The lager was believed to be developed by Bavarian monks in the 15th century; new evidence suggests the South Americans may have beaten them to it.
Lagers—as opposed to ales or other less common brews—are the most popular beers in the world. Budweiser, Miller and Coors are all lagers—as are the best-selling beer brands in most countries. But the home of the lager is Central Europe. The vast majority of lagers sold around the globe are derived from German and Czech-style lagers, and lager yeast has been traced back to this area as far back as the 15th century. However, new research suggests that lager may actually have been brewed in South America over 200 years earlier.
Though modern South American lagers, like most lagers, are based on the classic European style, a new history of the lager began to unfold in 2011 when scientists discovered Saccharomyces eubayanus in Patagonia. S. eubayanus was kind of the "missing link" of yeast. Lager yeast, known as S. pastorianus, was always known to be a hybrid of the ale yeast, S. cerevisiae, and another undiscovered parent yeast. S. eubayanus is that "lost parent"—thus answering a long standing brewing question.
The fact that this lost parent yeast was found halfway around the globe from the unofficial home of the lager was mystery enough, but now, researchers have uncovered another wrinkle in the story. According to NBC News, new genetic analysis of ceramic pottery excavated at an archeological site near the Chile-Argentina border in 2016 show that people were likely making alcoholic beverages with this lost yeast 1,000 years ago. "Saccharomyces eubayanus turned up in remains from two of the sites," archeologist Alberto Perez from Universidad Catolica de Temuco in Chile explained to NBC. "We had strong evidence showing the ceramics had been used to ferment vegetal products to produce alcoholic beverages." Based on this timeline, use of lager yeast in South America may have predated the use in Europe by at least 200 years. "This is the first archaeological evidence and earliest evidence of any kind of Saccharomyces eubayanus being used in alcohol production," he said. "Our findings confirm the historical presence of the yeast in this region and now we have confirmation of its use."
This isn't to say South Americans were whipping up Oktoberfest-style lagers back in the 12th century. These crude fermented beverages made from plant products are speculated to have been more similar to alcoholic drinks that are still served in the region today like "chichi" or "mudai." Still, the findings open up some interesting question about the evolution of lagers—arguably the biggest innovation in the history of beer.