One beloved beverage, so many names. Walk into a taproom in Germany or The Netherlands and order a Bier. Go to a brasserie in France or Italy and enjoy a Biere. Enter a pub in England and ask for a pint of Beer. Yet if you visit Spain or Portugal, you’ll get funny looks with the B-sounding word unless you request a Cerveza in Barcelona or a Cerveja in Lisbon.
Why is the Iberian Peninsula different from the rest of Europe? And why are there completely different words for the beverage? It boils down to a tangled knot of words that are contextually related and refer to grain, beer, making beer, and drinking.
Spanish and Portuguese use a variant of the Latin Cervisia. This Roman word for beer is related to another word root Cere, another word for grain — the major component of beer — and is also the origin of the English word “cereal.” There is another related Latin word Cremor, which translates as a thick broth or porridge, also grain based.
The origin can be taken back further to an Indo-European root Kerm, which is base of the Russian word Korm, meaning “fodder,” and Old Slavonic Krma, meaning “food” or “nourishment,” the Welch Cwrw (Coo Roo) meaning “beer,” Coref and Coreff in Cornwall and Breton, respectively, for “beer,” Coirm in Irish meaning “feast,” and the aforementioned Latin Cremor.
The Gaulish version of the Indo-European word is Kormi, which directly refers to beer. The Greek historian Posidonius specifically mentions one particular type, an ale brewed with wheat and honey in southern Gaul. While Gaulish became an extinct language by the 1st century, Kormi survived in the Celtic dialects spoken in the British Isles and Brittany (see above).
In Cisalpine Gaul (the Italian side of the Alps), however, the pronunciation was softened to Cermi. The wine-drinking Romans came into contact with these Celts and adopted the word — but changed the pronunciation from m to v. Thus, Cermi became Cervi, leading to Cervisia and the later Spanish and Portuguese variants.
From context and association with grain, beer was considered by many cultures as more of a food or means of nourishment rather than a drink, per se. The term “liquid bread” is sometimes still used. Up until the late 19th century when the science of microbiology evolved and bacteria was discovered, beer was the preferred beverage since water was often unsafe to drink. Laborers and farm workers drank it for restorative properties, like modern sports drinks, and this beer provided by their employers as part of their compensation.
Give me a beer, biere, or bier!
Beer, Biere, and Bier have Germanic origins and entered Western European languages at the end of the Roman Empire in the 5th century with the Germanic invasions. The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes resettled in England, the Franks in France, and the Lombards in northern Italy. Their B-sounding word for beer supplanted the Latin word. In Modern English, Beer is descended from Bēor in Old English.
Interestingly, there is a distant relationship between the German word and a Latin verb, Bibere — to drink. Monastic Latin changed this word to Biber, a noun for “drink,” which, phonetically, is similar to Bēor. Of note, the English words “Imbibe” and “Beverage” are related to the Latin word through Norman French.
Beer is a noble beverage, created by necessity in the cold climates of Northern Europe that is too harsh for temperamental vineyards to survive. Notwithstanding the Emperor Julian, who derisively called Celtic beer “as smelly as a billy goat,” imported wine was in short supply in Britannia and the legions stationed there learned to like beer. Recently, tablets were excavated at the Vindolanda Fort along Hadrian’s Wall in Northern England that contained records for the garrison commander hiring the first identified professional brewer, Atrectus cervesarius (Atrectus the brewer) along with a grain bill for purchasing supplies from neighboring Celtic farmers.
Are you a Zythophile?
On a related tangent, the ancient Greeks, like the Romans, were wine drinkers first and looked down their noses at beer drinkers, but they were familiar with the beverage. The Greeks discovered beer through contacts with Egyptians who enjoyed a barley-based drink called Zythos, a word which the Greeks adopted. Etymologically, the noun is related to the Greek verb Zeo, meaning to boil. A person who likes beer is called a “zythophile,” probably the classiest term devised to describe a beer drinker. “Zymology” is an applied science for the study of fermentation and its practical uses for both food and beverages. “Zymurgy” is the name of the trade journal of the American Homebrewers Association.
As for the production of beer, English speakers would be more familiar with the terms used by the Romans and Germans. The Latin Decoquere, “to boil down” (as in a reduction to thicken liquids and concentrate flavors) evolved into “Decoction” in Middle English by the 15th century. Brewers know this as a mashing technique. Another term for boiling, Fervere, entered English as “fervent,” an adjective referring to something possessing an intense passion. The act of setting the uncovered vats into the open to catch yeast was called Fermentum, which gives us “Ferment” and “Fermentation.”
While the Latin words and their English derivatives tend to run more scientific, the more informal term, “Brew,” came to England in the 5th century with the Germanic invaders and entered Old English as Brēowan, meaning to infuse by soaking in hot water. The modern German words for making beer, Brauen,and the finished beverage, Brau, are easily recognized.
Up to the end of the Western Roman Empire, English vocabulary was given the basic words about beer and how it was made. The Middle Ages and Modern Era would define types of beer.
In the 9th century, Vikings raided England’s eastern coast and eventually established a realm known as the Danelaw. From the Old Norse Ǫl, which originally referred to a style of beer that was pale in color and unhoped, Old English got the the words Alu and Ealu. In Modern English, this has evolved into “Ale.”
The Common Language of Beer
In 1857, Louis Pasteur’s identification of yeast as the catalyst that causes fermentation ultimately led to a science that created beer classifications based on yeast type. German brewers who immigrated to the United States during second half of the 19th century added Lager, a style of beer, to the English lexicon. In the original German context, however, lager refers to the caves that brewers used to condition beer. The word itself is related to two other words: Laager, an encampment; and Lair, an animal’s den.
And here in the early 21st century, the etymological journey pauses. The 3,000-year journey to this moment teaches us that a wide variety of cultures and civilizations across Europe and the Middle East prized beer and passed this love to succeeding generations over the centuries. Though the customs of the ancients may be forgotten and their languages extinct, their terms referring to beer and brewing are still very much alive in Modern English. Beer not only graces our tables, but our language as well.