All About Beer Magazine - Volume 22, Issue 1
January 1, 2001 By Michael Jackson

Did people worry that the spoken word would die when the cleverest among them started to make pictograms on clay tablets? I wonder.

The written word has in my lifetime been declared under threat from illustrated comics, radio, television, and now the Internet. Funny how these things really work. The producer of a BBC radio program called “Word of Mouth” was surfing the net when he found my Beerhunter site. He thought that the various words meaning beer might make an item on his program.

The producer judged from my site that I lived in the United States but he eventually tracked me to London, where my home and office are walking distance from the BBC. I recorded an item for his program and it was heard by a brewer. (I hope he was not the only person to hear it. In fact, I know he wasn’t. My sister heard it, too. She phoned to tell me. “Why do I hear your voice only on the radio? Why don’t you ever call?”)

The brewer then contacted me, via the website, to ask whether I had a script for the program. Or, if there was no script, could I put some of the material on paper? He wanted to use some of it in a brochure for his brewery.

Which brings us back to the resilience of both the written and the spoken word. The written word that haunts me is the suggestion on Sumerian tablets that beer made the high priestesses feel “blissful.” It is not an impossible trajectory from the Sumerians (in what is now Iraq) to evidence of related brewing techniques in Armenia, Georgia, Russia, the Baltic, the Nordic countries, and even the Scottish islands.

Nor can I ignore the fact that my friend, Ronald Murphy, is a priest.

Priestly Translations

Murphy translated the Heliand, the Saxon epic telling the Gospel story, into English for the Oxford University Press. In the Saxon account of “The Marriage Feast at Cana” where Jesus allegedly turned water into wine, “ale vats” lined the room. Was this a Saxon misunderstanding? Or did the Greeks introduce “wine” from the Aramaic “strong drink”? Did Jesus actually turn water into beer?

“Hail, Jehovah!” said Father Murphy the last time we spoke. “That’s what Hallelujah or Alleluia mean. It’s Semitic.” I was disappointed.

“Nothing to do with alu ?” He thought not, because alu is Germanic, but the speculation is tempting. Words can jump from Semitic to Germanic languages, though it is rare. Murphy heads the German Department at the Georgetown University. He believes that the original significance of alu, as carved on a rune stone on the Baltic island of Gotland, is either a magical incantation of ecstasy or a taboo.

In the modern Baltic languages of Lithuanian and Latvian, the last European countries to become Christian, alus means beer. In Estonian, õlu means beer. In Finnish, it’s olut; in Swedish öl; in Norwegian and Danish, øl. In English, the word ale predates beer. In the 1500s, the English used the word “ale” to indicate an older, unhopped form. “Beer” meant a brew with hops.

The suggestion of old and new is mirrored in today’s usage, where ale distinguishes a top-fermented brew from the more modern, bottom-fermenting lager.

The same old-and-new distinction is used in Belgium and France, where a brew made without hops is sometimes identified as a cervoise rather than a bière. Farther south, the Spanish use cerveza for any beer. These words have the same root as cereal or Ceres, the ancient Greek god of grain.

Beer Before Barley?

As mentioned in this column not long ago, a grain called bere is grown and used in both baking and home brewing in the Orkney islands, which have a Scandinavian history, though they are now part of Scotland. Bere is an early type of barley. The bere-like grain? Or beer-like? The latter is posited as an origin for the word barley by both Murphy and the Concise Oxford Dictionary. Did beer, bier, bière and birra all come before barley? It seems they may have done.

Grain, usually barley, is the basic raw material of beer but what about hops? The ancients used the shoot of the hop as a salad, but it is not certain that they employed the blossom in beer. Some translations of the Talmud refer to beer and hops but, again, did the original simply indicate to “strong drink” and perhaps “aromatic plants”?

The Romans used the term Humulus lupulus, referring to a plant that “grew among the willows like a wolf among sheep,” to describe the hop. Humulus finds an echo in the Czech chmiel and the word hommel used in western Flanders. The word hop may refer to a small garden, a variation on the German hof. Incontrovertible evidence for the use of hops does not arise until the writings of St. Hildegarde (1098-1179), who was abbess of a convent at Rupertsberg, near Bingen, not far from Mainz.

The Dutch and Flemish word kruid, meaning herb, is suspiciously similar to gruit. Brewers with a passion for such matters often ask me about gruit beers, as though there were some mystique to the word itself. Gruit was not a magic substance; it was a blend of herbs used to aromatize, flavor and preserve beer before the hop came into general use. The composition of the blend varied from one region to another but often seems to have featured sweet gale, rosemary and yarrow. Other typical ingredients were bog myrtle and juniper berries, still used in some speciality beers and farmhouse brews.

No doubt these herbs left a sediment in the beer. It can surely be no accident that people in Britain refer to grouts when they mention the sediment of tea leaves at the bottom of a cup. At least, they did before the almost universal of use of tea bags.


Turn your grain into malt (possibly related to meld and melt, from Germanic and Nordic words meaning to soften or digest), boil it with hops, and you have brewed wort (from a Germanic word meaning a plant or root. The root of beer?).

This then needs to be fermented. Because the yeast cells in the atmosphere are too small to be visible, spontaneous fermentation was possible before brewers knew of the existence of yeast. When medieval brewers learned empirically to skim the foam from the fermenter as a starter for the next batch, they did not understand what this magic substance was. Even in the early 1800s, a standard German textbook on brewing, by Benno Scharl, used the word zeug (“stuff”) rather than hefe (“yeast”).

The German hefe is related to English words like heave, hefty and heavy. The English word yeast is related to the Dutch/Flemish gist (they may look different, but try pronouncing gist with a swallowed “g,” as the Dutch and Flemish do. Gist is related to the German geist (spirit), and the English ghost. These ghostly origins are echoed in the French word for yeast, levure and the English leaven (as in levitate).

They all refer to something being lifted, or rising. It could be bread, leavened by yeast. Or beer, with bubbles and carbon dioxide. Gas is another of those gist-geist-ghost words. So, probably, is gueuze , the Belgian beer made by spontaneous fermentation.

That last suggestion was made to me by gueuze brewer Frank Boon. I have no proof that it is correct. Just word of mouth.

Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson is an internationally acclaimed author and expert on drinks and fine food.