Beer in Europe

Medieval to modern brews

As towns developed in medieval Europe, alehouses – simple places that made and sold ale – quickly followed, with brewing usually carried out by women called alewives. Because ale deteriorated quickly, only limited quantities could be made at one time and supplies often ran out.

Some 12th-century monastaries used to stipulate a daily allowance of a gallon of good ale

Some 12th-century monastaries used to stipulate a daily allowance of a gallon of good ale

In medieval England, the alehouse was the centre of public life for ordinary people and a place for them to buy refreshment at the alehouse door, filling buckets and barrels to take home or to work. Those who were well off usually frequented more fashionable inns and taverns, establishments that evolved into the public houses (or pubs) of today. 

In the rest of Europe around this time, many monasteries brewed their own beer, which was safer (and more enjoyable) than the uncertain qualities of the drinking water. Monasteries brewed beer for church festivals and celebrations, which would continue as long as there was beer. Today, this tradition continues, as a small number of monasteries in Europe still make (and sell) their own special beers.

In the 15th century, the Flemish exported hopped beer across the channel to the English, before introducing the hop plant itself to England a century later. The development of the brewing industry in the port cities of Rotterdam and Amsterdam in the 17th and 18th centuries, meanwhile, was tied to the demand for rations for seamen, and to the export of beer to the East and West Indies.

Germans have been known for their enjoyment of beer for centuries. The German Bierstube (beer tavern) was born in the 1600s and quickly became an integral part of life. The Oktoberfest, Munich’s annual beer festival that began in 1810 at King Ludwig I’s wedding, attracts millions of participants every year. Today, many regions and cities still produce distinctive beers, and sampling the local brew remains an important part of German life.

Ales versus lagers

Ales are beers made with a top-fermenting yeast that rises during the fermentation process. Other beers, known as lagers, are made with a yeast that sinks to the bottom during fermentation, producing a naturally clearer beer. 

Louis Pasteur played a crucial role in helping brewers perfect the fermentation process

Louis Pasteur played a crucial role in helping brewers perfect the fermentation process

This method of bottom fermentation was known in Bavaria as early as the 15th century, but was not widely adopted for many years because the beer had to be stored in a very cool environment to mature properly. Until the 19th century, these lager beers – after lager, the German word for storage – were only made where there were natural caves that could keep the maturing beer cold. During the 19th century, however, with the introduction of industrial refrigeration, it became possible to produce lager beers virtually anywhere.

Light amber-coloured beers have their roots in Pilsen, a city in the Czech Republic. These beers made use of the newly perfected cool, bottom-fermenting lager technology, producing beers that were pale gold, clear, well-hopped and very refreshing – and an immediate success. Previously, all beers were either dark or somewhat hazy. The clarity of Pilsners also complemented the mass-produced Bohemian glassware that had begun to replace stoneware and pewter drinking vessels at that time.

The fame of the new lager quickly spread to the rest of Europe. Today, the majority of the world’s beers are golden lagers that are a distant derivation of the Pilsner style.

The great French scientist Louis Pasteur is considered the father of brewing science. Not only did he explain scientifically the role of brewer’s yeast in fermentation in 1857, but he also discovered the microbes that cause some beers to spoil – a mystery that had baffled brewers for thousands of years – and found that they could be killed with heat through the process now known as pasteurisation. Pasteur’s discoveries led to the development of modern brewing technology. Today, all major breweries have laboratories that monitor the microbiological state of the process and product.