A Brief History of Lager Brewing

Brewing is an ancient art form, but for thousands of years brewers produced primarily ales or ale-like beers. This makes the art of lager brewing relatively young, beginning in Central Europe approximately six centuries ago. The word lager originates from the German word lagern meaning “to store”. The first golden lagers were brewed in Bohemia, or what is now the Czech Republic. Brewing was traditionally a winter occupation. Then, during the summer months, brewers would use ice to cool the beer. Otherwise, brewers relied on the cold air of caves and cellars, storing them for extended periods of time, as lagers requires. By the late 19th century, refrigeration enabled brewers to brew lagers in the warmer months and refrigerated train cars allowed for distribution.

Lager Brewing in the United States

Brewing lager is an art form that arrived to the United States via German and Prussian immigrants. The true “brewing culture” did not really develop in the United States until the arrival of 19th century German immigrants. In an article entitled The Inspiring and Surprising History and Legacy of American Lager Beer, Gregory Casey points out that lagers were gaining popularity in the United States very early on saying “from 1840 to 1893…the per capita consumption of spirits declined by over 50% during this period (from 2.5 gallons in 1840 to 1.2 gallons in 1893), the per capita consumption of beer increased an astounding 11.5-fold! David (i.e., lager beer) had truly slain the American Goliath of hard liquor in a remarkable transformation of a nation from one of hard liquor drinkers to one that loved beer.”  Earlier, many of the United States Founding Fathers are noted to have been in support of the consumption of beer over the hard liquors of early American distilleries.

In the 1830’s, German immigrants sailed to the United States to escape civil unrest and severe unemployment. This influx of German immigration to the United States correlates with the introduction of lager beer to the continent. Historians of brewing attribute some of the first lagers in North America to John Wagner. In 1840, Wagner, a former Bavarian Brewmaster, acquired some genuine German lager yeast and began his new life of brewing in Philadelphia. At his home, Wagner would brew lagers  and distribute them to friends and fellow German and Prussian immigrants. It is often said that Wagner’s supply of lager yeast was shared among the brewer’s of mid-nineteenth century Philadelphia and southern Pennsylvania.

Post 1900

Another brewer, Charles Wolf, compiled much data of historical and contemporary breweries in his 1903 work 100 Years of Brewing, where he attributes himself or his brewery as the first commercial brewery in the U.S to brew lagers. Wolf was a Philadelphia sugar refiner and brewed at the refinery along with employee George Manger. As the story goes, Wagner and Manger were acquainted and even shared in the aforementioned German lager yeast. At the refinery at Dillwyn Street in Philadelphia, Wolf and Manger brewed small batches of lager beer.

In 1844, they introduced a third brewer, Bavarian Charles Engel and soon Engel and Wolf began a brewery there at the refinery. Despite Wolf, Manger, and Engel having a larger operation, most attribute Wagner’s lager as the predecessor to the American lagers that came later in the century.  St. Louis, Missouri became one of the major destinations for German immigrants, including Johann Adam Lemp. Lemp started the Western Brewery in 1840, but he only brewed ales. By 1842, Lemp began brewing the German-style lagers his countrymen craved. Soon, his son William, took the reigns of Western Brewery. William Lemp took the brewery to the next level, producing nearly 12,000 barrels of German-style lager annually!

Future Lager Predictions

Lager is the most popular type of beer, accounting for nearly 90% of global consumption today. Consumption of lager is on the rise, according to craft brewers and retailers, as a preference for palatable options is surging over the high-alcohol, hoppy IPAs, and other craft beers. During the craft beer movement that emerged in the 1990s, the focus seemed initially on brewing ales. Craft brewers experimented with various styles, flavors, and ingredients. Ales allowed for quicker turnaround times and experimentation, making them more attractive to early craft brewers.

However, in recent years, there has been a noticeable shift in the popularity of lagers in the United States. Craft brewers have revisited traditional lager styles, such as Pilsners and Helles, showcasing the versatility and complexity that lagers can offer. According to Future Market Insights (FMI), lagers account for roughly half of the global beer market.  As of 2018, the global market for standard lagers was valued at $205.8 billion. This market is expected to grow by a value of approximately 50% by the end of 2023.

Liz Paquette, Head of Consumer Insights for online ordering suggests that beer drinkers are starting to pull away from hoppy beers in exchange for something more light and refreshing such as a light lager. In fact, light lagers gained two percentage points in sales from 2020 to 2021, while IPAs declined two percentage points. In 2022, the share for IPAs has remained flat at 9% compared to the same time in 2021, while light lager gained two percentage points.

Check out BSI Lager strains HERE!

By David Pritchard, Microtechnologist

References and Further Reading

Anderson, Will. Beer, USA: 500 Years of America’s Beer Facts, Folklore, Photos, and Fun. Morgan & Morgan, Inc. , 1986.                                                                                          Anderson, Will. The Beer Book: An Illustrated Guide to American Breweriana. The Pyne Press; 1973.
American Homebrewers Association. “Lagers vs. Ales: What’s the Difference?” 2018.
Casey, Gregory P. “Germany’s Extensive History of Brewing with Malt Substitutes: Birthplace of America’s Adjunct Lager Beer.” MBAA Technical Quarterly 57, no. 3 (2020): 142–61.
Casey, Gregory P. “The Inspiring and Surprising History and Legacy of American Lager Beer.” MBAA Technical Quarterly 57 (2020): 9–18.
Eckhardt, Fred. McCallum, Jack. A Treatise on Lager Beers: A Handbook for Americans and Canadians on Lager Beer. Portland, Oregon. Hobby Winemaker, 1972.
Fort, J.V. Let’s Talk Beer. Springfield, MO: Mycroft Press, 1958.
Hardwick, William Jr. Phd, History of Brewing in Americas in The Practical Brewers: A Manual for the Brewing Industry. MBAA; 1977.
Harper T., Oliver G. The Good Beer Book. Berkley Trade; 1997.
Oliver, G. The Oxford Companion to Beer. Oxford University Press; 2011.
Smith G, Getty C. The Beer Drinker’s Bible: Lore, Trivia & History : Chapter & Verse. Siris Books; 1997.

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