Don’t Fob Off my Beer!

I’ve been reading Ian S. Hornsey’s classic textbook Brewing of late. As well as getting the low-down on how to convert raw graminaceous grain into the bubbling, sparkling, frothing, nutritious and delicious beverage we know as beer, I’ve also been getting a vocabulary upgrade. The brewing world runneth over with weird and wonderful words. This goes beyond the normal jargon you find in any industry. Beer making has been with us since the dawn of our species. The theory exists that it was the desire for a reliable source of barley that first spurred people into trying their hand at the old farming malarkey and this ancient process has changed very little since described in Babylonian and Egyptian texts. Thus, the words used in brewing are of venerable descent.

The foamy head of porter.

The foamy head of porter.

Most of my favourite brewing words are monosyllables — simple words of Anglo–Saxon origin. Fob in a brewery means foam. Fobbing off means removing the excess foam from a cask. My old friend the, Oxford English Dictionary, mentions nothing of the beery origin of fobbing off as we use it today.

Wort is the sugary liquid that results from the mashing of malted grain and which is pitched with yeast. The OED says: “Old English wyrt, of Germanic origin; related to root”. Makes sense. The wort is the root or origin of the later alcoholic ale. Pitch captures the meaning of the action associated with sports like baseball, although the yeast is added to the wort as a somewhat reduced velocity.

You may be familiar with the expression “it was grist to his mill”. For example, you might say, “all the criticism of his team’s performance was grist to manager José Mourinho’s mill.” Well grist in the maltings (the factory where grain is germinated or malted) is the dried malt that is fed into the mill for crushing. Grist comes from the Old English and is related to grind.

Lautering is not hanging around a street corner and wolf-whistling at passing females! According to Wikipedia it is “a process in brewing beer in which the mash is separated into the clear liquid wort and the residual grain”. Traditionally this was carried out in a lauter tun. The Merriam–Webster dictionary gives lauter’s origin as “German, clear, pure, from Old High German hlūtar pure”. Tun is a great word for a big old vessel, just one letter away from tub. The OED has it as Old English, possibly from Latin or Gaulish.

To get your casks of ale to the alehouse you place them on a dray which is a truck or cart without sides. Dray, says the OED, is “late Middle English (denoting a sledge): perhaps from Old English dræge ‘dragnet’, related to dragan ‘to pull’.”

Not all the ancient vocabulary of brewing comes from the Anglo-Saxon world. The Normans brought some of their French to the table (or should that be bar counter or lauter tun?) as well. A favourite new addition to my lexicon is the very Gallic-sounding ullage. Casks or barrels returned to a brewery contain ullage — the residue of beer left in a barrel that has been emptied. I can’t see myself using ullage in this sense unless I become a cellarman or start my own brewery, but outside the confines of these workplaces the word has a more generally applicable meaning: the amount by which a container falls short of being full (OED). The space with no beer in the neck of a bottle of beer is the ullage.

Finally, a word with a Latin origin, which probably arrived into English brewing terminology though Latin-speaking ale-brewing religious orders: sparging, the spraying or sprinkling of water over the grains or mash. At one point in the middle ages the majority of brewing went on in monasteries. Yes indeed — beermaking is truly a vocation!

BTW, I could have dedicated an entire article to terminology associated with the wooden casks which are still used in many parts of England. Almost every component of a wooden cask is described by a term I had never come across. For example, the chimb is the projecting rim at the end. However, I’ll just leave you with a short excerpt from Hornsey (with translation included!):

“The cask can now be vented. This is brought about by inserting a wooden peg (spile) into the recess (tut) of the shive . . . “


About ucronin

Born in the country town of Ennis, Co. Clare, Ireland in 1975, I now live in Madrid with my partner and two young daughters and work in a research institute. While I was always a hungry reader and harboured vague notions of being a writer, as a young man writing was the furthest thing from my mind; after leaving school, I did a B.Sc. in Biotechnology in Galway's NUI, an M.Sc. in Plant Science in University College Cork and a Ph.D. in Microbiology in the University of Limerick, the plan being to dedicate my professional career to scientific research. While having written extensively within my technical scientific field, I had never contemplated becoming a writer of fiction until a road-to-Damascus moment on the N69 between Listowel and Tarbert, Co. Kerry in the summer of 2011. Since then, most of my spare time has been occupied with writing. In whatever other free moments I have, I like to listen to music, play the guitar and garden (which here in Madrid means a lot of watering of plants and spraying for red spider mite). My ambition is to become as good a writer as I possibly can, eventually freeing myself from the cold clutches of science and earning a living through my scribblings. The type of writing that excites me is honest, intelligent, well-constructed and richly descriptive.
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4 Responses to Don’t Fob Off my Beer!

  1. my school actually made us watch a documentary about the history of brewing beer as it was the force behind the written language. I want to taste ancient organic beer!

  2. Wow! I’ve learned a great deal of vocabulary! Thanks for giving me the techniques of beer making. I’ll appreciate it more when I have a glass 🍺

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