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The Beers before DeBeers?:

A short while ago, and much to the delight of her family and friends, my sister became engaged to be married. With the announcement began what is sure to be months of arduous work planning the wedding and reception.

As brother of the bride, I was given my first assignment early, even before they decided on a date: my sister wanted to brew beer to be served at the reception. She had heard of a tradition from centuries ago where the bride was responsible for making a special “bride ale” and wanted my help to make her own. I accepted the assignment with glee-I could think of no better way to contribute to her big day than by providing the beer.

The longer I thought about it, the more I realized how closely entwined alcohol and beer are with marriage traditions. I’m not just talking about guests who overdo it and make asses of themselves on the dance floor. As I looked a little closer, I found some of the most fundamental wedding traditions and terms have distinctly boozy origins.

The making of ‘Bride Ale’ is a tradition dating to days when a woman oversaw the making of beer for the family. Upon becoming engaged, a woman would make a special beer to celebrate the event and to raise money for her dowry. The beer she made was a better than average ale using only the best ingredients available.

In those days, people generally only got married once so a wedding was a rare chance to throw a party. Eventually, “Bride Ale” was shortened into ‘bridal’, which gained progressively wider definition as the need for homebrewing dissipated with the rise of commercial breweries.

Remnants of the tradition exist today at the weddings of people who make their own beer or wine to serve wares at the reception or togive bottles to guests as favors.

The ‘Honeymoon’ has a similar lineage. In this modern age, we take for granted the practice of newlyweds beginning their lives together in style– staying in nice hotels and visiting exotic locales after getting married. However, before travel and vacations were available to the average person, the term ‘honeymoon’ had a simpler meaning. It referred to the month (or cycle of the moon) after the wedding when the couple drank mead every night. Mead, made from fermented honey, was thought to fertility and was provided by the community in order to help the young couples conceive a child. Whether the mead affected them biologically, or simply helped get them in the mood, we can’t say for sure. Either way, the tradition lasted long enough to give us the term that we still use today.

Weddings are joyous events where friends and family gather to celebrate the love and dedication of a couple. So next time you raise your glass and salute the newlyweds, think of how many times it’s been done before and honor the past, present and future of one of life’s most sacred moments. What’s in your glass may be a far cry from homemade ale, but the sentiments and words we associate with them, are closer than you might have thought.

January 21, 2003
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