A few months ago I was sitting in an Irish pub with The Beer Nut and I did what any American would do: I held my pint glass aloft and said "Sláinte" with gusto. Hey, that's what the Irish do when they offer a toast, right? Fortunately, just as the word was dying in my mouth, shamrocks, leprechauns, and Blarney stones trooped through my mind and I had the good sense to ask John (the Nut's actual name) whether this is something Irish drinkers say. Not often, he confirmed.
In drinking culture, the toast happens reflexively. We offer the toast and may even bring our awareness to the moment, but then it's gone. Once the act is done enough it passes into ritual, which is to say it is so familiar the particulars of the act are hard to identify. I was reminded of this when John and his wife visited Portland a few weeks past and I joined them for pints on my home turf. I met them at Fat Head's, where they were already well into their pints, and then, in the Irish fashion, marched off to a different pub for our next pint. It was there I went through the reflexive toast, and I could tell by their slight expressions of surprise that I was doing something culturally specific.
The ritual of toasting one another with alcohol is ancient. It fits within a category of social rituals that happen all the time: vocal greetings at particular moments during the day, the way we touch each other when we meet for the first time (handshake, cheek kiss, bow), even the way we say something after someone sneezes. Alcohol fits into a slightly more special category because it is usually used in ceremonies (weddings, funerals, boat christening) that mark our connections. That's what's happening in the pub, too, though on a more quotidian level. The words themselves often translate to some kind of well-wishing: "to your health" is a common translation of many national exclamations, or to happiness or one's benefit.
The subtle particulars of how we conduct this ritual vary a lot. Czechs have told me that the failure to look someone in the eye during toasting brings seven years bad sex--an amusing joke that nevertheless reveals a real element of the act. In some countries you only have to raise your glass or clink the glass of your neighbor, while in others, clinking must happen all around. Most places frown upon toasting with an empty glass.
I'm not sure what I told John at that second pub about the habits of American toasters. I hadn't considered it well enough to know. The truth is, I'm not even sure if there's an American practice--these things may well be regional or even confined to smaller social groups. I have considered the matter, though, and should you ever find yourself in my company here in Portland, expect these things to transpire.
A toast is made after the first round arrives. We generally say "cheers," though variations may be appropriate for special occasions or comedic purposes ("cheers to this sorry basket of deplorables"). Everyone must touch everyone else's glass. Eye contact is not a must, though appreciated.
I can't speak for anyone else, but for me the moment is not a blind ritual. Stopping after receiving that first glass of beer to offer a toast centers the moment in its social setting. Offering a toast is a way of re-establishing connections. We say "cheers," but we mean, "let's not miss the opportunity to affirm how happy we are to have a chance to be together here, now." In nearly every case, I sense the actual connection being made.
(Perhaps a great deal could be made about the psychology of men's emotional relationships to other men, and how they are nurtured through these subtle and non-demonstrative displays of friendship. Since toasting is now done among all genders and since I have not surveyed the literature, I'll skip that digression for now.)
Other rules. If people arrive at different times, the toasting will take place when a new round arrives. If the group doesn't settle into ordering in rounds, the opportunity may be lost, though any member may, after everyone has a beer, offer the toast then. It's considered poor form to toast with an empty glass, and I have seen the ritual delayed while the group waits for the empty-glassed member to get a fresh beer. This again confirms that the moment is more than an empty gesture.
Finally, and this wasn't something I'd noticed until recently, relocation to a new pub starts the whole process over again. One is tempted to draw connections to the religious sphere in this ritual act, and the idea that we toast at every new pub would tend to bolster that case. There's an element of blessing or sanctification that this suggests; a new space, a new need to prepare it and make it sacred. In this way, the act of drinking becomes something like a rite that must be preceded with the proper invocations.
Or perhaps I'm overthinking things here. Maybe it's just something we do, and it's nice and we like it, and it's cool because we all do it slightly differently. Even at that, it's worth a blog post every now and again.