A Toast to Cheers! (or: why do we toast, anyway?)

If you’ve ever taken our Historic Brewery Tour, you know that before every drink, we toast, “To Queen and country!” Since my brewery compatriots and I end up saying this toast almost every day, I eventually got to thinking: what’s the origin behind toasts, anyway?

The Oxford English Dictionary is usually a good place to start investigations. According to the OED, a “toast” is a…call to a gathering of people to raise their glasses and drink together in honour of a person or thing, or an instance of drinking in this way, while “cheers” is defined as expressing good wishes.

Lovely, but less etymology than I usually like. Continuing my digging, I found a myriad of explanations for the origins of toasting. One such theory, claims that the Ancient Greeks believed beautiful, spiritual things should appeal to all five senses. Thus, the colour of wine pleases the eye; the bouquet pleases the nose; and the body, both taste and touch. Clinking goblets together is therefore a way to include the ear. Indeed, if we look at the word aesthetics (in the sense of it being a philosophy dealing with the appreciation of art and beauty), we find it is ultimately derived from the Greek word aisthanomai: “I perceive, feel, sense.” But, while there is a possibility this is true, and while I personally really like the concept, I remain unconvinced—a few more primary sources would be nice.

It certainly has an aesthetic of its own, though...
It certainly has an aesthetic of its own, though…

Other theories include: banging mugs together to slosh part of your drink into your partner’s mug, and vice versa. Thus, if you had poisoned your partner’s drink, you’d end up contaminating your drink, too. Alternatively, toasting might have originated through the desire to frighten away spirits by banging mugs. Or, from offering the first drink to the gods: a remnant of sacrificial libation-pouring.

So the origins of toasting are likely multifaceted, and certainly nebulous. Luckily, the Victorians were a little clearer on their stance towards toasts. Surprisingly, they were not overly fond of them:

“The custom of drinking toasts, and of forcing people to drink bumper and bumper of wine, until drunkenness results, is quite banished from gentlemanly society to its proper place—the tavern. It arises from a mistaken idea of making visitors welcome… (Charles William Day, Hints on Etiquette and the Usages of Society, with a Glance at Bad Habits: 1844, p. 47)

Nor was this an isolated opinion:

“And you must drink whether it pleased you to do so or not; and the glasses were often refilled while you drank to the health of this person or that, while to refuse to do so was considered an insult. Such feasts are within the memory of many men now living, but let hope that our children may never return to them.” (Sophia Orne Johnson, A Manual of Etiquette with Hints on Politeness and Good Breeding: 1868, p. 58)

Of course, toasting meets temperance with a fabulous collision. They’re absolutely right: it is still considered impolite to refuse a toast (actually, the semantics of toasting etiquette caused quite a scandal between Canada and Ireland in the 1940s). It is easy to see why pro-temperance writers would worry about toasting leading people to drink an excessive amount (advice-manual writers and pro-temperance writers seem to overlap quite a bit). As well, temperance claimed that alcohol threatened health, society, and morality. Their aversion to it being used to celebrate to express well wishes therefore makes sense.

As one “gentleman” said,

Gentleman,—You have been pleased to drink my health with wine… Your drinking me will do me no harm; drinking it will do you no good. I do not take wine, because I am determined wine shall not take me. You are most daring, but I am most secure. You have courage to tamper with and flatter a dangerous enemy; I have courage to let him alone…I would rather drink your diseases; would rather root out from you whatever is wrong and prejudicial to your happiness… (A Manual of Etiquette with Hints on Politeness and Good Breeding, p. 69).

Sounds like this gentleman was great fun at parties. Sounds like he was also invented to make a point.

In any case, in temperance schools of thought, this anti-toasting attitude continued into the twentieth century. The Sacred Heart Review, a Catholic newspaper published in Cambridge/Boston, said:

“Toasting is a foolish old custom which ought to have died a natural death, years ago. Among temperance people, or at a celebration run on total abstinence lines, it is an anomaly. If there must be toasts, however, there are lots of temperance beverages, beginning with water (the best of all) in which to drink them.” (The Sacred Heart Review, February 16, 1901).

I find it interesting that so much emphasis is put on the vehicle of expressing those good wishes, rather than on the good wishes themselves. As we’ve seen, temperance becomes far more intolerant as the century progressed; this staunch stand makes sense in context, I suppose I’m just always surprised by how fervent temperance rhetoric can be.


(courtesy www.warof1812.ca)
Cheers! (courtesy http://www.warof1812.ca)

In any case, we are quite pleased to toast you, the Queen, Black Creek, and various and sundry people down here. And we’re pleased to do so across languages, too! How do you toast?

Afrikaans: Gesondheid!

Breton: Yec’hed mat!

Chinese (Cantonese):  飲勝 (yám sing) 飲杯 (yám bùi)

Chinese (Mandarin): 乾杯! [干杯!] (gān bēi)

Czech: Na zdraví!

Danish: Skål!

Dutch: Proost!

English: Cheers!

Fijian: Bula!

French: À votre santé!

German: Prost!

Greenlandic : Kasuutta!

Igbo : Mma manu!

Irish Gaelic : Sláinte!

Italian: Salute!

Klingon: Iwllj jachjaj!

Korean: 건배 [乾杯] (geonbae)

Latin: Bonam sanitatem!

Māori: Mauri ora!

Old English: Wes þū hal!

Polish: Na zdrowie!

Portuguese: Viva!

Russian : За здоровье! (Za zdarov’e!)

Scottish Gaelic: Slàinte!

Sindarin : Almiën!

Spanish : ¡Salud!

Swahili : Miasha mareful!

Vietnamese : Chúc sức khoẻ!

Welsh: Iechyd da!

Xhosa: Impilo!

(Please note: this is just a small smattering of languages!)

To Queen and country!


For more information…

Day, Charles William. Hints on Etiquette and the Usages of Society, with a Glance at Bad Habits. Bostin: Otis, Broaders, & Co., 1844.

Johnson, Sophia Orne. A Manual of Etiquette with Hints on Politeness and Good Breeding. Philadelphia: D. McKay, 1868.

n.d.  “As to Toasts and Other Things.” The Sacred Heart Review (Boston), February 16, 1901.

Good For What “Ales” You: Medicinal Beers

It is that time of year when coughs and colds run rampant. Autumn sniffles affected the Victorians just as much as they do us. However, unlike us, Victorians often sought relief in the form of (what else?) beer!

While we primarily drink beer for taste/social reasons, beer has a long history of use in medicine. In fact, there is evidence that ancient Nubian brewers were using beer as an antibiotic. In 1980, scientists noticed that a 1600-year-old Nubian mummy contained traces of tetracycline: an antibiotic that binds with calcium and gets deposited into the bones. One small thing:

Tetracycline wasn’t officially discovered until 1945.

Although for the ancient Nubians, beer would’ve been more like an alcoholic barley smoothie, sipped through a straw…

After ruling out the possibility that the bones has become contaminated, researchers hypothesized that the Nubians were lacing their beer with grain contaminated with Streptomyces bacteria: the bacteria that produce tetracycline. For the ancient Nubians, beer was thus not only beverage and foodstuff, but medicine as well.

A little closer to our time at Black Creek, beer has long been used as a preventative/treatment for scurvy. This is particularly true of spruce beer: a beer brewed with the young green shoots of the spruce tree. You may remember tasting this at Black Creek! Spruce beer shows up in the 1590s around the Baltic, but it probably existed prior to that too. The antiscorbutic properties (antiscorbutic—what a wonderful word; possibly my new favourite) of spruce beer were invaluable to sailors on long voyages deprived of fresh fruits and vegetables. On making landfall, voyagers would set about making spruce beer—looking southwards to our antipodean cousins, Captain James Cook brewed New Zealand’s first beer for precisely this reason in 1770.

James Cook arrives at Queen Charlotte's Sound, New Zealand (courtesy www.britannica.com)
James Cook arrives at Queen Charlotte’s Sound, New Zealand (courtesy http://www.britannica.com)

For nineteenth century Canadians, beer supplemented the diet. Beer contains several of the B-complex vitamins (not thiamine, alas), and depending on style, can be a source of iron, too. In her Female Emigrant’s Guide (1854), writer Catherine Parr Traill laments the comparative lack of private brewing among families, explaining: “During the very hot weather, some cooling and strengthening beverage is much required by men who have to work out in the heat of the sun; and the want of it is often supplied by whisky diluted with water, or by cold water, which, when drunk in large quantities, is dangerous to the health, and should, if possible, be avoided” (Parr Trail, The Female Emigrant’s Guide, 137). Beer was not only thirst-quencher, but fortifier.

It was also, depending on style, a cure. Several types of medicinal beers were brewed through the 1800s. Just for starters, we have…

  • Ginger beer: believed to prevent/relieve nausea, indigestion, pain, and inflammation
  • Dandelion beer: used to stimulate the liver, and also for its narcotic/calming effects
  • Root beer: one of the main components, sassafras, is used as a general tonic and purifier. Unfortunately, it’s also carcinogenic, and has been banned in commercially mass-produced foods and drugs since 1960. Wintergreen, another main component, contains an analgesic, very similar to aspirin.
  • Maple beer: an expectorant/cough syrup, and also high in iron
We meet again, Mr. Dow (courtesy www.fineartamerica.com)
We meet again, Mr. Dow (courtesy http://www.fineartamerica.com)

Remember our old friend Neil Dow? The mayor of Portland who pushed for prohibition in Maine, eventually establishing the “Maine Law” that so intrigued our own Rowland Burr? Well, even he distinguished between “beverage” alcohol and alcohol used medicinally. Indeed, when prohibition re-emerged through the 1920s, alcohol supporters made the same arguments for beer’s medicinal value.

Of course, this entire post is said with the caveat that you cannot go to the Beer Store today, grab a can, and claim you’re getting your vitamins. Although beer was incredibly important to the Victorians as a foodstuff, beverage, and remedy…modern medicine is one of the many reasons I’m glad we live in 2014!




Traill, Catherine Parr. The Female Emigrant’s Guide and Hints on Canadian Housekeeping. Toronto: Maclear and Company, 1854.


Death by Small Beer? (A History Mystery)

It all started with this photo:

Embedded image permalink

My boss sent it to me, adding, “…read as much of the small print as possible.” 

Luckily for my eyes, the full text is available elsewhere:

In Memory of Thomas Thetcher a Grenadier in the North Reg. of Hants Militia, who died of

a violent Fever contracted by drinking Small Beer when hot the 12 May 1764. Aged 26 Years.

In grateful remembrance of whose universal good will towards his Comrades, this Stone is placed here at their expence, as a small testimony of their regard and concern.

Here sleeps in peace a Hampshire Grenadier,

Who caught his death by drinking cold small Beer, Soldiers be wise from his untimely fall

And when ye’re hot drink Strong or none at all. 

What? How did the beer kill him? Did it have something to do with the temperature, or was it the “small” (low-alcohol) nature of the beer? Your trusty beer journalist cannot resist a history mystery like this, so of course I’ve spent the last three days digging. What killed Thomas Thetcher?

Let’s look at three possibilities: food/beer poisoning, mould, and contaminated serving vessels.


Food/Beer Poisoning

Is it possible that Thetcher’s beer was contaminated? My first instinct was to say, “No, in the 1700s, beer was likely safer than water.” After all, boiling the wort kills most bacteria, hops have some antibacterial properties, and fermentation drops the pH to a level where most bacteria can’t survive. One exception is the bacterium Acetobacter, which can survive well under 5.0 pH—beer tends to be around 4 pH, unfermented beer around 5.1-5.4.


I like malt vinegar. I don’t like these. (courtesy http://microbewiki.kenyon.edu)

But all Acetobacter does is convert the alcohol in beer into vinegar. Drinking vinegar wouldn’t have killed Thetcher, and anyway, he would’ve noticed the taste at the first sip.

A few other strains of lactic acid bacteria can survive in beer, but again, they just produce off-tastes and odours.

I did wonder if the “small” nature of the beer might have allowed for something else to take hold. What if this beer was low enough in alcohol that other bacteria could survive? Maybe this is what the militia meant when they declared drink Strong or none at all?

However, the boiling process still poses serious problems for bacteria. Let’s look at the most commonly troublesome ones:

E. Coli (courtesy http://www.wikipedia.org)

Salmonella generally grows from 7-48 degrees Celsius, with optimum pH around 6.5-7.5. Between the rolling boil and acidic nature of even unfermented beer, it would die.

E. coli? More acid resistant, but can grow to 49 degrees Celsius. It would die.

Listeria? Optimum growth temperatures range from 4-37 degrees Celsius. It would also die (surprise!).

So…it seems that the small beer would leave the brew-kettle free of bacteria, which means Thetcher didn’t die from a bacterial infection.

But what happens after the beer leaves the brew-kettle?



I got really excited when I discovered that Britain experienced very wet summers from 1763-1772. Probably too excited, but that’s all right.

You see, mould likes damp conditions. Mould also likes wood. Guess what’s made of wood?


Casks are made of wood!
Casks are made of wood!

So, imagine our small beer arrives from the brew-kettle nice and sterile, and goes into the casks. The mould-contaminated casks. Not being a microbiologist, I wonder if the relatively low-alcohol environment of a small beer might have allowed for some mould growth.

Penicillium mould can grow in and through the joints and bung holes of wooden barrels, infecting the beer inside. It’s usually not dangerous if you’re healthy—unless Thetcher had a penicillin allergy? (I assume he would immediately taste it, but maybe it was really hot and he was really thirsty.)

Looking earlier in the brewing process, Fusarium is another fungus that infects cereal crops, including barley. Moreover, Fusarium makes a fun little mycotoxin called Deoxynivalenol (DON). The fungus itself is killed when the malt is kilned, but the toxin it produces can survive malting, kilning, boiling, and fermentation.

Barley infected with Fusarium – see the black spots? (courtesy http://www.gov.pe.ca)

I got really excited again…but it turns out that DON is more dangerous for livestock eating contaminated feed than it is for humans drinking contaminated beer. Short-term, humans may experience some nausea, headache, and fever after eating infected grains, but the long-term health effects of drinking beer made from Fusarium-infected barley have yet to be determined.

So, Thetcher likely didn’t die from Fusarium either.


Contaminated Serving Vessels 

One more theory.

In pubs today, it is actually really important that draught beer lines are kept clean. Yes, you can get foodborne illness from beer. Dirty pipes accumulate yeasts, bacteria, and moulds that may well survive the trip from your beer glass to your digestive tract.

I suspect that early beer engines (invented in the late 1600s) were difficult to clean.


Likewise, we have a sanitizing dishwasher. Thetcher’s local watering hole didn’t. Perhaps the issue was not the beer, but rather the manner in which it was served—perhaps a mug wasn’t washed, or a mug held E.coli-infected water and then Thetcher’s small beer.

Cross-contamination and subsequent foodborne illness seems plausible to me.


So what killed Thomas Thetcher? 

Ultimately, we’ll never know. It’s just as likely that he caught a completely unrelated fever and died, leaving his compatriots to unjustly malign small beer.

But if we’re speculating…

I would speculate cross-contamination of serving vessels. Think of it this way: alcohol “kills bacteria,” but would you keep drinking your sample if I tossed a piece of raw chicken in there?

I thought not. Now imagine that instead of drinking a 5% beer, you have a 1-2% small beer.

It’d still require a huge amount of bad luck, but not an impossible amount.

Otherwise…this is even less likely, but the damp conditions that characterized the 1760s may have led to increased mould growth on the beer casks. If that mould included Penicillium, if it got into the beer, and if Thetcher was unlucky enough to have a severe penicillin allergy…well, it’d be hugely unfortunate, but not totally impossible.

And with that ringing endorsement, we have not solved this history mystery to my satisfaction…but we’ve learned that beer is remarkably resistant to pathogens!


Further Reading/Sources

deLange, A.J. “Understanding pH and its Application in Small-Scale Brewing,” More Beer, July 18, 2013, accessed April 22, 2014.

Donaldson, Michael. “A kick in the guts,” Stuff.co.nz, September 15, 2013, accessed April 23, 2014.

Doyle, M. Ellin. “Fusarium Mycotoxins,” Food Research Institute of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, December 1997, accessed April 22, 2014.

Jones, Kendall. “The Elephant in the Room: Dirty Draft Beer Lines,”  Washington Beer Blog, August 22, 2012, accessed April 23, 2014.

Pambianchi, Daniel. “Keeping it Clean,” Brew Your Own: The How-To Homebrew Beer Magazine, Jan/Feb 2008, accessed April 22, 2014.

Sobrova, Pavlina, et. al. “Deoxynivalenol and its toxicity,” Interdisciplinary Toxicology 3:3 (Sept 2010): 94-99, accessed April 22, 2014, doi: 10.2478/v10102-010-0019-x

n.d. “1750-1799,” Meteorology at West Moors. accessed April 22, 2014.


Another Historic Beer: Chateau Jiahu

Apparently, we’re not the only ones interested in historic beer.

Since the Black Creek Historic Brewery is closed until May, your trusty beer journalist has gone international. While staying in Virginia, I’ve had the chance to try some of the offerings from Dogfish Head Brewery: a craft brewery based in Delaware. They’ve been on the American craft brewing scene since 1995, and in 1999 they started a line of “Ancient Ales.” On board, they have Dr. Patrick McGovern (Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum). With his expertise, Dogfish Head crafts recipes based on chemical analyses of residue found on ancient drinking vessels.

I tried the Chateau Jiahu, released 2006. Jiahu is a Neolithic site in China’s Yellow River Valley, dating back to approximately 7000 BCE. Excavated mostly through the 1980s, it is home to some of the oldest known written records, the oldest playable musical instruments…

…and the oldest fermented beverages.

Jiahu at lower centre (courtesy www.naturalhistorymag)
Jiahu at lower centre (courtesy http://www.naturalhistorymag)

Excavations at the Jiahu site yielded pottery vessels with high necks, handles, and flaring rims: perfect for storing and serving alcoholic beverages. Because pottery is porous, organic material can seep into the ceramic. Thousands of years later, researchers are still able to analyze that material.

McGovern describes the Jiahu beverage as a sort of “grog,” made from rice (acting like barley), honey, grapes, and hawthorne-tree fruit. So, it was probably like a cross between mead, beer, and wine. However, it’s not quite clear how the rice was used. As with barley, the starches need to be broken down into simple sugars. It may have been malted, but McGovern notes that human saliva has the same effect, meaning that the rice could also be chewed to prepare it for fermentation (this is still done in parts of Asia). Either way, you’d get a lot of husks and debris floating in your brew—hence why a lot of ancient beers were drunk through straws.

Look closely, upper right... (courtesy www.penn.museum)
Look closely, upper right… (courtesy http://www.penn.museum)

I didn’t have to worry about that. While Dogfish Head Ale may be going to older sources than we do at the Black Creek Historic Brewery, they do use modern methods and equipment.

The Chateau Jiahu was a pale golden colour, with a bit of cloudiness and a small, fine head. I smelled fruitiness right away and caught more on the aftertaste, but the sweetness really surprised me. There are no hoppy notes. That’s not surprising, since they wouldn’t be using hops in 7000 BCE China, I’ve just grown accustomed to that type of bitterness. Instead, the honey comes through quite strongly. Mild carbonation was pleasant, and you definitely notice the lightness in flavour and body—something quite different from our barley-based ales.

A note of caution: this beer is 10% ABV. It doesn’t feel like it.

Jiahu isn’t the only site Dogfish Head has explored; they’ve taken inspiration from sites ranging from Turkey to Egypt to Finland. Now, if only we could pair their recipes with our 1860s brewery…that would be one truly historic ale!

For more, check out:

Dogfish Head Brewery

The Jiahu Excavation


Bright Beautiful Bottles!

Whether it’s a stubby or a slender 500-mL vessel, few things are more familiar or ubiquitous than a bottle of beer.

Yet this wasn’t always the case. Until the late nineteenth century, beer was mostly sold from casks, with a very small percentage of output bottled.

But there were some bottles to be found, mostly for export beers. Some of the earliest beer bottles used in the United States were stoneware. Pottery bottles tended to be two-toned, but there are a few examples of solid cream-coloured bottles as well. They were particularly used for storing porter, but as you can imagine, they were very heavy and difficult to transport. Nevertheless, they exemplified what we think of as a “proper beer bottle shape.” That is, they were relatively low-shouldered, with shorter necks than wine bottles.

Two-toned stoneware bottle, Black Creek Pioneer Village collection.
Two-toned stoneware bottle, Black Creek Pioneer Village collection.

Though glass wasn’t quite as strong, it proved a lighter alternative. Britain’s abolition of taxes on glass in 1845 added to their popularity as well. Some green, blue, and clear glass bottles survive, but most early beer bottles were brown: the better for keeping out light that might spoil the beer. Many bottles were made from three-piece moulds with a “blob” top: a rounded lobe at the mouth of the bottle, which was stoppered and wired shut. By the mid-nineteenth century, ale bottles tended to be shorter, squatter, with abrupt shoulders and straight necks.

"Blob" top.
“Blob” top.


Corked ale bottle.
Corked ale bottle.

As beautiful as these early bottles are, they proved a massive inconvenience for both brewers and drinkers. Prior to the development of automated bottling lines, bottling had to be done by hand. As the Black Creek Historic Brewery knows first-hand, bottling by hand is a difficult, time-consuming endeavour – but so is corking! The bottle would be held between the knees and the cork knocked in with a “flogger.” Alternatively (or perhaps, additionally), the cork could be secured with a wire.

While the corkers and bottlers probably needed a brew themselves after all their hard work, drinkers were little better off. These early beer bottles needed to be opened with corkscrews and couldn’t be resealed. Once drinkers cracked one open, they were committed to it!

Bottled beer really got a boost in the 1870s, particularly from the advent of pasteurization in 1876. Following Louis Pasteur’s methods, glass bottles were heated to 50 degrees Celsius for thirty minutes, thus killing any lingering microbes and ensuring a longer shelf life. At about the same time, the railways boomed, allowing this more stable beer to be sent further, faster. The decade ended with Englishman Henry Barrett’s invention of the screwtop bottle in 1879. Now, finally, bottled beer could be resealed.

Further developments followed in the 1890s with American William Painter’s invention of the crown cap in 1892. Moreover, by the late 1890s, beer was being chilled, filtered, and artificially carbonated so that it would stay “bright” in the bottles, thus resembling our modern beers more and more closely.

The good old days: an assortment of glass ale bottles in the taproom at Black Creek Pioneer Village.
The good old days: an assortment of glass ale bottles in the taproom at Black Creek Pioneer Village.

However, despite all of this, bottled beer only became ubiquitous (and indeed, taken for granted) after World War I. The Canadian stubby was invented in 1961, and the rest, as they say, is history…

…until 1984, when the stubby was discontinued. But that, alas, is ale for a different tale.

– Katie

(With thanks to Martyn Cornell of Zythophile and the Society for Historical Archaeology. Both go into great depth, for those interested in exploring this topic further!)