You love the blog, so subscribe to the Beervana Podcast on iTunes or Soundcloud today!

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

What We Know About Beer

I have seen many wonders. The vaults of Rodenbach, a German coolship.  Parti-gyle brewing in London, a brewery's floor maltings near Prague.  Spontaneous fermentation by grape in Marentino, Italy.  I have watched cherries crushed and fed into a beer in Hood River, and tasted the first IPAs in an international revolution.  But what I have not witnessed is staggering.  I visited 51 breweries in Europe--and was forced to miss thousands of others.  Literally thousands.

In all of this, I had the rare opportunity to appreciate what I didn't know, and what no single person ever can.  The beer world is so big that no single person can begin to fathom it.  A comment by regular-reader Mike reminded me of how fraught this ignorance can be, and how difficult it can be to talk about a thing so big that we can't ever really know it wholly:

You wrote: "There and at other places, like Birrificio do Como which I visited today, they make real lagers in the German mode" and mentioned lagering time of 4-8 weeks.

While it may be true that some German breweries lager for only four weeks, most of the good ones (particularly in Bavaria), lager longer - eight weeks and longer.
This is almost certainly wrong. I visited five breweries in Bavaria and none lagered their beer that long.  Of the 51 I visited in Europe, I know of only two that meet Mike's standard--Budvar and, oddly, the French biere de garde producer Castelain (Ch'ti).  Of the breweries I visited, four weeks for a standard 12 degree beer is an adequate lagering time.  (For strong beers, many breweries do extend aging times.)  The thing is, there are 1300 German breweries, most of them in Bavaria, and leaving aside the question of "good" ones, who actually has the data on this?  I suspect it doesn't exist.  Maybe there's a German-language book that catalogs Bavarian breweries and has run a tally, but it would surprise the hell out of me.  For one: why would anyone gather that piece of information?  Therefore I say "almost certainly" because it's the hedge you have to give when you don't know.

There are a few general areas of knowledge in the beer world, like history, brewing techniques, aesthetic and technical aspects.  To the extent anyone's an expert on one, it's just a part of one domain, and she is likely no more knowledgeable about aspects of the other two.  Our beloved historical bloggers know a great deal about British brewing history and, in Ron's case, German, but how well do they know Czech or American history--never mind the chemical behavior of alpha acids, say, or the way to properly care for and nurture foeder-aging red ale?  Jean Van Roy is a legendary brewer, but I wouldn't trust him to expound on the methods of making cask ale.  Stan Hieronymus is now the greatest generalist in the subject of hops, but does he know ... actually, never mind.  He probably does.  That's the one guy who may know everything.

But the really amazing thing is that there are certain types of information that no one has, like the subject of Mike's comment.  Another example: I relied heavily on one source to understand the history of Belgian beer--Georges Lacambre's famous treatise from 1851.  But there are no doubt dozens of places where his generalizations about the breweries he described were slightly off.  He may have failed to notice common practices or over-emphasized the ubiquity of other practices.  When you read beer books now, you see a bunch of styles mentioned--all those Lacambre discussed.  But even he acknowledged that there were dozens more that he wasn't mentioning.  History is pieced together by the fragments we have, not those that got lost.

Anyway, I should wrap this up.  I mention it all because the act of visiting breweries is invariably humbling.  It causes you to touch that vast ignorance.  There are so many different ways of doing things, different ingredients to do them with, and different philosophies about how they should be done that it's impossible to capture them all.  (Like Lacambre, I have to winnow.)  The result is averaging, smoothing, and making general statements that we hope are true.  Almost certainly, some of them won't be.

Mea culpa.


  1. I was among those who believed "the longer you lager, the better" thing. It's a myth. It all depends on the beer and what the brewer wants to achieve with it.

    I'd say that here, five weeks is the norm for a světlý ležák, but it might go down to three weeks for a výčepní, because as a well respected Brew Master, maker of a VERY well regarded desítka told me once "it won't get any better if it stays longer". And sometimes, as we both saw at Unětice, it will depend on the market...

  2. Very flattering Jeff, but speaking from my own vast ignorance I can't say what I don't know, because then I would know it. But I can say there is a lot for all of us to learn.

    Or to "leak" the final words of my book, addressing the matter of understanding the hop: "We sure ain’t there yet."

  3. Max, I wouldn't be surprised if there was a molecularly measurable difference between a světlý ležák aged four and eight weeks, but I would expect it to be VERY difficult for the average (or even bad-ass) drinker to notice.

    Stan, we all know (and often do our best to conceal) what we don't know. But I have been shocked the number of times you seem to know something obscure.

    I don't hold you responsible for discoveries not yet made.

  4. The problem is that inaccurate information abounds, even in the most respected sources. Michael Jackson, for example, consistently said Albert Le Coq, the man whose company bought a brewery in Estonia to make Imperial Russian Stout, was a Belgian. In fact, the brewery's own website makes clear, he was a Prussian Hugenot. Except the website makes this clear only in Estonian, and it's only thanks to Google Translate that I know what "Preisi Hugenot" means.

  5. Martyn, we're definitely on the hook for knowable stuff, even when it's outside our sphere. I have made countless errors. Many commenters, Mike among them, have tried to steer me right.

    Isn't Google translate fantastic, though? It's not quite adequate for precise translations, but as a quick-and-dirty way to scan, it's an amazing boon.

  6. First of all, thanks for the kind words and reasonable tone.

    Let me respond: I'm sure no one will argue that brewing technology has stood still for the past five hundred years. Many of the changes have been for the better, and a few for the worse.

    Long lagering times used to be quite common. In fact, the most extreme I have heard about was in Martyn's area: sometime (I think around the 17th century, but am a little hazy on the date), it was not uncommon for the son of royalty to have a special beer brewed for his 21st birthday. What was special was that the beer was brewed at his birth, then lagered (stored) for 21 years.

    Likewise, in Bavaria in the Middle Ages, dukes in several areas decreed "Brauordnungen"(beer ordinances). Probably the most famous of these was the Reinheitsgebot of 1516. IAC, it decreed (among other things) that beer could only be brewed between St. Michael Day (29 Sept.) and St. George Day (23 April) because of the danger of fire during the hot summer months. The beer was lagered and served when the weather warmed until the following October. By then it would have been lagered at least six months.

    In my experience, many German breweries continue to pledge allegiance to the Reinheitsgebot, although the original is no longer in effect (there is a new version).

    This is all background. Now, I go to Bavaria at least once per year and have done for the past several years. I have also spoken to several brewers, but, in German, and several have told me that they lager their beer eight weeks or longer.

    I stand by my original comment.

  7. I'm back. I should also have mentioned that I think this is one of your best posts and am, for a change, in almost total agreement with you.

  8. Glad to have you back in the States, Jeff.

    I wanted to clear up a point Mike made in one of the posts. The "Purity Law" never prohibited the Bavarians from brewing beer between Michaeli and Georgi. The Reinheitsgebot simply set some pricing for beers sold between those two times of year. The summer beers were allowed to be sold at a higher price (probably allowing the brewers to recoup the price of brewing higher gravity beers), unless the beers weren't of the Maerzen variety. The non-Maerzens would command a lower price.

    Since you have all justifiably fallen in love with Google translate, here is the German Reinheitsgebot page from Wikipedia. The English page is woefully inadequate for the sake of this discussion.

    The RHG only became German-wide in 1906 (Germany "existed" from 1871 on).

    The beer tax law replaced the RHG after WWII. All that and more at the German Brauer-Bund website:

    Sorry for geeking out on RHG. I have a love/mostly hate relationship with it...

    And I don't know any German breweries lagering more than a couple of weeks, whether from the North or South (I worked both in Berlin and Bavaria). I'm really going out on a limb here, since I don't know with whom Mike spoke on his trips, but I would guess that the breweries might hang onto the old tradition of lagering or just not move enough product to warrant turning over the tanks any faster. Sometimes marketing talk for calling a beer "extra lagered" means it isn't selling all that well! I also, like Pivni Filosof, don't hold to the argument that longer lagering makes all beer better. Speaking of German lagers, it can mellow the beer to a point before autolysis and oxidation start to rear their heads and start to ruin the beer. As in all things, there is a point of equilibrium. Missing it in either direction is less than optimal.

  9. Alan, let me wikifi you: "Die bayerische Brauordnung aus dem Jahre 1516 (siehe auch Reinheitsgebot) legte fest, dass nur zwischen Michaeli, dem Tag des Hl. Michael (29. September) und Georgi, dem Tag des Hl. Georg (23. April) gebraut werden durfte."

    I trust you won't need Google translate for that.

    As to whom I spoke with: I go to Bavaria once or twice per year and have done for the past several years. There are a few breweries that I try to visit whenever in the area, but there are more that are random, one-offs. As just a guess, I probably stop at 10-20 pubs and/or breweries per trip. So, over the years, probably over 100 pubs/breweries.

    And you?

  10. (Here we go again - thanks, Google).

    Alan, allow me to wikifi you: "Die bayerische Brauordnung aus dem Jahre 1516 (siehe auch Reinheitsgebot) legte fest, dass nur zwischen Michaeli, dem Tag des Hl. Michael (29. September) und Georgi, dem Tag des Hl. Georg (23. April) gebraut werden durfte. ...Grund war die in den Sommermonaten erhöhte Brandgefahr beim Biersieden."

    Can you read that or do you need Google translate?

    Secondly, over the years, I've probably been to around 100 pubs/breweries in Bavaria. I have never said that all or many lager for eight weeks or longer, but some. I don't at all buy your "extra lagered" story because that wasn't what I asked.

    I'm not a brewer (either amateur or professional) and never have been, perhaps that gives me more freedom to understand since I am not bound by the laws of chemistry. Also, I've seen a fair number of breweries that look like they haven't been "updated" since the world went to war.

    Very likely these places brew beer the way their grandparents or great-grandparents did.

  11. I will leave the titanic battle over the scope and meaning of Reinheitsgebot to you two--it's not something I'm particularly qualified to discuss.

    But Mike, I do want to respond to one thing you wrote and offer a meta-comment:

    I have also spoken to several brewers, but, in German, and several have told me that they lager their beer eight weeks or longer.

    I stand by my original comment.

    You often excoriate me (there's no better word) for my failure to adhere to "facts." The reason I posted this commentary was to illustrate that "fact" isn't a category with clear lines. You may well wish to stand by your comment--and I'll actually support you in it. But it's not fact. You haven't done or shown your work. (Having spoken to "several" unnamed breweries does not support your original contention.) It's an opinion predicated on beliefs and fragmentary data, which puts it in the category of so much of the commentary about beer. That's why I led with the admission that having visited 51 breweries, while an impressive number, really didn't scratch the surface. Much as your survey of Bavarian breweries is nothing more than a sample.

    I don't hold a ironclad fealty to some Platonic notion of "fact." In a discussion of any topic, we hope to come to a sense of meaning. Facts are critical to that pursuit, but we have to use inference as well.

    I would ask you, the next time you have a tart comment directed at my ignorance, to ask yourself whether your offense comes because I violated the truth or your sense of it. Big difference, and one you often conflate. This is a perfect example of that conflation: no one has facts about what's "standard" for lagering times, and there is conflicting information. You have every right to assert your informed view (and indeed, it is well informed); you do not have the right to claim your sense of these facts make them actual facts. You see the difference?

  12. Jeff, first of all, I feel that you are getting a better understanding of my position (although you don't seem to be quite there yet) and that we can now communicate on a friendlier level than in the past. I would welcome that.

    OK. Now my reaction to your post: let me use Alan Taylor as an example. He arrogantly posted that I was wrong about something that he felt he had great knowledge of. I found his post insulting. Furthermore, he wrote: "it (longer lagering time) can mellow the beer to a point before autolysis and oxidation start to rear their heads and start to ruin the beer."

    As I posted in German what I had originally written in English, bottom-fermented beer in Bavaria several hundred years ago was lagered for at least half a year. Thus, his technical point cannot be accurate, at least for the brewing technology of 4-500 years ago.

    This is pretty much what I have been complaining about you. For example, you spent a few days visiting three of Germany's sixteen states (Länder) and then write: "In Germany, it's almost as if they're allergic to esters (except in weizens, where the stoke them)."

    Imagine I visited, say, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Pittsburg and Topeka and, on the basis of that made conclusions about "American beer." I think you would rightly find that unfair. And by the same token, so do I.

    I don't think you are ignorant, I think you do need to work on research skills. Don't jump to conclusions based on little evidence. Don't assume that an incident means anything more than an incident. Recognise that your lack of language ability, for example, does have consequences.

    I don't claim to be one of the world's great experts on European beer, but, I've clearly got far more experience with it than, for example, you do. I can speak and read three languages (many of my friends know more, btw) and that gives me access to information that you, for example, can't access.

    And finally, show me, as you have in the accompanying post now, some respect and, I expect, we'll get along fine.

  13. One of the reasons I enjoy Jeff's blog so much is the fact that the vast majority of commentors are friendly and polite. I would hope that we can continue that tradition and not head down the road of recent political discourse.

    I didn't intend to come across as arrogant or insulting to Mike. I was simply stating the facts about the Reinheitsgebot and then tossed in a couple of ideas as to why some German brewing practices were the way the were and are the way they are. Upon further research, it appears that he and I were talking about two different texts. The RHG of 1516 says what I mentioned in an earlier comment. I have a facsimile of the original text in front of me and am capable of reading it in the original. I tried to find a bayerische Brauordnung von 1516 (to no avail) online, but did find multiple references to one from 1539 which talks about what Mike says. I couldn't find the original text, so, Mike, if you have it and would be willing to share it, I would love to read it.

    To the comments about historical and current brewing practices in Germany, beers brewed centuries ago bear little resemblance to current ones. There are many technical reasons for that, which I won't go into on this post. I stand by my comments about current lagering practices in Germany and elsewhere on technical grounds. I agree with Mike that you don't have to be a trained brewer to be able to hold strong opinions about beer or brewing. Interested parties can read, drink, and explore this wonderful field and talk and argue about it, or simply rejoice in it. But having a solid technical training and industry experience help to understand what is happening in our brews, so I respect and appreciate that as well.

    Here's to a lively, pleasant discussion! Prosit!

  14. Alan, the tone of your message was condescending. I guess in your world, saying it was not intentional is enough. In my world, an apology would be in order.

    The text I quoted was from the German Wikipedia. And you are correct that the date was wrong. However, the text was correct and beer was lagered for at least six months at that time.

    Incidentally, it was thanks to the lagering time in the Felsenkellers that eventually, it became popular to serve the beer directly from lagered barrels and, this tradition has survived until today: they are now called bierkellers.

    But even six months, it turns out, is a low estimate: "War früher das obergärige Bier wegen nur kurzer Haltbarkeit zum raschen Verbrauch bestimmt, so änderte sich das einschneidend mit der Erfindung des Untergärigen (erstmals 1474 in der Nabburger Chronik erwähnt). Dieses Bier war mit neun bis zehn Monaten möglicher Lagerzeit wesentlich länger haltbar." This is from der Verein zur Förderung der Fränkischen Braukultur.

    This information is admittedly from hundreds of years ago. However, what I think you fail to appreciate, Alan, is that many Germans put a very high value on tradition. This is why you still see May Poles in Bavaria, why many people still wear traditional dress and why traditional beer is well-respected and appreciated.

    Proof? OK. I just spent a nice afternoon with a good friend: a young German who loves beer. He told me the Kronen Brauerei in Ulm-Söflingen still, to this day, makes beer the way it was made in the 16th century. The blocks of ice and all. Lager time? Six MONTHS.

    Or, take a look at these pictures: As the sign says, it was renovated in 1994-5, but it still looks like something from a century or two ago.

    Throughout the Oberpfalz you can find breweries like this. And, according to my friend, there are "plenty" of breweries throughout Bavaria and southern Germany that have lagering times longer that eight weeks.

    That you think the beers brewed centuries ago are effectively dead now is part of the problem. I'm not so sure of that and I would guess that in most of the beer-producing countries of Europe there would by varying degrees of similarity to the beers served long ago.

    BTW, I didn't bother translating the German because I assume Alan can read it and no one else is following along. However, if anyone would like it, let me know.

  15. Alan, the tone of your message was condescending. I guess in your world, saying it was not intentional is enough. In my world, an apology would be in order.

    Classic. You are many things, Mike, but sensitive to irony is not among them.

  16. Here are some brewers in Bavaria who lager for 8 weeks plus.

    Brauerei Aichinger, Heiligenstadt.
    Josef Schneider, Essing.
    Brauerei Will, Stadelhofen / Schederndorf.
    Brauerei Hofmann, Gräfenberg

    Aichinger lagers for 4 months.

  17. Jeff, I didn't come here to entertain you. I came to inform you since your European beer reports have suffered from shoddy research.

  18. Ron, I have no doubt there are a number of breweries that lager their beer longer than a month. That, of course, is not what Mike claimed. he said most. It's the kind of comment you'd take, say Protz, to task for making. And note that I'm not even taking Mike to task for it. What I am saying is that he doesn't know and it's far from data.

    Mike, you are as often ignorant as you are insightful, and your efforts to "educate" people like Alan (trained in Germany, brewed in Germany, regularly visits German breweries, married to a German) illustrate that it is you, not he, who has a problem with arrogance. It is magnified by your periodic ignorance, particularly about the technical aspects of brewing.

    For what it's worth, this really be the final comment I make directed at you--I know I've said that before, but this time it's true. When you're abusive to me, it's not the end of the world, but when you behave badly to my other commenters, it becomes a problem. You've done this regularly not just here but at Stan's place and Stephen's. I won't delete your comments (unless you become abusive to other commenters), but I think the productive portion of our relationship has come to an end.

  19. Jeff, I said "most of the good ones (particularly in Bavaria), lager longer"

    That is not the same as just "most."

    And, regarding Alan: if he is as knowledgable about German beer as you claim, why didn't he know about the brewing restrictions I mentioned. I have known this for years.

  20. After consideration, I probably should have written "many of" instead of "most of".

    And I should also add that the summer brewing prohibition has probably had as great as or even greater impact on southern German beer culture as the Reinheitsgebot. It is widely recognised by Germans that the cave lagering led directly to the creation of bierkellers, of which there are today, hundreds in Bavaria, while the restrictions of the Reinheitsgebot today has a questionable impact on that same beer culture. (How many Bavarians would be keen on drinking a German-made Kriek, I wonder?)

    Ron Pattinson has an article on the Reinheitsgebot here:

    I think it adds further insight into its affect on German beer culture.

  21. Just to throw some more wood into the fire... When you, all of you, speak about lagering length, are you speaking about all of the beers of a given brewery or just some of them.

    Here in CZ some breweries lager some of their beers for three or more months, but they can lager some others for three or four weeks. It all depends on the style.