If booze science is the best science, then booze history is, by extension, the best history — and when booze science and booze history combine? Well, then you've got the makings of something magical. New research has uncovered previously unknown information about the origins of the beer known as lager, and you guys? It's awesome. Because if there was ever a time to delve into the scientific history of beer, Friday is it.
While we know that some form of beer has been around for ages — barley beer is thought to have first been produced in Mesopotamia all the way back in 10,000 B.C.E. — it wasn't until the 15th century that an innovation came along resulting in something closer to the beer we drink today:” In Bavaria, brewers noticed that storing beer in caves during the winter allowed it to continue to ferment — which, in turn, created a beer that was both smoother and lighter than what they'd been making before. It became known as “lager,” from the German word “lagern,” or “to store.”
In 2011, researchers finally identified — mostly by accident, which I kind of love — the other of the two types of yeast that form the hybrid used in brewing lager. Scientists have known for a while that lager yeast, Saccharomyces carlsbergensis (sound familiar, Carlsberg fans?), is, in fact, a hybrid of two yeasts; but while they knew that one of those two was Saccharomyces cerevisiae, they hadn't hitherto been able to identify the second one in nature. It turns out, though, that is was similar to another brewing yeast, Saccharomyces bayanus; as such, they named it Saccharomyces eubayanus. It was the discovery of S. eubayanus that allowed the current study to work its magic: It resulted in the assembly of a high-quality genome of S. eubanayus , shedding a whole lot of light on the origins of lager itself.
According to Science Daily, University of Wisconsin-Madison doctoral candidate EmilyClare Baker, corresponding author Chris Todd Hittinger, and their team used next-generation sequencing to assemble the genome — and from there, they were finally able to study, for the very first time, the complete genomes of both types of yeast that make lager… well, lager. They don't know yet when the two species came together, but they do know that it happened about 500 years ago. When S. cerevisiae and S. eubayanus met, they created a yeast that could eat the sugars in malt at much lower temperatures than other yeast could — temperatures which, incidentally, were the norm in the caves the Bavarians used to store their fermenting beer. Voila: Lager.
So there you have it. Bavarian lagers are still in production today; you might check out a few on the World Beer Awards' list for some good options. I was going to make the obligatory “it's five o'clock somewhere” joke, but, well… let's not and just say I did. Regardless, though, drink up!