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Cheers, slainte, bottoms up… the language of beer

I have a school friend who follows Arsenal F.C. wherever they go. His devotion to the team takes him on a yearly tour of the English Premier League, but has also sent him to football-crazy cities all over the world. He has a simple philosophy with respect to learning foreign languages that would probably shock some of my colleagues working on multilingual dictionaries: that to survive in any non-English-speaking country you need only learn two words.

Two beers. Deux bières, due birre, zwei Bier, dos cervezas, and 两杯啤酒

Of course, he’s joking. He probably finds words like ‘stadium’, ‘hotel’, and ‘airport’ to be more useful when on his travels, not to mention ‘The referee needs a pair of glasses’. But he’s right about one thing, a love of beer transcends national differences in a similar way to football and has become integral to many languages and cultures, not just that of English speakers.

Beer is an interesting subject for the lexicographer too, and not just because it provides an excuse for ‘field research’ in Oxford’s pubs. The word ‘beer’ comes to us through the Old English béor probably from the Old High German bior.  ‘Ale’, a beer fermented at room temperature or higher using yeast that floats to the top of the wort, is derived from Old English alu and cognate with Old Saxon alo or Old Norse öl, while ‘lager’, a beer fermented at low temperatures using yeast that sinks to the bottom of the wort, comes to us from the German word lager, a store.

Two glasses of fermented malted grain, please

Whichever brewing style is employed in its manufacture, beer always refers to an alcoholic beverage made by the fermentation of malted grains. In archaic use beer referred to such a drink flavoured with hops, and ale to one with a different flavouring such as the Finnish Sahti, flavoured with juniper berries and twigs.

Today in a British pub you will find the word ‘ale’ as ‘real ale’, denoting a traditionally brewed and served cask-conditioned draught beer in contrast to mass-produced modern keg beers which are filtered and served using pressurised gas to attain an easy-to-serve and consistent yet bland result.

Tradition plays a large part in the culture surrounding beer. Pubs are decorated to evoke their Victorian predecessors and beers are marketed with names redolent of the past. A disproportionate number of beers feature the word ‘old’ in their names or hark back to a gritty industrial or bucolic rural past in their iconography. Perhaps one day I’ll see a bottle of ‘Futuristic Lager’ or ‘New Combine Harvester Summer Ale’, but I don’t expect to very soon. Another friend of mine, this time an American, cites this obsession with tradition as holding back European beers; what with this and our real ale campaigns and reinheitsgebot-inspired purity standards, he contends that our brewers are not as innovative as those on the other side of the Atlantic.

It’s all about timing and temperature

In its simplest form, a typical beer will start life as a field of barley. The barley grains are malted, which is to say they are germinated to release the enzymes which allow the grain starch to be converted to sugar, before being dried and ground to form grist. The grist is then boiled in water, a process referred to as mashing to produce a solution of the malt sugars called a wort. The wort is separated from the spent grist and boiled further, with the addition of hops to provide the beer’s flavour, before being cooled and a yeast culture added. The wort then ferments, usually for a week or more though this varies depending on the recipe, to produce the beer. The beer will then be placed in barrels or bottles, ready to be drunk or stored for maturation as the recipe demands.

This apparently simple process conceals myriad variables of ingredients, timing, and temperature which give us the considerable array of different beers available to the drinker and scope for the brewer to differentiate their product.

Beer Street and Gin Lane

It would be irresponsible though to talk about beer only from a brewer’s or drinker’s perspective. The positive effects on our culture of an association with beer are many, but it cannot be denied that they come with an associated downside. It is an unusual year that does not feature at some point a moral panic from our more vocal media outlets on the theme of binge drinking, particularly among teenagers and younger people. We have, so the story goes, become a nation of violent irresponsible lager louts. Pictures of (usually scantily clad female) revellers the worse for wear in our town centres in the small hours have become almost a tabloid cliché, fuelling calls for ever higher taxes on strong beers and a return to the tighter licencing regime of an imagined past.

Such writers should spend a while studying art history:  moral panics surrounding alcohol are nothing new. William Hogarth’s famous mid-18th-century prints, Beer Street and Gin Lane, depict the ravages of gin on the slum-dwellers of the day and present beer-drinking as a safe and wholesome alternative; the residents of Gin Lane live in squalor while those of Beer Street are industrious and prosperous.

So if beer is your tipple of choice, I wish you good health as you sup your well-kept pint. As the winter is drawing in, you might like to drop some hints to your loved ones; a copy of the Oxford Companion to Beer would make a perfect Christmas present!

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