History Byte – Will Lager Bier Intoxicate?

Lager beer was introduced into Canada in the 1840s with the arrival of German immigrants from Germany and Pennsylvania.  The introduction of the lager yeast and the style to North America is usually attributed to Bavarian brewmaster, John Wagner who brought the yeast with him when he emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1840.  The fundamental difference between lager and ale is the yeast.  Ale yeast ferments on the surface of the wort in warm temperatures, while lager yeast ferments at the bottom of the barrel at cold temperatures.  Historically, lagers were also perceived to be less intoxicating than ale, likely due to the lower alcohol content (usually around 3%).  As a result, this article appeared in the February 12th, 1858 edition of the Globe and Mail in Toronto. The article reads :

“Will Lager Bier Intoxicate? – In the King’s county Circuit Court, yesterday, George Sinnts and others, proprietors of a lager bier brewery and garden in Williamsburg, were placed on trial upon the charges of selling intoxicating liquors on a Sunday, in violation of the 21st section of the Metropolitan Police law.  The question to be decided by this trial is whether lager bier is an intoxicating drink.  If it is not, it does not come within the provisions of the law.  The penalty for each violation is $50.  On the part of the people several witnesses were brought forward to prove that lager bier was exhilarating as well as intoxicating in its effects, while on the parf of the defence a large number of witnesses proved, from personal experience, that any quantity could be drunk without producing intoxication.  The latter were principally Germans, one of whom testified that he had on one occasion drank fifteen pint glasses before breakfast in order to give him an appetite.  Another, Mr. Phillip Kock, testified that once, upon a bet, he drank a keg of lager bier, containing seven and a half gallons, or thirty quarts, within two hours, and felt no intoxicating effects afterwards.  He frequently drank sixty, seventy, eighty and ninety pint glasses in a day — did it as a usual thing ‘when he was “flush.” Others testified to to drinking from twenty to fifty glasses a day.  One witness testified to seeing a man drink 100 pint glasses in a sitting of three or four hours and walked straight.  Dr. James R. Chilton, chemist, testified to analyzing lager bier, and found it to contain 3 3/4 to 4 per cent of alcohol, and did not think it would intoxicate unless drank in extraordinary quantities.  He had analyzed cider and found it to contain 9 per cent alcohol; claret 18 per cent; brandy 50 per cent; Madeira wine 20 per cent, and sherry wine 18 per cent.  The evidence was all given in, and to-day the case will be submitted to the jury. – N.Y. Herald, July 5th.

Unfortunately, the Globe never printed a follow up story to let us know what the jury decided. What we do know, is that lager came to be viewed as a temperance drink, and was one of the last alcoholic beverages to be derided as a challenge to sobriety.   Just as a side note, I wish I had met the man who a witness claimed downed 100 pints in 4 hours.  Considering that 100 pints is equal to just over 47 litres that’s a pretty amazing feat!  His friend who claimed to have consumed seven and a half gallons (28 litres) in 2 hours deserves a round of applause as well (or maybe just a charge of perjury for lying under oath!)


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