What did the first lagers, lambics and IPA beers taste like?

PINTS by Jason Foster

Last time I explored a few styles of beer that have long histories. I wrote about what they might have tasted like at the time of their origins. It was so much fun we’re going to do it again, with some other classic recipes that have evolved over time.

It’s more a fun exercise than a scientific one — none of us were around to actually taste the originals back in the day, after all. But by doing some research on the brewing processes and ingredients of the time, and by consulting the smatterings of records the old brewers left behind, I’m pretty confident we can come up with a reasonable facsimile of some classic beer styles.

In the first round I picked some fairly low-hanging fruit in porters, stouts, and scotch ale. All have decent historical records, and there have also been recent efforts to re-create the original versions.

This time, I’m going to take a stab at some beers that are a bit harder to imagine in their original state.

We’ll kick things off with India pale ale, which was a strong pale ale designed to withstand the length of time it had to wait before being consumed. The extra hops and alcohol were meant to help it survive the two- to three-month voyage from Britain to India.

IPAs have become ubiquitous these days. But American versions bear little resemblance to their ancestors, given they use American hops and modern brewing techniques (plus a bit of American extremism, of course). Even modern British IPAs show no reflection of their origins.

An IPA in the late 1700s or early 1800s was quite hoppy and higher in alcohol than many other beers, just like the IPAs of today. But those original IPAs were MUCH higher in alcohol content, running between seven and nine per cent. As well, the beer would’ve looked rather muddy, as it wasn’t filtered. We can’t know exactly how hoppy they were, because brewing records were notoriously bad at providing details on hop additions, but we can assume they fell somewhere between today’s British and American versions. The hop character would’ve been classic British, with earthy, floral and rustic flavours.

And then we come to the sea voyage to India. Over that two-to-three-month trip, the beer would transform. First, the hop character would diminish, creating a more balanced beer. Second, with all the splashing and sloshing about on the ship, we can expect it would have some degree of oxidation, meaning an added wet-paper flavour. The overall impression might be of a relatively earthy, complex ale that was good to drink warm.

Coors Story There, Bud

Another style that’s hard to imagine in its original form is North American pale lager. Today, the style is associated with Budweiser, Coors and so on, But before prohibition it had evolved a style all its own. Two factors created a unique beer: European brewers and New World ingredients. In the 1700s and 1800s most brewers were German, British or Bohemian (Czech) immigrants. They brought their knowledge of traditional brewing techniques with them and sometimes even their family yeast strains, smuggled in their clothing or luggage.

But often they didn’t have access to traditional European ingredients, which were expensive and difficult to procure, so they had to adapt to North American substitutes. New World malt had higher proteins but a sharper taste, for one example. Also, the hops were harsher than in Europe.

But they still wanted to brew pilsners, porters, pale ales and dark lagers like their heritage dictated, so that meant the beers offered a hybrid of old-world approaches and new-world innovations. The result, in the case of pale lagers, was a relatively bitter, clean and sharp-tasting lager. It would be fuller-bodied than what we have today, and with more hop presence (not tons, just more than modern drinkers would expect).

The hops would be grassy and rough, and the grain more angular and pointed. It would still be refreshing, just different.

Tart Me Up

On the other hand, one style that likely hasn’t changed a bit is lambic. This classic Belgian style relies on spontaneous fermentation and results in a sharply tart beer. But while the style hasn’t changed, I find that lambic brewers have. You can still find true examples of the style (Cantillon, Tilquin and Drie Fonteinen are just three), but most lambic brewers have acquiesced to modern palates and sweetened the beer. It’s not the addition of fruit that’s the problem — because that’s a longstanding practice in lambic brewing — it’s that they also ensure there’s a high degree of residual sweetness in the beer to balance the lactic tartness.

The sweetness doesn’t reflect the history of the style. It doesn’t even offer an example of lambic at its modern best. You’re way better off going for one of the classics and experiencing the real thing. Think about it — how often do you get to experience a historical beer in its true form?

So that’s two parts of what will be a three-part trip through the wonderful world of beer history. Next time, we’ll check out historical styles that have only recently made a comeback.