Beer and the Habsburgs, Plus Lager Confusion

In my recent post about the economics of brewing and the consolidation of breweries in London in the wake of the Gin Craze, I mentioned that I’m searching for sources on beer under the Habsburgs. I haven’t found all that much, but maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise: after all, wine was preferred in Habsburg Vienna, and the kind of taxation that marginalized wines in England only affected wine consumption in the Habsburg Empire more slowly… though the eventual stratification we see in England does eventually appear in the Habsburg domains as well, and for the same reasons:

‘Modest’ is perhaps the right word to describe the amount of beer drunk by the Viennese in the 1730s. It was about sixty-five litres per head per year: today the average Austrian drinks about twice that amount. From the end of the sixteenth century there was a steady increase in the consumption of beer; by the end of the eighteenth century it was the same as that of the most frequently consumed alcoholic drink, namely wine. In the 1730s the Viennese were still drinking around three times more wine than beer. Brandy and fruit juice also became more popular from the sixteenth century on. It was in particular in the towns that wine was an important drink, because the water supply there was often inadequate and could be a source of epidemics. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the consumption of beer rose and that of wine fell, because increasing prices and taxation meant that the poorer classes could not afford it, so that drinking wine became more and more the preserve of the upper classes.

There’s a little more about the Gasthäuser and Schenken (inns and taverns) where this drinking was going on at the link above. (Including information regarding the regulations that the authorities required the proprietors of such places to observe, in terms of tracking the movements of people; the perceived “dangers” of political discussions that often happened in drinking houses necessitated such measures, apparently.)

At the same site, there’s also some interesting stuff about government controls on brewing, winemaking, and even beer purchasing in another post on the same site. Long story short: sometimes manor lords were told which beers or wines they could buy for their households… to the benefit of “the burghers, the aristocracy and monasteries” who’d taken over the specialized trade of brewing after the end of the Middle Ages. There were even official limits on when wine could be served, which I presume only were enforced on the commoners. Also at the same link: efforts to ban home winemaking in Vienna! (The bastards!)

Still, people seem to have managed to have some fun all the same–though I see more smoking than drinking in this scene:

Cornelius Dusart: Tavern scene. (Oil painting, c. 1680.) Click image for source.
Cornelius Dusart: Tavern scene. (Oil painting, c. 1680.) Click image for source.

And not to get all Shut Up About Barclay Perkins on anyone (I adore the blog, but I am not anything like the authority Ron Pattison is), but this information seems questionable:

While most of the developments described above benefited the quality of both ales and lagers, it was Hansen’s and Linde’s pioneering work, which occurred only a little more than a hundred years ago, that made the modern lager revolution possible. As we have seen in previous chapters, brewers certainly had made lager beers before then. However, since fermentation was carried out by mixed yeast cultures and–without refrigeration–at relatively high temperatures, the “default” beer made by most of our forefathers had usually been an ale. The best lagers were made mostly during the winter months and then only in cooler regions, when and where nature was cooperative. Thanks to science and technology, by the end of the 19th century, man was able to brew both ales and lagers anywhere and of predictable quality.

The above seems to suggest that lager yeasts existed prior to the 1400s, and the cultures were mixes of top- and bottom-fermenting yeast. Which sort of contradicts what I’ve read.

  • As far as I know, there were only mixed cultures for a long, long time… but they seem to have been mixtures of various top-fermenting yeasts. German brewers might have had some sort of low-temperature tolerant top-fermenting yeasts (like what we now think of as “Kolsch yeast”) prior to the development of bottom-fermenting yeasts, but they likely wouldn’t have had proper “lager” yeast as most use the term today. (ie. The beers were historically top-fermented and then lagered (cold-stored as part of the aging process); the fermentation temps wouldn’t likely have fallen as low as they do with modern lager yeasts. i.e. The beers were lagered top-fermented beers, but they weren’t necessarily lagered because of the mixed culture.)
  • Bottom-fermenting yeasts seem to have evolved as some kind of mutation related to exchange of DNA between S. eubayanus (recently discovered in the wild in Patagonia in 2011) or something like it, and S. cerevisae (ale yeast)… Which is to say, before six hundred years ago, lager yeast might not even have existed in Europe. Or it may not have: plenty of reasons may exist for why we can’t find S. eubayanus or something like it in Europe now. Changes in climate, deforestation, increases in pollutants that this yeast may be more sensitive to than more familiar wild yeasts… we don’t know why nobody’s found it there, and maybe people are just looking in the wrong places? I suppose it’s therefore possible that “wild lager yeasts” (like S. eubayanus) were living in Europe earlier, and that the kind of mixed cultures mentioned existed earlier. Still, the apparent synchrony between the first expeditions to the Americas, and the development of lager yeast in Europe, is tantalizing. At least, to me…  

The confusion seems to me to be one of lager as a style of cold-aged beer, versus lager as the product of a kind of bottom-fermenting yeast. The former kind of lager has a long history, while the history of the latter (of bottom-fermenting, cold-loving yeast in beer production) is relatively quite a bit shorter. Germans had been making lagers for a long time–but using top-fermenting yeasts to do it–prior to the development of the bottom-fermenting yeast, or the beer made with it, which has become for many English speakers today synonymous with “lager.”

That’s all I can say about that. Mr. Pattison is welcome to rip me limb from limb (verbally) in his inimitable way, if I’ve gotten something wrong.

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