The Historic Roots of 7 Styles of Brew

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You don't have to put too much thought into a beer to be able to enjoy it, but that doesn't mean a little bit of history can't make things more interesting. Here's a look at the religious, political, and historic roots of seven styles of brew.

1. Porter

The dark, delicious porters we enjoy today would probably be totally unfamiliar to the style's original drinkers, transportation porters in 18th-century London. After a long day of toting luggage and freight, these porters enjoyed a blend of beers that was known as "the three threads" that mixed together a stale, soured beer, a standard English ale, and a mild ale. The resulting concoction was thirst quenching, toasty, and even a little bit sour. Eventually, the popularity of this mixture led English brewers to brew their own beers in the style that the porters enjoyed, and porter has been evolving ever since.

2. Russian Imperial Stout

What do the big, bad boys of the stout world have to do with Russia's imperial days?

Catherine the Great apparently liked throwing one back. Although you wouldn't know it from the misleading name, the robust stout style originated in England, not Russia. In the mid-18th century, English brewers began producing a boozy, roasty stout for export to Catherine the Great's court; the higher alcohol content helped protect the brew from freezing during its long trip to the empress' table.

3. India Pale Ale

When British colonists set up shop in India during the 17th century, they latched onto a country rich with natural resources but short on places where you could buy a decent pint. Shipping in beer from London was no easy task, though, since the barrels would have to weather a long, hot journey around the Cape of Good Hope. By the time the English booze made it into colonial mugs, it was well past its prime.

In the late 18th century, though, London brewers hit on an idea of how to make a beer that could survive the long, balmy journey to India. They modified the traditional English pale ale recipe to include more malt "“ and thus more alcohol "“ and more hops. The extra booze coupled with the naturally preservative effects of the hops made for a sturdier beer that would arrive in India with its flavor more or less intact. By the 19th century, these hoppy export beers had become all the rage back home in England, so brewers began marketing their "India pale ales" to domestic drinkers.

4. Saison

Just because this refreshing style of beer has a French name "“ saison translates into "season" "“ doesn't mean it originated in France. (You might have picked up on this trend of misleading monikers by now.) Instead, saisons come to us from Wallonia, the southern region of Belgium where French is the dominant language. Belgian breweries traditionally made saisons in the winter months and then aged them until the summer months, when parched farm workers needed a beer that was thirst quenching and refreshing without being so boozy that it would knock the farmhands off their feet.

5. Bock

These potent, malty German lagers date back to the 14th century, where they were first brewed in the town of Einbeck. German monks would fast throughout Lent, but since it was Germany, beer wasn't off-limits during the fasts. To keep their strength up throughout their forty days of fasting, the monks would brew a particularly strong lager that would provide them with more nutrients than their typical beers.

6. Doppelbock

By the 17th century, German monks were looking for an even more filling beer for their fasting periods, so a group of Paulaner monks in Munich amped up the strength of the regular bocks and created the doppelbock as a more filling form of "liquid bread."

According to the German Beer Institute, the monks were originally concerned that their potent new creation might be so strong that it distracted from spiritual matters and just got the brothers soused. They allegedly shipped a cask of the brew to Rome so the pope could give it a try. The malty beer didn't do so well on the hot trip, though, and by the time the pope tasted it, the doppelbock had gone sour. His Holiness took one sip of the spoiled brew and gave it his approval on the grounds that it was so foul that no monk would enjoy drinking it enough to get tipsy. (On behalf of beer fans everywhere, let's lift a mug to the Holy Father!)

The Paulaner monks weren't just out to get buzzed, though; they were also serious about their monastic duties. To honor their religious ties, they named their brew "Salvator," or "savior." Other breweries picked up on the convention of ending their doppelbock names with "-ator," which is why you now see doppelbocks with names like Celebrator, Optimator, Kulminator, and Consecrator.

7. Pumpkin Ale


When the first English colonists came to North America, they brought an adventurous spirit and a love of beer, but they left the best ingredients back home. They showed early examples of American ingenuity when it came to brewing themselves some suds, though. No hops? No problem. Just substitute spruce tips. Short on barley? Just dig around for anything else that had fermentable sugars. Colonists brewed their own beers using molasses, maple syrup, and just about anything else they could get thirsty mitts on; eventually, they even began brewing a special ale with pumpkins. What was originally an improvisation designed to cover for a shortage of ingredients has now become one of our most beloved autumn seasonal beverages.

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July 8, 2010 - 8:25pm
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