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How lager conquered the world

UTSC Food History Professor Jeffrey Pilcher is exploring how European beer, specifically German lager, has become the drink of choice world-wide. (Photo by Ken Jones)

Nearly every culture around the world can lay claim to having a fermented alcoholic beverage.

From Mexican pulque to Peruvian chichi, or Indian palm toddy to African sorghum beer, the variety of taste, texture and aroma are as diverse as the societies that concocted them.With so much variety it’s surprising that a rather bland type of German beer, known popularly as lager, has overwhelmingly become the international drink of choice.

“Lager is so pervasive that it provides us with an ideal way in which to explain the modern world,” says UTSC Food History Professor Jeffrey Pilcher, who explored how European beer has traveled the world over the last two hundred years as part of Interactions Seminar Series hosted by UTSC’s Department of Historical and Cultural Studies.

Pilcher, an expert in the emerging field of food history and part of UTSC’s Culinaria Research Initiative, is also exploring the subject as part of a book project. He says the emergence of European beer is very much the product of global trade, the movement of people and the existence of European empires during the 19th century.

Once European brewers had figured out a way to produce beer on an industrial level it was left to merchants to either sell the beer or establish local breweries in far-flung colonies. It was German lagers – brewed and chilled at a lower temperature than rival British ales – that began to catch a foothold particularly in areas of the world with warmer climates.

The flood of central European immigrants to the United States following the revolutions of 1848 spawned a brewing revolution in places like Milwaukee, St. Louis and Cincinnati. Breweries established in these cities became among the largest in the world including Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Pabst. European immigration to other parts of the Americas also led to popular brand names like Dos Equis in Mexico, Antarctica in Brazil and Cusqueña in Peru.

“In many instances beer represented modernity, but it also fit well into traditional societies that were adopting western tastes as their own,” he says.  

He points to German-style beer gardens in China, Japanese adoption of European brewing techniques during the Meiji restoration and the proliferation of breweries in European colonies as examples of how western taste in beer was being adopted around the world.

“The thing with lager is that it’s relatively bland. In many ways that blandness makes it the taste of modernity,” he says. “One aspect of this project I really look forward to is examining how certain tastes came to represent modernity.”

He adds the new kitchen lab at UTSC will help determine what people were thinking in terms of taste and perhaps resurrect local beer recipes that were lost to history.  

© University of Toronto Scarborough