Ever since the Little Ice Age in Europe, which made it harder to grow wine in many traditionally wine drinking regions, people have been growing grains, infinitely more resistant to cold, and brewing beer. Beer has always played a part in revolutions around the world. From the revolutionaries in colonial America meeting in taverns all the way until today, where the corner bar is still a hotbed of political discussion and debate. Beer has a history of working-class identity and is now experiencing a revolution of its own, on the microbiological level.
For thousands of years, the process of fermentation has been a mystery to man. While microbiology gave us the keys as to how yeast turns sugar into alcohol, scientists have just discovered the ancestral home of one of America’s favorite beers, lager.
While Europe was known for wine and ales, the lager was a recent addition to the family tree of frosty concoctions. Brewers and enthusiasts believe that the yeast to make lager was introduced when Bavarian monks moved their fermenting operation into caves to maintain a lower temperature. The yeast that could ferment at a lower temperature inevitably won out and was cultured because of the different taste that it imbued on the brew.
However scientists have wondered where the specific strain of Saccharomyces pastorianus (lager yeast) originated. Recently, however, Dr. Chris Todd Hittinger of the University of Wisconsin and his associates managed to isolate the primitive strain Saccharomyces eubayanus, which mutated to become the modern domesticated strain of lager yeast.
They found the strain in the forests of Patagonia growing in pods on beech trees. The forests that the yeast is native to has daily lows of -2 degrees Celsius and is perfect to cultivate the yeast that activates at a lower temperature. The scientists will be able with this discovery to gauge the differences between the domesticated modern lager yeast and the original to determine at what point and under what conditions the yeast mutated.
Budweiser, Heineken, even Sam Adams all use the lager strain of yeast to give their beers that cool refreshing taste. Now brewers and scientists alike are wondering, what new yeasts are out there waiting to be discovered? And, what new beers can be made in the future when we discover new strains? To the thousands of craft and hobby brewers around the world, this new frontier is a sign that even an art that is thousands of years old can be made new at any time.
Photo: Lisa B. // CC 2.0