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My grandfather-in-law was born in England in the 1920s and fought in World War II. Somewhere along the line he acquired the habit of salting his beer before drinking it, which persisted for the rest of his life. I'm as curious about the cultural genesis of the practice as the food science of it – was there perhaps something about wartime beer that made it unpalatable without salt? I know there were other wartime food customs like bread and scrape so it doesn't seem implausible, but the "why" of this one isn't so obvious.

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Poor-quality hops made the beer too bitter? You're talking about putting salt into a glass of beer before drinking it, right? Or do you mean adding salt when brewing? –  Josh Caswell Aug 13 '12 at 1:29
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Sorry, yes, salting the glass of beer before drinking. –  SevenSidedDie Aug 13 '12 at 1:39
    
Also flat beer can sometimes be "woken up" by adding salt. –  staticsan Aug 20 '12 at 7:39

6 Answers 6

up vote 12 down vote accepted

I can think of several reasons why you might salt beer:

  • Salt is a natural flavor enhancer, so you'd be able to taste the hops and malt more
  • Salt reduces perceived bitterness, so overly hopped beer would taste less bitter
  • The salt crystals may nucleate bubble formation, giving the beer more head (briefly)

I've heard of it being done before, but never with good beer, only low quality swill. But then, since there were more quality problems with cheap brews at the time, this was probably a lot more common.

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I didn't know that salt reduced the perception of bitterness; that may well explain it. I wonder now whether wartime beer was deliberately over-hopped as a preservative, like IPAs. –  SevenSidedDie Aug 13 '12 at 1:56
    
@Bob I can't edit yet but I think you mean "less bitter" on bullet #2 –  JYelton Aug 13 '12 at 18:15

There are circumstances where working in a hot place will make people sweat so much that they need to take salt to avoid a deficiency. I first heard mention of this from a man who had been doing field work in the Blue Mountains of Queensland, then found out more when working in a metal foundry, after which I worked in a factory where salt tablets were made.

Most people take their salt in tablet form, sometimes the tablets dissolve in water to give an effervescent drink. A salt deficiency can commonly cause very unpleasant muscular cramps, among other things that can happen is a state that resembles drunkenness (but without euphoria).

I have seen foundry workers put a dash of salt in their coffee, if you go back in history you find that salting coffee happened in the 18th century coffeehouses.

My guess is that the man in question had at some time in his life worked in a hot place, where it was necessary to take more salt because of sweating. That might have been, say, North Africa during WWII, or a metal foundry in a temperate place. Then he got the taste for salting his beer and carried on doing it, after he stopped working in that hot place.

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Could be. He was once a flamethrower soldier; nasty, hot work. –  SevenSidedDie Sep 19 '13 at 20:55

As other answers have noted, salt enhances flavor and reduces perceived bitterness. It also increases the perceived body/mouthfeel of the beer.

My grandfather always salted his cantaloupe and honeydew melons. I tried it, and was pleasantly surprised by how it intensified the melon flavor.

Also of note is Gose, a style of beer brewed in Leipzig, Germany. It includes coriander and salt.

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This reminds me of a story my grandfather told me: in the Netherlands, right after the war, there was a great deficiency of many kinds of grains, which made the beer taste bad. The bartenders of the more upscale cafes would put a slice of lemon in the beer to mask the bad taste. This habit stuck, and we still do it today.

No idea how much truth there is to the story (my granddad being quite the storyteller), but perhaps it can shed some light on this question.

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Back in the early 70's I worked as a waiter in a tavern in London Canada and in those days every table had a salt shaker and there were many who added salt to their draught beer. In those days most Londoners still drank ales like 50, Red Cap and Export. I tried it a few times but didn't really care for it.

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That is a nice anecdote, but how does it answer the question? –  SAJ14SAJ May 12 at 22:57
    
It could even be a relevant anecdote: Southern Ontario is where my grandfather-in-law lived at the time. But yes, it's missing any explanatory substance that actually answers the question. Is the implication that low-quality beer was improved by it? Or is the implication that it was pointless? We ought not need to mind-read to understand the point of an answer. :) –  SevenSidedDie Nov 28 at 2:18

I always heard that salting your beer would make you drunk quicker, so you didn't have to drink as much. I guess because they say alcohol thins your blood. Of course whether its true or not I have no clue, but I always thought it made sense.

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