Fermentation as an Art and Science in Brewing History

A side of history to go with your beer.

By Jeffrey M. Pilcher

Louis Pasteur famously set brewing on a scientific path with his Études sur la Bière (Studies on Beer, 1876), explaining that fermentation was caused by the work of microorganisms. Though Pasteur did not actually identify the microorganisms that were responsible—Pasteur believed them to be bacteria—Emil Christian Hansen of the Carlsberg Brewery in Copenhagen soon identified the correct yeasts, marking a major milestone in the history of fermentation. His success in isolating pure strains aided other brewers in avoiding contamination. Two decades later, in 1895, at the inaugural banquet of Britain’s Institute of Brewing, a Professor Tilden declared that he could recall no other business that “had availed itself so fully of the modern achievements of science as had brewing.” Modern technological improvements have made possible not only the standardization of global brewing giants but also the contemporary renaissance in microbrewing.

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Nevertheless, we should not be so quick to dismiss the skills of brewers from the past. Even if they did not have a scientific knowledge of yeast and invoked instead the phrase “God is good,” they knew quite a lot about how fermentation worked—or did not. Indeed, the historian of science E. M. Sigsworth has shown that Pasteur’s discoveries had little impact on the actual practice of brewing. Pasteur made essentially two recommendations: practice good hygiene and chill the beer to avoid harmful secondary fermentations. Of course, no brew master needed a scientist to explain the importance of keeping the brewing utensils clean. Regarding his second recommendation, Pasteur advocated lager beer, a Bavarian variety brewed with special bottom-fermenting yeasts and stored for extended periods in cold, underground caverns. Lager beer was becoming popular around the world in the nineteenth century with the global migrations of Central European brewers. The English rejected Pasteur’s advice, however, and continued to prefer their top-fermented ales until as late as the 1960s.

So how did brewers of the past understand the mysteries of fermentation, beyond their faith that “God is good”? Archaeologists such as Delwen Samuel and Patrick McGovern have done a remarkable job of reconstructing the practices of ancient brewing. In addition to their research, cuneiform tablets from Babylon record everything from beer recipes to tavern regulations. But while these materials testify to the importance of beer as a marker of civilization in the ancient world, they offer little insight on how brewers actually perceived their work.

Related Post: The Art of Fermentation — Fermented Foods with Sandor Katz

The Finnish epic, The Kalevala, offers one of the first detailed accounts of the brewing process in the history of fermentation. It may seem strange to approach mythological tales as historical documents, and care must certainly be taken as the versions written down by folklorists in the nineteenth century contain historical anachronisms such as the use of hops, which were likely introduced from Central Europe during the late Middle Ages. Nevertheless, these oral traditions convey valuable folk knowledge from the past. Rune XX (Song 20) of The Kalevala records the brewing of beer for the hero Ilmarinen’s wedding to the Maiden of the North. The brewster Osmotar, daughter of Osmo, boiled together barley, hops, and water, but could not make it ferment. For starters, Osmotar forgot to malt the barley, or maybe the poet just ignored that task.

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