International intrigue, a royal court, smuggling, and industrial espionage: topics associated with paperback thrillers, but rarely with brewing, an industry with an almost staid demeanor. But once upon a time, there was a frantic race across the borders of Eastern Europe that rivaled the best spy novels, and the hero was a young Danish brewer named Christian Jacobsen.

It was mid-1883. Five years earlier, Jacobsen succeeded in isolating yeast in a lab at his family’s Carlsberg Brewery. He and co-worker Emil Hansen speculated that a pure batch of yeast could be grown from a single biological cell. They correctly reasoned that such a process would yield a higher quality beer.

As work progressed, they identified dozens of yeasts. Which would work best? They weren’t sure, but eventually they decided on a simple solution. They’d seek out the best lager beer available, and from it culture a pure strain of lager yeast. It was their plan that led Jacobsen to Munich.

Gabriel Sedylmeyer of Munich’s Spaten Brewery was regarded as the most accomplished brewer of his day. An innovator in his own right, he had transformed the Spaten Brewery into a state-of-the-art facility. Without question, his lager beer was considered best in the world. Jacobsen went there to find his perfect yeast.

Jacobsen met with Sedylmeyer, studied his techniques, and better yet, obtained a sample of Spaten’s coveted yeast. It remains unclear whether or not the yeast was obtained by covert means, but with it the adventure began. Between Jacobsen and his lab were hundreds of grueling miles, international borders, and worst of all–heat. Lager yeast works best when kept cool, and when heated soon expires. Jacobsen not only had to get his sample quickly back to the lab; he had to shield it from both menacing border guards, and the heat of summer. Concealing the sample in his hat helped insulate it, and with every stop he chilled it in the nearest spring, hoping to keep the yeast healthy.

On arriving back in Denmark, he and Hansen lost no time in getting to work. First, they identified the cell responsible for Sedylmeyer’s famous beer, then, from a single cell, built up a viable colony suitable for brewing. With the royal family’s permission he fermented the first pure batch of lager beer in cellars under protection of Copenhagen’s ramparts.

Only three years later, Carlsberg sold a sample of yeast to the Schlitz and Pabst Breweries, expanding the reach of pure yeast into North America. Few recall the story of Jacobsen’s headlong race across Europe, yet millions enjoy the crisp, clean taste of pure lager beer. Braving all manner of hazards it was Christian Jacobsen who fashioned the greatest of all brewery adventures, and with it became the real Indiana Jones of beer.

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Copyright Gregg Smith – His latest book “American Beer History” is available on Amazon