The Wassail story

By Gregg Smith

Every year it happens. Daylight hours wane as one cold front after another plunges thermometers and the first snow flakes make their appearance. Most curious, people confront this onslaught by acting nice to each other. A good portion of this can be credited to the calming and humanity inducing influence of the year end holidays. Both the religious days and the year's true rebirth (spring is just a wanna be) turns erstwhile curmudgeons into the most convivial of characters. It's great. The question is what kind of a beer do you serve.

Holiday ales and beers have become the popular rage over the last few years as micro's bring forth their interpretation of a holiday gift to beer enthusiasts. There's even a way to brew your own. But first where did all this business of putting herbs, fruits and spices in beer start?

Back in the days before hops made their debut as a beer preservative, that is earlier than 800 or so AD, brewers often resorted to mixes of herbs, spices, and even tree bark and peppers to help stabilize their brews. How this came to represent the taste of the winter solstice is a different story.

Way back in our collective past the seeds of winter celebrations were planted by the Romans. As days became short the Romans honored and toasted the god Saturn with feasts, parties, and celebrations known as Saturnalia. Gee there's even ale in the name, and although the Romans are most associated with wines their writings are filled with references to beer.

Other early cultures also celebrated the coming winter. The Norse reveled each year as they approached the longest night. In their folklore it was diminutive, mythical, spirits called Yule which dominated this season; hmmmmm......wonder where "Yuletide" originated. These original pagan roots didn't die easily. Up into the tenth century the Norwegian king Hakon the Good wrestled with being a good christian while longing for the simpler days of the original festival. What better compromise than to simply proclaim that both should be celebrated simultaneously as a single feast. As for the length of this combined holiday he thought it only fitting that it last as long as the beer flowed.

During Britain's fifth century a local overlord by the name of Vortigern played, by some accounts, a part in Wassail getting its name. According to the legend, his Saxon subjects presented him a bowl of ale during a feast in his honor, with the proclamation "Louerd king woes hoeil". Of course Vortigern didn't know the meaning of the phrase, which translates to "Lord King your health". But when he inquired the Saxons explained "It is the custom of the Saxons that friend says to friend, 'Wassail' and the other says'Drinc Hail' eventually the term was related to the entire fun making around the holidays.

King Arthur had his own toast for this time of year. His Waes-Hael got right to the point...

"Waes-Hael! for Lord and Dame
O! merry be their Dole;
Drink-hael! in Jesus name,
And fill the tawny bowl.

It seemed only natural to warm a cold winter night with a strong ale. As time passed the holiday ale met the offspring of Yule, a spiced loaf called Yule cake. A slice of this was placed in the bottom of the bowl and warm ale floated it up toward the brim. The cup would be passed around with much merriment until both the ale and Yule cake were gone. Then it was a simple matter of mixing another and another again until all were gloriously incapacitated.

Want to join in on this old custom? Here's one of the original recipes. Get a large bowl, dump a half pound of sugar in the bottom, pour in a pint of warm beer, add a sprinkling of nutmeg and ginger (grated), and mix in four glasses of sherry. Finally, top it off by adding five pints of beer. Leave this set out for a few hours and just before serving float a few thin slices of toast on top along with a few slices of lemon.

Another variation in Anglo-Saxon times was called "Lamb's Wool" a bit simpler version. Add brown ale to a bowl, spice it with nutmeg and ginger, back it up with a good measure of sugar and top it off with roasted crab apples which had burst in the roasting. For the best effect, toss in the crabapples when the white interiors pop out and serve the steaming bowl to your guests crying "Wassail".

All that sounds good enough but it might be simpler to just buy the modern version already brewed and bottled. Some beer experts will cite porters or belgium beers as the toughest style to nail down, but in reality it's the Winter Warmer, also known as Holiday Ale, that challenges description.

Normally a brewer strives for consistency in styles; deviations are usually subtle. Winter Warmers are different, they seem to embrace diversity. In a brewery's standard beer this irregularity would be unacceptable but it's almost expected in Holiday beers. Nearly every brewery's version varies from year to year, but despite this variance the profiles of a particular rendition generally remain constant.

Winter beers tend to be stronger than their year-round counterparts. They are usually of dark amber color and may include spices of nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, ginger, licorice, molasses and others. Higher alcohol levels and spices result in good storage properties and holiday versions placed in cool, dark storage will remain drinkable to the next year's holiday. When serving a winter warmer cellaring temperatures of about 50 to 55 degrees are best for releasing the bouquet. Use a snifter or bowl shaped glass to capture and savor the aromatics. Then it's a simple matter of placing another log on the fire and settling back to enjoy both the season and the beer. Don't wait too long, as the ad for Geary's winter beer says "Only available while the weather sucks!"

Gregg Smith


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