur year round. The old long-aged lager became a memory. The schenk continued to be slow-fermented (8-10 days) vs. half that for top-fermented beer, so that part stayed true to tradition. And it received some storage in the cellar, but nothing near to what it originally received.
Some German and American breweries were still aging lager a couple of months, or more in some cases, in the late 1800s. From that point through to post-WW II the aging got ever shorter, and this accelerated once cylindrical fermenters emerged: they made it easy to collect and dispose of yeast from the base of the tank.
Is lager beer aged two months vs. six or nine as in old times, just as good? What about beer given two weeks storage if that? I’ve asked that question of brewers many times. Most seem convinced long-aging isn’t needed and on the theory (which I’ve bruited myself) that fresh beer is best, aging time can be shortened.
For example, with developments in filtration and carbonation, you could get clear, carbonated beer in a few weeks rather than waiting six to nine months.
A claimed advantage for long age is that “green flavours” including dimethyl sulphide (overcooked vegetable) will dissipate. But brewers say they know how to expel such flavours without long storage.
Indeed, there is some suggestion (I’ve discussed this earlier as well) that not all long-aged lager was exempt from sourness. Can the schenk have been preferred to a lactic tang of age…?
All in all, people liked the young new beer, or at any rate that’s what brewers gave them and they liked it well enough.
This was the environment in which little Horlacher, looking for an angle in a tough market, released a pale beer aged nine months in 1976. This was unheard of then and perhaps more to the point, is unheard of today. I am not aware of any craft lager aged that long. Some strong dark lagers, e.g., Doppelbock, or Eisbock, can receive a few months aging, but no regular strength lager does as far as I know.
Horlacher did this without knowing how the beer landscape would change within a decade, without knowing how New Albion Brewery, which had started up the same year in Sonoma in California, would help work a revolution. Perfection no doubt sold well but nothing to ride a wave on, and the same happened with Brew II, so the brewery continued its downward path.
If you would like more information on Perfection and Horlacher, you need only read Jess Kidden’s pages on the brand, here. Kidden has collected a fine range of print artifacts and labels. They point indeed to a high-quality product with a high percentage of malt and hopped for good flavour.
Sadly, Perfection was ahead of its time: being about the best beer in America in 1976 couldn’t save it.
A craft brewer should brew a nine month pale lager today to remember Horlacher’s brave sally in the market. If we can have beer flavoured with tea and oranges – and that’s only the half of it – we can have one flavoured just with malt and hops stored like the old lagers of Bavaria. Advertise it this way: “Beer made in the true Alpine way which made the renown of lager in the 1850s in America. And its yeast is in part all the way from China”.
Note re images: the images above were sourced from Jess Kidden’s web page linked in the text above. They are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All trademarks and other intellectual property shown belong to their lawful owners or authorized licensee(s). All feedback welcomed.
*Earlier, I discussed the c. 1960 ad copy of F.X. Matt for Utica Club, that it was “50 years behind the times”. I said I thought the claim of low bitterness was something tucked into the ad for modern appeal, an incongruity few would notice. Now I think Matt’s knew exactly what it was talking about – it’s often a mistake to second-guess brewers with long experience and, even more important, long memory. The long sojourn in the cellars would tend to take down some of the bitterness, it rounded out the beer in this and other respects as well. A brewer with the heritage of F.X. Matt likely understood that.