If the lager that emerged in the United States by 1870 had been memorialized in song, it might have gone like this:
Ballad of the New Lager (with apologies to Mars and Ronson)
Initially in the United States, lager as in Europe was a long-aged summer specialty. It emerged from the need to have a drinkable beer in warm weather. Before mechanical refrigeration or heavy use of natural ice, brewing could only reliably take place in cool weather and even then ideally only in certain months. In Britain, October and March were considered the best seasons.
Beer was consumed “mild” or new from either brewing but also laid down to keep a year or more.
This keeping was done both to have beer in a season it could not be brewed and because some felt aging improved it. The story with lager is similar.
Beer brewed from December to February could be consumed new, this was the schenk or pot beer, but some of it was extra-hopped and made stronger. It was laid away to be consumed eight or nine months later. Lager was fermented colder than ale and porter, and initially available where natural cold, in Alpine caves or via ice added, would ensure a near-freezing environment.
The intense cold ensured, said many writers in the 1800s, that acetic acid and lactic acid would be suppressed. The chill and lager yeast, somewhat different in shape and characteristics from ale yeast, would produce a slow secondary conditioning: carbonation would be imparted and the palate refined. Once again this took the better part of a year.
Yet, this long-aged and presumably fine beer disappeared almost without a trace by the 1870s in America. What replaced it was bottom-fermented beer drunk fairly new, or “new lager”. Since ice and, later, refrigeration equipment could produce beer year round, there was no reason to lock up beer and capital for many months.
Lager reverted to schenk beer, essentially.
Was the long-aged beer better, though? Many assumed it was, as some English brewers did for ale and porter. New beer can have “green” flavours which are said to lift off with time, although how this occurred in sealed wood casks is not immediately evident. Still, in 1946, a time when scientific analysis had gained sophistication, the well-credentialled B. Jellinek argued in a reputed English journal that aging improved the taste of lager.
Long aging also reduced the bitterness of beer. Porter-brewers had observed this, and given most people don’t like very bitter tastes, lager-brewers too may have liked the natural reduction of bitterness which would occur from a long spell in storage.
But if the long-aged lager was so good, why did American breweries abandon it, something that happened in Europe too albeit later? Did they sacrifice the best quality for commercial convenience and profit? Why did they not sell some long-aged lager as a specialty? Most consumer products have different grades.
In fact, there is reason to think well-matured lager was never that much more than an expedient.
With better science and even practical experience, people found ways to parry each advantage of long keeping. Various substances could be added, isinglass or gelatine, say, to clarify beer within a few hours, not months. As I showed yesterday, American brewers were adding (or many of them) bicarbonate of soda to reduce the risk of acidity from sourish clarifying agents.
I now think too the old German foreman was right when he said the soda also lessened hop bitterness. For beer kept a month or so, the soda did what even eight or nine months could not do sufficiently, reduce hop impact. (In time too of course, hop content was lowered and a beer not meant for aging tended to use fewer hops anyway).
Yeasts could be selected, or the new beer otherwise manipulated, to ensure expelling of green flavours.
And fresh fermenting beer could be added to flat, fermented-out beer to impart the necessary fizz, and finally CO2 injection was used.
And so, newly-made beer replaced old. Of course, it happened to ale and porter too. Long aging of the English stuff though had a fault – the beer tended to go sour or at least tart. Blending old and new beer partly alleviated the problem, but once new fresh beer was regularly available to the market, that’s what people wanted, and the old “vatted” or aged beer died out.
Since stability was said to be a hallmark of the old lager and it was exempt from the action of lactic and acetic acid bacteria, you might think the “fresh beer” logic didn’t apply to it, at least in the sense that brewers would have still offered some long-aged beer as a specialty. They didn’t. Today, Pilsner Urquell, the queen of blonde lagers, is aged about four weeks based on my research…
Few detailed taste notes on beer survive from the 1800s, and almost none which compare lagers of different ages. One can find analyses of beer in which acids are sometimes mentioned, and in general, acid content was higher than today, for all beers. Did nine month lager have the potential to taste sour? Yes it did.
Proof is available via this detailed 1877 article on lager-brewing in New York, from the New York Times. In that article, it was said, twice, that the old lager tended in the public estimation to be sour or “hard”, and also (still) too bitter. Hard was a term used in the alcohol industries then to mean sour. The term survives in the expression hard cider, which indeed can approach sourness in palate.
The writer said that use of soda carbonate in young beer, combined with ice-assisted, year round brewing ensured fresh product and this was preferred by the market to the supposedly better beer aged much longer earlier. It noted that Schaefer and another brewer tried to re-introduce a seven month-aged beer; people didn’t want to know.
Could it be that Americans never mastered the art of making well-aged lager as well as their German forbears did? I doubt it. And if that old beer was so good it should have survived as a speciality in the market, fetching a high price. We have old whiskey, old port, old Bordeaux, why not old beer? Apart from a few craft producers, no one makes it, and where the craft people do, it is generally for stout or strong ale. I can’t recall seeing many old lagers in the market.
Maybe, despite the theory, it was never that good, here or in Europe, especially in an age of wood vessels and non-sterile plants.
An alternate explanation is, once reliable fresh schenk was available year round, the market wouldn’t pay for fine lager considering especially that beer is the drink of the people. But again, usually there is a market for quality, any product. And laying away a few metal barrels or vats to age seven, eight, nine months should be no trouble for a nice extra margin.
But there is no extra-aged Carlsberg, or Spaten Helles, or Pilsner Urquell, or Creemore, or Sam Adams.
Those experienced with the beer palate know that fresh beer is best. Maybe it always was.