Of Beer, Ale and Lager

An awful lot of ale, beer, lager, stout and what-have-you has been swallowed since William Shakespeare said that ‘A quart of ale is a dish for a king’. And come to think of it, an awful lot was poured down before he said it.

But why? In theory everything is wrong with beer. Although some 50 billion glasses of the stuff are drunk all over the world each year, hardly anyone actually enjoys his first pint.


Beer is quite an acquired taste. It’s cheaper, certainly, than — say — Whisky, but if you take account of the amount of alcohol contained in it, it’s just about the most expensive drink in the world. It’s 90% water — and who would pay for that? Also, it makes you fat. And it gives you hangovers. And yet… And yet we’ve been drinking it virtually from time immemorial. We were certainly at it six thousand and more years before Christ was born. Records taken from tombs of that time, show recipes for beer. The chances are that it was originally brewed as a kind of offering to the gods who looked after the crops, but some of the congregation discovered that it was much safer to drink than river water, and that it made them feel pretty fit!

Indeed, the Children of Israel are said to have been saved from plague because the alcohol in their beer killed off the germs. Little wonder, then, that the methods of making this particularly delightful medicine spread through the world — although it was not until the sixteenth century that hops were brought into beer-making; before then, barley, wheat, and corn had been used.

The English had been drinking ale, however, for many, many years. Not only drinking it, but making it, for in the days before the traditional tea, every housewife was a brew-it-yourself expert. And, of course, there were the monks who — clever fellows — led the way in the making of many drinks.

Today, England’s Burton-on-Trent is renowned for its beer, and has been since the thirteenth century, when the monks in an abbey near Burton found that the local water produced an excellent ale. Modern science shows, in fact, that the water contains various salts, and Burton has remained a brewery centre since the monks’ discovery.

In America the first brewery was opened by William Penn in 1683, and gradually science began to make an impression where, previously, results had tended to be somewhat in the lap of the gods. Even so, it wasn’t until 1876 that it was really discovered what good beer was all about. Yeast had been used in fermentation before then, but it was in that year that Louis Pasteur found out that wild yeast drifting round a brewery could cause bad fermentation. Yeast, after all, is the key to the whole process, which is otherwise basically rather simple. Briefly, it goes like this:

Processes before fermentation begin with the mixing of different grades of malt (which begins life as barley). The malt is opened by milling to expose enzymes and starches. Other cereals are added, and then the whole thing is mashed in hot water (known to brewers as liquor). The starches are broken down into sugars. Some extra sugar may then be added according to taste, before it is all boiled again — at which point the hops (the female blossoms of the hop vine) are added, to give the familiar bitter flavour. Yeast then ferments the beer. Finally it is cooled and filtered and, hey presto, you’ve got it. Glorious, clear beer.

Modern science being what it is, boffins have come up with a method of continuous brewing: the four main stages — malting the barley, mashing the malt, boiling the result with hops, and then fermenting with yeast — are done continuously, and the result is that the beer is fermented in a matter of hours rather than weeks.

Ale is made in much the same way as beer, but has a sharper taste and the hop flavour comes through more strongly.


Most of the beer drunk in Britain is what is known as ‘draught’, whereas most of the world drinks what is generally known in Britain as a lager beer. This first put in an appearance in Germany around the mid-nineteenth century. Lager is German word meaning ‘store’, which gives some clue to the different taste and colour of the beer. The fermentation process is turned upside-down, as the yeast used, instead of being introduced to the top of the beer, is introduced at the bottom. It takes longer to ferment and requires cold storage — preferably very cold. Caves used to be ideal and the famous Pilsner lager from Czecho-slovakia is lagered in six miles of storage caves, dug out of solid limestone. New York was apparently beginning to manufacture its own lager at about the same time as Pilsen. The brewery used a cave which was kept naturally cool by the water from a spring which came to light long after the brewery had moved, when the Eighth Avenue subway was being built, and which led to all kinds of constructional problems.

12. November 2011 by admin
Categories: Introduction, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Of Beer, Ale and Lager


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