Beerology | Why We Toast
Welcome to Beerology! On the first Thursday of every month we will take a look into the origins of all things booze. This can range anywhere from where certain styles of beer came from, how certain brewing techniques were developed, tracing the history of beer trends, and today we thought it appropriate to touch on how one of our oldest beer traditions began by asking the question, why we toast our beers.
It’s 2016! New Year’s celebrations have come and gone. Most of you stayed up until midnight in your time zone for that celebratory toast. But why? Where did the toasting tradition come from? In this edition of Beerology, we’ll uncover the origin of clinking cups.
The true origins of toasting are a bit fuzzy, as many explanations occur in folklore. For instance, in the Odyssey, Odysseus drank to the health of Achilles. In Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, he writes, “Great men should drink with harness on their throats,” referring to the Danes’ habit of cutting the throats of Englishmen as they drank. This led to a tradition of literally pledging another’s health or safety while drinking.
In Rome, the Senate demanded that all toast their emperor Augustus before each meal. Also, within the Roman drinking laws, known as leges compotandi, there was a rule stating that when toasting to your sweetheart, a man must drink a cup of wine for every letter in her name.
“The custom of drinking a ‘health’ to the prosperity, happiness, luck, or good health of another dates back into antiquity – and, perhaps, into prehistory,” writes Paul Dickson in his book Toasts: Over 1,500 of the Best Toasts, Sentiments, Blessings and Graces. “It is impossible to point to the moment when the first crude vessel was raised in honor of an ancient god or to the health of a newborn baby. Nor do we have any idea when a parched traveler first lifted a cup in thanks to the man or woman who gave him wine.”
The first mention of the word “toast” can be traced back to 17th century England as a custom of drinking to the ladies. There is also the tale of putting a piece of toast in the wine cup due to the belief that it would make the wine taste better. Perhaps, the Stuarts – the first kings of the United Kingdom – should have just stuck to their biscuity beer in the first place. Oh yes, beer was brewed back in the 17th century, and well before that.
OK, so we know that the raising of glasses is a tradition that reaches back to ancient times. But, where did the tradition of clinking glasses come from? Again, the origin is not solid, but there are several theories, and thus since they cannot be proved, “they’re all equally valid (or invalid if you’re a cynic),” writes Ian Lendler in Alcoholica Esoterica.
It appears that the clinking of glasses didn’t become a piece of flair until the early days of Christianity. The theory goes that many believed the “clink” mimicked the sound of a church bell and could thus drive off the devil and other evil spirits.
Another theory contends that until the 16th century, people drank out of one communal goblet that was passed around the table. As disease spread, individual drinking vessels came about, but glasses were still clinked to symbolize the sharing of drinks from the same vessel.
A third, and more apt tale, is that clinking glasses began with the Vikings as a way of avoiding being poisoned. As we’ve come to know the Vikings, we know the exuberant tradition of banging mugs together while singing. Turns out, they may have done this so that some of their drink would slosh over into the other person’s goblet, and anyone who “slipped a mickey in his neighbor’s drink would get the poison right back in his own,” says Lendler.
Regardless of the true origins of toasting, the backbone of every tale is that we drink to health, hospitality, and honor. Every culture has its own traditions and customs surrounding imbibing, and those are tales for another day.
Dickson, Paul. Toasts: Over 1,500 of the Best Toasts, Sentiments, Blessings, and Graces.
New York, NY: Bloomsbury USA, 2009.
Lendler, Ian. Alcoholica Esoterica. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2005.
How to Toast Around the World video by Let’s Grab a Beer