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
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
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