What are suds doing on the menu?

I was checking out a wine bar on-line that was running a wine tasting (of Hunter Valley Semillons, btw). Out of curiosity, I looked up their wine list and right at the end of the 20 pages (well of course) there was a tiny selection of beers and non-alcoholic drinks. The beers were called suds. I had never seen this before so it made me laugh—it took wine snobbery up a notch.

Is this a real thing?

I bounced this off a mate of mine who is a bit of a beer aficionado (a boozer) and he advised me that “suds” is a US slang term for beer (it has been used since about 1904, says Online Etymology Dictionary). The American sense of humour is not always so different.

The real word “suds” refers to the mass of small bubbles that forms on the surface of  soapy water (in UK English, while in US English it refers to the mass of small bubbles on the surface of any liquid). It is a beautiful description of beer from the perspective of wine lovers (oenophiles) who like to look for subtle, sophisticated flavours in their beverage. Don’t get me wrong, my holy food trinity is cheese, wine and beer so I am not judgemental. I do like my big red wines (I am a wine bibber) but beer quenches your thirst in ways that wine cannot.

The word history of “suds”

Like all words that shift in their meanings a word’s history can provide some interesting context and even magnify meaning. This is very true for “suds”, particularly coming from the mouth of a wine lover.

“Suds” makes its first appearance in English in the 1540s, a bit out of nowhere. It meant dregs, leavings, or muck. In the 1590s it was being used among writers from East Anglia (the lowlands of south-east England) as the ooze left by a flood. This may well be the original English sense according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Suds meaning a flood ooze may provide a clue to its word origin. It is perhaps borrowed from Middle Dutch sudse meaning a marsh or bog. Also it may be related to Frisian and Low German words that are related to Old English “sodden” meaning boiled (from Proto-Germanic “suth-“ and before that from PIE “seut” to seethe or boil). Sodden used to be the past participle of seethe, but is no longer connected (seethe originally meant to boil but now is used in its metaphoric sense of inward agitation, i.e. to boil with unexpressed anger).

Suds meaning soapy water dates from the 1580s. The verb to suds something, as in cover with suds was used from 1834 and the adjective sudsy from 1866. Suds (as we mentioned) has been used for beer in the US since early last century (the US usage of suds has a wider definition than in UK and Australian usage). The New Yorker first described a soap opera as a sudser in 1968, and still uses the word frequently—which we really need to copy.

Effervescent suds

I love the idea of suds for beer. It has a delightful effervescent sense that you get from champagne. However, it is much better to get your bubbles from a pint glass than a crystal flute.