Words for beer

There are four or five competing theories for the origin of the word “beer” and, frankly, none of them is particularly convincing.

The same is true of the word “ale”, as it happens: despite “ale” and its sisters, such as öl in Swedish and alus in Lithuanian, being found in languages from Britain to the Black Sea via the Baltic, no linguist has any good idea how it originated, with some of the ideas put forward being way out there in the unlikeliness ionosphere.

Of the four “great” families of words meaning “alcoholic drink made from malted grain”, however, we can be reasonably certain about the origins of the other two, the Slavonic “pivo” group and what might be called the “cerevisia” group, after the Latin word for “beer”. (Or, to be accurate, one of the Latin words for beer, since as well as the spelling we’re familiar with in the name of brewing yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the word also occurs in various Latin documents in the forms cervisia, cervesia, cervese, cervesa and cervisa.)

Taking this “cerevisia” group first, the Romans, who were wine drinkers rather than beer brewers, nicked their word for beer, in all its spellings, from speakers of a Celtic language. The original Proto-Celtic for “beer” was probably something like *kormi (that asterisk is the etymologist’s symbol indicating a word that has not been attested, but whose form can be worked out on the basis of later variants), going back to an earlier Proto-Indo-European word *kerm- (that dash means there was an ending on *kerm but we don’t know what that ending was.) *Kerm looks to be the root of a few other words in the Indo-European family, such as Russian korm, meaning “fodder,” an old Slavonic word krma, meaning “nourishment” or “food”, and Latin cremor, meaning “broth”, or “pap”.

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Pontos in America

Enough of the snidery of the last two posts: let’s get back to what this blog is famous for quite well known for around the world among a very small number of people: shining a torch on obscure bits of brewing history.

Regular readers may remember a post from last year about the “double drop” system of fermentation, during which, in passing, I mentioned another old method of “cleansing” fermenting beer of its excess yeast, the “ponto” system. This, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1911, “consists in discharging the beer into a series of vat-like vessels, fitted with a peculiarly shaped overflow lip. The yeast works its way out of the vessel over the lip, and then flows into a gutter and is collected.”

I remarked at the time that “ponto” was a curious word, not in the Oxford English Dictionary, and guessed that it might be derived from “pontoon”, because the “peculiarly shaped overflow lip” (you can see some here, pictured in the Porter Tun Room at Whitbread’s brewery in London) looked like the end of a pontoon or punt.

Aha! While digging around in Google Books a short while ago, I found an illustration of identical vessels being used in a brewery in Albany, New York in the middle of the 19th century, vessels that are referred to as “pontoons”. What’s more, it is clear that the brewery owner, John Taylor, had brought the “pontoon” concept back with him from London. Here’s a picture of Taylor’s pontoon room

– you can see the “pontoons” look identical to Whitbread’s pontos – and here’s a couple of quotes from a curious book called Ale in Prose and Verse‎ by Barry Gray and John Savage, published in 1866, from which the picture above comes, and which is mostly taken up with praising Taylor’s ales. The first is about Taylor’s trip back to England (he was born in either Durham or Chester, and came to the young United States with his parents around the start of the 19th century), when he had already been running a brewery in Albany for a couple of decades. While in the old country he decided to look at what was happening in the British brewing industry: Continue reading Pontos in America

The ‘beeriodic table’: beautifully executed, fatally flawed

I feel bad about this, really bad. Pete Brown’s having a “let’s be nice” month over on his blog, and all I can do is be mean, nasty, negative and carping. (And it’s not because I didn’t win anything in the BGBW awards, ’cos I didn’t enter this year, so there.)

Someone has produced a beautiful “periodic table of beer styles” you can see here, it’s a lovely piece of graphics, based on the familiar periodic table in chemistry, but grouping beers into families of styles, rather than chemical elements. It’s obvious that a huge amount of care and craftspersonship went into the creation of the “beeriodic table”. It looks lovely, and I’ve no doubt many, many beer geeks will print it off and pin it up on their walls. It’s obviously been put together by somebody who loves beer very much. I admire enormously their dedication, and their skill: it must have taken hours, days to do. It’s a great piece of design. And it’s wrong, totally wrong, in so many ways.

Continue reading The ‘beeriodic table’: beautifully executed, fatally flawed

Stupid beer quizzes

If my sense of boiling indignation is ever dying down, I like to hunt out a “beer quiz” on the interweb. Almost inevitably they’re full of shite, looking as if they’ve put together by someone who seems to have read one book on beer and misinterpreted most of that. Now, I realise that the people who arranged this one are sincere, dedicated folk seeking only to educate the world about beer and how good it is, and it would be nice to be able to salute them for the crusading job they’re trying to do. Only I can’t salute them, because their “great beer test” is crap.

Take the question “In what geographic region was beer first produced for large scale commercial trade?” The proper answer is “North Germany”, where the brewers of the Hanseatic League in the early Middle Ages started exporting the new hopped beer to the Baltic, the Low Countries and other areas of Germany. This is not, however, one of the choices offered in the GBT. Instead it claims that

Evidence suggests strongly that the earliest large scale commercial brewing centers for export and otherwise were concentrated in the trading cities of the Nile River Delta in ancient Sumeria (present day Egypt). There were dozens of available beer styles that were exported as far away as Northern Europe and India.

This is so utterly, utterly wrong in every way it makes my head explode. To begin with, it confuses Sumeria, which is in present day Iraq, with Egypt, some 800 miles away. Next I know of no evidence of “large scale commercial brewing centers for export” in Sumeria or Ancient Egypt. Nor am I aware of “dozens of available beer styles” in either place – I mean, “dozens”? Unless you microslice beerstyles, there aren’t “dozens” available in most major brewing nations today. Finally, if either the Sumerians or the Egyptians were exporting beer to Northern Europe, they were travelling to places that the most intrepid Greeks weren’t going to get to for a thousand years, and the Romans regarded as the edge of the world. Evidence for this claim? None. So that’s five claims, not one of which is true, and one of which is a complete geographical howler.

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The long battle between ale and beer

How long did ale and beer remain as separate brews? Most* drinkers, I think, know that “ale” was originally the English name for an unhopped fermented malt drink, and beer was the name of the fermented malt drink flavoured with hops, a taste for which was brought to this country from the continental mainland about 1400. Some might be able to tell you that ale and beer then existed alongside each other as separate drinks for some time: but that eventually ale started being brewed with hops as well, and finally any difference between the two drinks disappeared, with “ale” and “beer” becoming synonyms. But when did that happen?

I used to think that their merger into synonymity was pretty much complete in Georgian England at the latest, agreeing with the historian WH Chaloner, who wrote in 1960, reviewing Peter Mathias’s great book The brewing industry in England, 1700-1830: “By the end of the seventeenth century the terms ‘ale’ (originally a sweetish, unhopped malt liquor) and the newer ‘beer’ (a bitter, hopped malt liquor) had come to describe more or less identical products following the victory of the latter drink.” But as I read more and more, I slowly realised that this was untrue: that in English, “ale” and “beer” maintained differences through until the 20th century that were, ultimately, from their origins as unhopped and hopped drinks respectively (and nothing to do with the modern American habit of referring to all “top-fermented” beers as “ales”, regardless of their histories and origins).

Beer geekery warning: if teasing apart the knotted and tangled threads of brewing history is your bag, stick with me for the next 2,500 words as we range over five centuries of malted liquors and watch meanings mutate: if you’d rather read something contemporary, Rob Sterowski, alias Barm, at I Might Have A Glass of Beer is always an interesting and often a provocative read, and he maintains an excellent list of other beer bloggers as well.

For those of you still with me: here’s a quote on ale and beer from 1912, less than a century ago, from a book called Brewing, by Alfred Chaston Chapman:

“At the present day the two words are very largely synonymous, beer being used comprehensively to include all classes of malt liquor, whilst the word ale is applied to all beers other than stout and porter.”

Why weren’t stout and porter called ales? This is a reflection, 200 years on, of the origin of porter (and brown stout) in the brown beers made by the beer brewers of London, rivals of the ale brewers for 500 years, ever since immigrants from the Low Countries began brewing in England with hops.

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The best ever poem in praise of the pub

I caught up with the episode of the Culture Show devoted to the pub just in time via BBC iPlayer (it’s gone now, curse you, BBC) and was very glad I did, not just for the brief glimpse of the marvellous Kathryn Tickell (pity it had to be because she’s on Sting’s latest CD, still …) but for the quite brilliant poem by Carol Ann Duffy, commissioned specially for the programme.

It’s called “John Barleycorn”, it was described as “A lament for, and a celebration of, the Great British Pub”, and Duffy, the current Poet Laureate, is worth her butt of sack for this poem alone. I’ve transcribed it below, with some shots from the almost equally good little video essay that accompanied Duffy reading the poem. My reproducing this undoubtedly smashes through copyright law like a scaffold pole through a pub window, but I thought it was so fantastic it deserved a continuing audience, and if you do borrow any of it, fair use only, lads, eh.

A few comments first: the start of the poem refers to the traditional folk song “John Barleycorn”, of course, which makes me believe Duffy has been a habituée of folk clubs as well as pubs. As far as I can tell, every pub name mentioned is a real pub – the Corn Dolly, for example, is in Bradford, the Flowing Spring is near Reading, the Moon and Sixpence (named for the Somerset Maugham novel and/or the film) is found in several places, the Wicked Lady (also named for a film) is in Hertfordshire, the Bishop’s Finger in London.

Considering how much time poets have spent in pubs, there’s very little poetry ABOUT pubs. This is one of the very best. Continue reading The best ever poem in praise of the pub