Category Archives: Beer trivia

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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Kieve, tierce and bub

Sound like a trio of Victorian lawyers, don’t they? Kieve, Tierce and Bubb, solicitors and commissioners of oaths: I can picture their brass plate, polished and worn, at the top of a set of stone steps, screwed to the slightly crumbly brickwork of a flat-fronted three-storey town house with a shiny black-painted front door, somewhere near Carey Street.

They’re actually, however, not minor characters from Bleak House but three obscure words linked to brewing, the first and least obscure being an old term for a mash tun, which I mentioned in my last posting about a 13th century Norman French poem describing the brewing of ale. I said kieve was “still used in Ireland”, leading Beer Nut, one of Ireland’s finest beer bloggers (you can pay me later, John), to ask: “Is ‘kieve’ used for mash tun outside of St James’s Gate? I’ve never heard it in the context of any other Irish brewery.”

I was originally going to write a short reply to Beer Nut’s comment saying yes, indeed, other people than Guinness used the term “kieve”, but the interwebs is an increasingly marvellous resource for historians as more and more information from the past becomes digitised, and very quickly, as I chased after extra facts on kieves, I was distracted by bub, and then off in pursuit of tierce.

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Rake’s Prowess

Co-incidence time again – I went to the Rake by Borough Market last night with Patto, who was over from Amsterdam, without knowing that it had just won the best bar award in Time Out‘s Eating and Drinking Awards.

It’s not the smallest pub I’ve ever been in but it’s certainly smaller than my living room, and if they ever got the 40 people I’ve seen claimed as the maximum capacity in there, then nobody would have much room for elbow-raising. Three people at the tiny bar and no one else can get served. I could understand how the manageress, as she showed us the award, now on a shelf behind the bar, was clearly in several minds about the accolade: it’s great to pick up a prize as the best in the capital, but not if you’re too small to cope with the army of new customers likely to be attracted.

Still, it’s good to see a bar recognised for having such a great beer range. The Rake is one of the few pubs that can offer a wider bottled beer selection than your local supermarket, and perhaps its victory will encourage other places to emulate it, and bars like The Lowlander in Covent Garden, and get in a more interesting beer selection. (Though admittedly the Rake has a big advantage in being owned by the people who run the excellent Utobeer stall around the corner in Borough market itself. My only complaint about Utobeer is that I can never carry away as many bottles as I want to, since I go there by train …) And if it does get overcrowded now it’s won an award, there are several other good pubs nearby …

Beer trivia alert – the Rake’s telephone number (and I bet the Utobeer guys don’t know this) reflects the beery history of Southwark, the borough in which it is situated. Back when I were a lad, London telephone exchanges all had names, like FLEet Street and WHItehall, and you dialled the first three letters of the name, plus the four-digit number of the individual subscriber. Southwark’s exchange was named HOP, to mark the fact that it was the centre for the hop-factoring industry: the hops would be brought up to Southwark from Kent, and sold at the Hop Exchange. When the telephone exchange names were changed to numbers, they were simply altered to the numerical equivalent of the letters on the telephone dial, so FLEet Street became 353, for example, and HOP became 407. Later all the central London exchanges has an extra 7 added to the front of their number, so 407 turned into 7407. The Rake’s phone number is 7407 0557 – or 7HOP 0557, if you like …