Drinking Customs, running from the sacred to the profane, from silly to serious, have long reflected our values, our beliefs, and the trends in our societies. Beer is as old as civilization, and the pleasure and health it provided for early beer drinkers in ancient Egypt and the surrounding lands gave beer a central importance to those societies. The workers who built the pyramids were paid in part with beer and onions, whereas the drink itself was treated with great reverence, as something handed down by the gods. Said a Sumerian poet circa 3000 bce, “I feel wonderful drinking beer/in a blissful mood/with joy in my heart and a happy liver.” Wall paintings from Babylonia show drinkers toasting the goddesses of brewing, whereas in Egypt the brewery owned by the Pharaoh Ramses gave 10,000 (8,522 US bbls) of free beer a year to the temple administrators. The ruling class in Egypt preferred mature beer, which they drank through delicate gold straws to avoid drinking the dregs. The mass of the people, in the manner of the porridge beers still made in parts of Africa, drank beer as soon as fermentation was complete.
It is not surprising that beer, a beverage that essentially convened human civilization, has spawned no end of elaborate custom and ritual. In small African villages the ancient ritual of communal drinking through straws continues, thousands of years after it was first portrayed in art. Surrounding the pot of beer, men with long straws still sit like smokers around a hookah, discussing the issues of the day. In the townships of South Africa, the communal beer cup is passed around the room, with everyone smiling after they’ve had their sip.
Because most modern beer has European roots, so do many of our beer-drinking customs. The Anglo-Saxons and Vikings who invaded most of northern Europe following the withdrawal of the Romans brought with them a deeply rooted drinking culture along with a custom that endured for many centuries: toasting with drinking horns. The use of drinking horns has also been traced to Ancient Greece, the Gauls, the Thracians, and the Scythians. Xenophon wrote an account of his dealings with the Thracian leader Seuthes in which horns were an integral part of drinking. Diodorus gave an account of a feast prepared by the Getic chief Dromichaites in which drinking horns were made from actual horn but also from wood. Julius Caesar, in De Bello Gallico, described Gauls using drinking horns made from the horns of aurochs, a forebear of the ox: “The Gaulish horns in size, shape and kind, are very different from those of our cattle. They are much sought-after, their rims filled with silver and they are used at great feasts as drinking vessels.”
Drinking horns are recorded from the Viking period in Scandinavia. The god Thor drank from a horn that was said to contain all the seas of the world, and fittings for drinking horns were discovered at the Anglo-Saxon burial site at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, eastern England. The elaborate nature of drinking horns shows they were ceremonial vessels used by those of high status. There are references to drinking horns in the Arthurian legend of Caradoc, a tribal chieftain in Cornwall, Devon, and Somerset in England in the 3rd century ce.
A few hundred years later, little beer-selling stands became common throughout the English countryside. The authorities did their best to regulate them, but “ale booths” kept multiplying along the old Roman roads of Britain. Christian kings and their pious legal codes were no match for the vice and pleasure of hearty drinking. The epic Early English poem Beowulf from the 8th century ce portrays a society in which serious beer drinking is described as an integral part of any banquet, indeed almost as a religious ritual. By the end of the first millennium, drunkenness had become so rampant in England that King Edgar, who reigned from 959 to 975, decreed, on the advice of Archbishop Dunstan of Canterbury, that any village or town henceforth was limited to only one alehouse. He also ordered that ale may be served only in drinking horns with pins fastened on the inside at prescribed intervals so that, as the law read, “whoever should drink beyond these marks at one draught should be obnoxious to a severe punishment.”
In 1066, the Norman Conquest brought the French and their wine to England, establishing both at the height of English society. Beer was enjoyed in all aristocratic Norman households, but wine became the drink of choice for the nobles, establishing a social hierarchy of beverages that resonates even today. But beer remained the favored quaff of the toiling common people, the now-subjugated Anglo-Saxons. At ceremonies large and small, unhopped ale filled the drinking horns. Corpus Christi College in Cambridge has a large drinking horn that predates the college’s founding in the 14th century. It is still used at college feasts. Lavishly decorated horns in the Baroque style, some made from ivory with gold, silver, and enamel decoration, were made in the 19th and early 20th centuries in Austria and Germany. But in general the custom of the drinking horn eventually declined as more puritan attitudes prevailed and indulgent feasting and excessive consumption were increasingly frowned upon.
There is a link between drinking horns and the more modern custom known as a yard of ale. In the United States, there is often a yard glass in college bars, although many patrons may not know what it is used for. The vessel is often used in Britain and its former colonial countries as an initiation ceremony in which a young man, upon reaching the legal drinking age, is required to consume the contents of the glass, usually 3 imperial pints of beer. The glass is 1 yard or 90 cm in length, with a bulb at one end and a trumpet-like flare at the other. If the novice drinker fails to properly rotate the glass as he drinks, a good portion of the beer will end up all over his face, an occasion for uproarious laughter.
The glass is believed to have originated in the 17th century in England when the vessel was also known as a long glass or a Cambridge yard. The diarist John Evelyn (1620–1706) mentions a yard of ale being used to toast King James II but the vessel had more plebeian origins. It was designed to meet the needs of stagecoach drivers who were in a rush to get to their final destinations. At intermediate stops, the drivers would be handed ale in a yard glass through an inn window, the glass being of sufficient length for the driver to take it without leaving his coach. A pub called the Olde Gate Inne in Brassington, Derbyshire, which was once on the coach road from London to Manchester, has a small latched window that was used to hand a long glass to coach drivers.
The system was also used in continental Europe and is recalled in Belgium by the glass produced for Kwak, a strong amber ale. The beer is served in a small version of a yard of ale glass, which is held in place by a wooden stand, with the bulbous end of the glass resting on the base of the stand. According to legend (or at least the Bosteels Brewery, who make the beer), the beer is named after the owner of a coaching inn on the road from Ghent to Mechelen. He was called Pauwel [Paul] Kwak. He brewed his own strong ale and he handed it in special glasses to coach drivers who could place the bulbous ends in their stirrups, flat-bottom metal rings in which they rested their feet. There is a further connection between the yard of ale and the stirrup cup, a vessel filled with beer or other alcohol and used to toast a departing horseman or guest.
The Guinness Book of Records says a yard of ale was once consumed in 5 sec. The glass and its ceremonies are used not only in England but also in Australia and New Zealand. The former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke once held the world record for drinking a yard. The glass is even bigger in New Zealand and holds more than 2 l (68 oz) of beer. Although no longer much seen outside of tourist shops, the German equivalent is a boot-shaped glass. It supposedly refers to an old military tradition among men stuck in the trenches, communal beer drinking from a leather boot. It is hard to imagine that no other vessels were available, even during battle, and the story may well be apocryphal. What is certain is that, like the British yard, the boot is a trick glass that can quickly deposit beer directly down the drinker’s shirt.
Some beer-drinking customs are less uproarious and more plainly social. A widespread drinking custom in Britain and Australia is buying drinks in “rounds.” In most other countries, beer is paid for on a tab system—you have some drinks over the course of the evening and then you pay when you leave the bar. But in British pubs there is no table service, so each drink is paid for as it is ordered. This has given rise to the practice of buying rounds: as a group of drinkers enters a pub, one member of the group will say “It’s my round” or “My shout” and buy beer for the entire group. There is a powerful social etiquette attached to buying rounds and anyone who fails to “stand his round” is looked down upon as a cheapskate. The rising price of beer in pubs has tended to erode the custom. Groups now tend to break up into smaller ones to reduce the number of beers bought. In Australia, the round system is known as “shouting” and each member of a group is expected to participate.
Chinese drinking etiquette is based on gam bei, which translates as “dry glass” and has a similar meaning to “bottoms up.” When the leader of a group or the host at a meal says “gam bei,” the rest of the group has to empty their glasses. Drinkers cause offense if they switch beverages: if a toast is made with beer, then beer must continue to be the chosen drink.
Japan is better known for its rice-based sake, but the Japanese actually drink much more beer. When someone walks into a bar, a party, or a backyard barbecue, he will often shout “toriaezu biiru!,” which, roughly translated, means “I will start with a beer!” The phrase implies that food may be desired later, but “first things first.”
It is fair to say that German speakers have exported more beer-drinking customs around the world than any other culture. Oktoberfests, replete with oompah bands, lederhosen, and giant glass mugs, can be found in autumn almost anywhere in the world. Non-Germans tend to view the German drinking culture as a raucous affair, but it was not always so. Henry Mayhew, in his 1864 book German Life and Manners as Seen in Saxony at the Present Day, writes in a chapter entitled “of the beer-drinking customs at Jena,” referring to the students of the university there:
Beer drinking, among the Jena students, can hardly be regarded as wanton indulgence; for there are so many forms and ceremonies connected with it—such rights and duties attached to the “drinking to” and “drinking in response to” another—and it constitutes so intrinsic a part of the academic life of every German university, that the revelries associated with it partake more of the semi-religious orgies of the Bacchantes of old, than they do of mere unmeaning sensual feasts.
Mayhew goes on, at great length (and with little punctuation), to explain the elaborate eccentricities surrounding German beer drinking. Today, some of these customs remain in force and are known to beer drinkers everywhere, including the toast “Prost!” and the attendant vigorous clinking of glasses, something best attempted only with heavy German-style beer mugs. To this day, German college students eschew the “keg stands” and beer pong prevalent in the United States, preferring drinking songs and games of foosball.
American beer-drinking customs, like much of American culture itself, are an amalgam of customs from around the world, with Germany and England the leading progenitors. Many Americans are almost as likely to toast “Prost!,” “Kampai!,” or “¡Salud!” as they are “Cheers!,” and they now have many more interesting beers to toast with. As the American craft brewing movement grows, we will no doubt see new customs built over time. One custom is particularly gratifying to see. There is a growing custom, especially among craft brewers, that the offering of hospitality to visiting fellow brewers is mandatory, even if the visiting brewers are completely unexpected guests. The brewmaster will stop what he or she is doing and offer the visiting brewers a tour and a beer. It seems a custom worthy of brewing’s greatest traditions.