21 Aug Cheers, Prost, Kanpai – The History, Meaning, and Culture Behind the Toasts
Beer is a social activity, but writing about beer is solitary. I meet a lot of people, but I email probably 10x as many breweries as those I get to visit each week. However, even in speaking to brewers and owners via email, there is a social aspect to it. They almost always end an email with a Cheers, Prost, or Kanpai. Why do they do this? Well, 1) their nice and are wishing people well, and 2) they deal in beer, and people do a lot of toasting in beer.
The toast is an important part of the social aspect of beer (and wine and spirits); it helps us to draw other people into our sphere and reinforces the idea that we wish them well. It’s important enough that one brewery in Indiana actually takes its name from a toast. Iechyd Da Brewing in Elkhart is named for the Welsh phrase for “Good Health,” and imparts a sense of belonging, a sense of history and culture, and it’s fun to say.
But where does all this toasting come from, and how do different cultures toast? It’s worth taking a few minutes to look into it and understand a bit better why we do what we do.
The Toast. First off, the idea of toasting is very old. It’s at least as old as alcohol, and people have been drinking alcohol for a long time. Toasting reaches back to the ancient Hebrews and Egyptians, as well as BCE-era Georgia and other parts of the Eurasia. It seems that as time wore on, toasts became longer and more intricate. Attila the Hun would give three toasts before each course of a meal. Toasts with the Greeks became ways to convince their guests that they hadn’t been poisoned (with words and a shared drink), and this is where all the toasting references to good health come from.
The Romans added well being to good health in many of the toasts. What’s more, they (and other cultures) would add toasted bread to their wine to sop up some of the acidity and off flavors. QC in brewing and fermenting wasn’t what it might have been in the early times. But, heck, the Romans added lead to their wine, so a bit of toasted bread crumb was no big deal. The Latin term for “to dry up” was “tostus” and hence the word “toast.” It became so important that it was decreed that every Roman had to toast the health of the emperor before every meal.
The English Saxons got in on the act as well. Their first recorded toast was nearly 1900 years ago, and was a bidding of good health to King Vortigern. They hailed “waes hael!” from which we get wassail, the Christmas drink that was shared amongst all the guests at a party. Later, the Royal Navy upped the ante by having a traditional toast for every day of the week. Monday toasted the ships at sea, Sunday toasted absent friends, etc. In America, the former colonists raised toasting another level in the 1880s to 1920s when authors and wits would compose long, intricate toasts for social occasions. And so it has gone, although now we have reduced most toasts to one or two words.
Clinking glasses. Along with the toast, the practice of clinking glasses or other vessels during a toast is almost equally as old. However, the reason for the clink is clouded in mystery – there are lots of possibles, but no real evidence for any of them. Many of them sound good, and others make logical sense, but no written evidence exists, so they are all equally possible. The big ones are:
1) By banging glasses together, the drinks of the two glasses were mixed, meaning that if the host poisoned your drink, then the clink would end up poisoning his as well, so he might refrain from trying to kill you.
2) The noise created by clinking glasses was a way to ward off evil spirits. This was likely accompanied by cheering and saying “Cheers!” So more noise was necessary than just clinking, ie, the Germans banged the glasses on the table. No self-respecting evil spirit would be run off by a clink. However, the clink would also spill some of the drink on the floor, being left to appease the spirits.
3) Raising the glass was more important than actually banging them together if the reason was to honor the gods before taking a drink. It probably comes from raising sacrificial goblets to the gods in exchange for granting a wish or having good favor. This then melded into offering a drink to each of the people around you by raising glasses to each other, and highlighting the gesture by touching them together.
4) Drinking alcohol is a party for the senses, at least four of them. You can taste the drink, feel it, see it, and smell it. But the sense of hearing was left out. By clinking glasses, people could complete the circle and enjoy the drink via all their senses.
Toasts in many languages. So we have the words and we have the action – toasting and clinking. Touching glasses is just about the same in all cultures, but the words used vary across the world. And with America being the melting pot that it is, you can hear all of them around the country (and in read them in brewers’ email sign offs). Here are a few, with their origins and meanings:
Cheers – English, this toast comes from the Anglo French of Medieval times, “cheres” meaning “face,”or the Old French “chiere” for “expression.” It evolved to signify the mood or countenance shown on the face when happy. By the 1800s, saying “cheers” came to extoll gladness or to show support or encouragement.
Prost, Proost, or Prosit – German or Danish, most of these come from the Latin “prodesse” meaning “to be beneficial” which got shortened a bit and was popularized by German university students a few hundred years ago. In some ways, it really means “toast”, so it isn’t unlike people just yelling “toast!” when they drink. However, it has come to embody a good wish to others; the “proost” of the Dutch literally means, “may it be good.”
Skăl – Danish/Swedish (pronounced skoal), it rhymes with bowl, and this is what it means. It was a name for the old drinking vessels that they would bang together. However, the Viking tradition may have been to drink out of the skulls of their vanquished enemies, so there’s that too.
Santé – French, this means “health,” but if you want to sound like a native while toasting in French, you might go with “à votre santé – to your health,” or even better “à la votre” a contraction of the previous which has come to mean “cheers.”
L’Chayyim or L’Chaim – Hebrew, this is the phrase used when a couple get married meaning “to life” and has come to be the name of that celebration itself. Serious scholarly work has been done on the meaning and appropriateness of this toast in the Jewish tradition, but as one writer put it, “We don’t necessarily have deeper intentions behind the toast; we mean it simply as a bestowal of blessings upon our friends.”
Kanpai – Japanese, Gan Bei – Mandarin Chinese, Gun Bae – Korean, all are derived from a similar origin, and they are pronounced at least similarly. Each of them has come to mean “bottoms up” or more literally, “drink the glass.” However, how the toast is practiced can vary. In Korea they refill the glass only when it is completely empty, while in Japan the glass is never allowed to become empty.
Sláinte – Irish, or Sláinte mhath – Scottish Gaelic, meaning “to your health” and is from the root “slán” defined as “healthy.” Being from the Irish or Gaelic and gifted with words, they often expand on this word in the toasts, with things such as “health is better than wealth” or “may you go safely.”
While there are many toasts around the world, the vast majority of them come down to one of two meanings “good health” or “long life.” However there are exceptions, the Albanian “Gezuar” means “enjoy,” while the Georgian Gauaumarjos” means “Victory!”
No matter how you say it, or what it means, the toast is a major part of the social aspect of drinking – and of signing off in emails by brewers and other people in the industry of craft beer. “Cheers” is perhaps the most common complimentary closing, but I get “Kanpai,” “Skăl.” and even “Sláinte” from time to time. I think I may buck the trend if I start to add something to my emails. Instead of using one of the written/verbal phrases, I may just go with “Clink.”