The connection between toasting health and toasting bread
A lot of food gets put on toast. Eggs for example, but only relatively recently (they used to be put in soup). Here where I live, it would be considered un-Australian not to smear toast with a black tar-like paste made from used brewers’ yeast. So, given we might consume something on toast for breakfast, why do we also toast someone’s health with a beverage?
The reason is straightforward — alcohol used to be consumed at breakfast too.
Early beers didn’t preserve very well, and were thus consumed promptly. The short brewing period meant that sugars had little time to convert to alcohol, and these were our first low-alcohol beers. They also didn’t develop a lot of flavours, so these were added (various herbs, flowers and spices for example). One common addition, at the time of drinking, was a piece of toasted bread.
The result of this was a healthy drink that was routinely consumed at breakfast. The beer was healthier than untreated water because it had been boiled in the brewing process, and the bread added flavour and more carbohydrates — a boost to the start of the day.
The pairing of toast with beer makes sense; they both derive from the same raw ingredients (grains and yeast) and therefore co-existed. It was brewers’ yeast that was used to leaven bread. Likewise, there’s logic to smearing a black tar-like paste made from used brewers’ yeast onto toast too.
Adding toast to beverages was closely linked to the practice of adding toast to soup. Beers were often poorly filtered and resembled broths. We still do it today — croutons in soup for example, or a whole slice in the case of a tradition French onion soup. Likewise, simply consuming bread with soup.
When added to a broth, the toast was called a sop (strictly the sop was untoasted bread, but the name carried over). With time, sop gave its name to the broth, which became soup (and supper).
In the case of beverages, the added toast gave its name to a tradition — toasting someone’s health with a nourishing (and enjoyable) drink.
Why do we also clink glasses when toasting? For a period of history, poisoning people for personal gain was remarkably commonplace and considered a jolly sport. Originally, beverages were served from a communal bowl (like a punchbowl today). People dipped their glasses/mugs in it to refill. This meant that no one drinking from the bowl would poison it. With the evolution to individual servings, drink-poisoning became attractive. Clinking when toasting (and before drinking) splashed the beverage between glasses and lessened the risk that one of the jolly group had poisoned another’s drink. The more merrily it was done the more certain the safety — the convention of looking into companions’ eyes as this was done was to check for telltale nervousness. The process involves an upward movement of the glasses after the ‘clink’ to maximise the splash. Thus we ‘raise our glasses’ for a toast, even today.
In time, humans discovered that adding hops to beer not only flavoured it (bitter and sour), but also extended its shelf life. The hop flower is an antibacterial that also creates an environment favourable to yeast. The result was that beers could be brewed for longer periods and so became more alcoholic (and agreeable). They also kept longer. The Indian Pale Ale was so named because it kept long enough to ship to India.
Eventually, as alcohol levels rose, it became apparent that there were certain drawbacks to workers having a few beers for breakfast. As civilised as the practice was, it faded.