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Monday, October 19, 2020

Safer Than Water

Despite some of the more inebriating effects, for thousands of years people considered beer a healthier alternative to water. But prior to the 19th century, they did not understand why beer was safer. Many just held the belief that beer was not dangerous and water was harmful and could not be trusted, unaware that they were routinely polluting their own fresh water sources. Despite beer's "healthier" reputation, it could still go bad through bacterial contamination and/or poor sanitation and fermentation.

For many Early American and European brewers, beer went bad quite often. In a letter dated 1623, George Sandy of the Virginia colony wrote, "It would well please the country to hear he had taken revenge of Dupper for his Stinking [sic] beer, which hath been the death of 200." Like most food or beverage products, beer is not immune to bacterial growth or becoming rank from improper brewing practices. But through increased discoveries and understanding of the scientific study of microorganisms and biochemistry during the 19th century, brewing consistent quality beer became the norm by the 1880s.    

While Louis Pasteur is most famous for his discoveries in the causes and prevention of diseases, his lesser known research in fermentation was a giant leap forward for the brewing world. Pasteur began that work in 1857, examining distilling problems and eventually turning his attention to beer yeasts and their fermentation.   

Anheuser Busch advertisement, Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, ca. 1724-1977, Beer Series. Archives Center, National Museum of American History.  NMAH-AC0060-0002897-02.

After two decades, in 1876 Pasteur published his findings, "Études sur la Bière." He found that beer became foul not from "spontaneous generation," but when harmful bacteria were introduced at some point in the fermentation process, thus rendering the beer contaminated. Applying his discovery of bacterial effects on fermentation to his pasteurization process, he was able to produce bacteria-free brewer's yeast samples. But this was not the final step in improving the quality of beer or research in brewer's yeasts.         

Besides problems with bacterial infection, the accidental introduction of undesirable yeast strains also spoiled beer. Prior to the late 19th century, breweries struggled to control the type of yeast strains in the brewing process. Most batches of beer commonly contained more than one strain of yeast, each imparting its own characteristics. Multiple strains affected the fermentation, as well as the taste and smell of the beer; for many brewers, producing a consistent flavor and quality proved difficult at best.  Even modern brewing giant Carlsberg Brewery was no different than many other brewers in their struggle to produce beer of consistent quality.   

Soon after Pasteur published his research, Jacob Christian Jacobsen, founder of Carlsberg Brewery, read it. Motivated by the findings and his desire to brew high-quality beer, Jacobsen built a laboratory within his brewery.  But despite his financial ability to build a state-of-the-art lab, he needed a scientist to head the laboratory. Upon the recommendation of a friend, Jacobsen hired botanist Emil Christian Hansen for the position in 1877.   

Phillip Best Brewing advertisement, Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, ca. 1724-1977,
Beer Series, Archives Center, National Museum of American History. 

Hansen's primary task was to investigate various issues that caused inconsistency. Through his research, Hansen had found that the yeast sample Carlsberg used had become contaminated with a second and different strain.  What he found was that not all yeast strains produced a positive effect in the fermentation process; some yeast strains were harmful to beer and fermentation.    

Utilizing Pasteur's research, Hansen developed a method to isolate and create individual-pure yeast strains.  By November 1883, Carlsberg brewed its first batch utilizing the pure strain, which Hansen named Saccharomyces Carlsbergensis.  The following year, all beer brewed by Carlsberg Brewery used this strain. But what do Pasteur's and Hansen's discoveries have to do with American beer?  

The same year Pasteur published his "Études sur la Bière," Anheuser-Busch's founder, Adolphus Busch, read the work and became the first American brewer to institute a pasteurization process in bottling his beer.  This insured Anheuser-Busch produced a bacteria-free product, resulting in a fresher tasting and better preserved beverage.  Pasteurization allowed Busch to ship his beer long distances, thus transforming Anheuser-Busch from a mostly local brewery to a national and even international prominence almost overnight. 

While Pasteur's discoveries in pasteurization caught immediate American attention, Hansen's contributions to brewing were not far behind.  The same year Carlsberg began using its pure strain, William Uihlein, owner of Schlitz Brewery in Milwaukee, reportedly bought a sample of Saccharomyces Carlsbergensis for his beer. Within a few years, additional American breweries, Pabst, Wahl-Henius, and Dewes, instituted the use of pure yeast strains, as well as employing chemists.   

Schlitz Brewing advertisement, Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, ca. 1724-1977,
Beer Series, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

By the end of the 19th century, Pasteur's and Hansen's work played a significant role in transforming local American breweries into giants of American industry. The discoveries of these two European scientists brought new understanding to the roles of yeast and bacteria in brewing. And people finally knew why beer was safer than water to drink. 

Joe Hursey, Reference Archivist, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

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