Winter Beer and Summer Beer

History by the Glass by | Dec 2013 | Issue #83

No, they’re not seasonal specials. At least not in the sense you’re thinking. They’re two of the earliest lager styles, now almost completely forgotten, though traces of them remain.

They were the result of the lager production methods in the first half of the 19th century, in the dark days before artificial refrigeration, when summer brewing of bottom-fermenting beers was impractical, as the temperature of the wort couldn’t be kept low enough. The solution? Brew a beer designed to last through the summer months, removing the need for brewing in the summer at all.

You can probably guess what it was called—Sommerbier (German for “summer beer”)—though it was also sometimes called just plain “Lagerbier.” You may have heard a similar tale before, but this time it’s really true. Sommerbier had two lines of defense against spoiling: an increased content of both alcohol and hops.

83FermentedCulture2Schankbier or Schenkbier has no direct equivalent in English, but does have one in Czech:  Výčepní Pivo. This is the modern descendent of Winterbier. Despite being the most popular type of beer in the Czech Republic, it’s passed the international-style nazis by. Ten-degrees Plato and around 4 percent ABV are its distinguishing features, much the same as the Winterbier in the table above.

Schankbier lives on as an official category in Germany, being any beer between 7º and 10º Plato, though currently only a tiny amount—much less than 1 percent of total beer production—is brewed. And almost all of that is Berliner Weisse.

83FermentedCulture3This next table does more than highlight the different hopping regimes of Winterbier and Sommerbier; it also shows how British brewers used hops with a much heavier hand. The most heavily hopped Sommerbier only just matched Scottish Ale.

The brewing methods were slightly different for Winterbier and Sommerbier:

“The temperature of the wort when pitching averages 6-8° for Sommerbier, 9-11° C. for Winterbier, but once fermentation has started the temperature is cooled further, down to about 4° C., by hanging in it metal balls filled with ice, to let the fermentation run slowly. After completion of primary fermentation, which lasts 9-10 days for Sommerbier, 7-8 days for Winterbier, the fermented wort, which is called green beer or Jungbier, is ready to be filled into casks.”
Brockhaus’ Conversations-Lexikon, Part 3, 1882, page 32.

Winterbier was intended for pretty much immediate consumption and consequently had less need for lagering. In many cases, as few as four weeks was considered sufficient. In contrast, Sommerbier was lagered for many months, then had to last all through the summer, too.

The longer, slower fermentation was important for the keeping qualities of Sommerbier:

“Sommerbier is usually put into barrels by dividing a few brews evenly into several barrels, not filling them up completely and only closing the bungs much later, often after a couple months ago when a white foam has formed on the surface of the beer, after they have been previously filled to within a few inches of the top. The quicker or more firmly the bungs are closed, the faster and more powerful the secondary fermentation, but also the less time such a beer can be kept.”
Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitschrift für die Technischen Gewerbe, Volume 2, page 86.

The history of lager is of the near total victory of Sommerbier. After 1870, when refrigeration allowed year-round brewing, Winterbier gradually withered away, save in the Czech Republic. Most modern lager is around 12º Plato and 5 percent ABV. In a way, we could call all of them Sommerbier. It’s yet another demonstration of how beer styles are influenced by technological advances.