Beer: Wassail & strong ales spice up the holiday season

By Greg Kitsock
Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Today, "wassailing" means caroling from door to door. But originally, the word -- from the Middle English greeting "waes haeil," or "be hearty" -- referred to the strong drink that inspired enthusiastic if tone-deaf renditions of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" and "Good King Wenceslas."

Wassail was a freestyle punch made with a strong spiced ale (sometimes wine) and flavored with sugar, nutmeg, cloves, apples, oranges, toast; in short, whatever the lord of the manor might have lying about his pantry. During the Christmas season, it was customary to offer a warming drink to bands of carolers. In 1644, the Puritans in England banned the practice (and all other public celebrations of Christmas) on the grounds that it led to wastefulness and debauchery.

Wassailing (in the sense of both singing and drinking) reasserted itself with the restoration of the monarchy and survived into modern times, as evidenced by the conclusion of Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol," in which the reformed Scrooge invites his clerk Cratchit to discuss his future over a bowl of hot punch.

Modern wassails -- strong spiced ales -- can be bought premixed.

From Grimstad, Norway (practically Santa's back yard), comes Special Holiday Ale, a collaboration among the Nogne O microbrewery, Stone Brewing Co. in Escondido, Calif., and Bell's Brewery in Galesburg, Mich. This dark multigrain beer (brewed with barley, oats and rye) carries on the tradition of each reveler contributing an ingredient to the wassail. Norwegian juniper berries give the beer a tart fruitiness, California sage contributes an almost incenselike aroma, and Michigan chestnuts add a sweet, nutty flavor, although they are largely overwhelmed by the roasted malt. Finally, caraway lends a dry, licorice-like spiciness.

Just as too many cooks can spoil a fine broth, too many brewers bearing too many condiments increase the likelihood that flavors will clash. Special Holiday Ale pulls off its juggling act well, as does Adoration, the new winter seasonal from the Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, N.Y. This russet-colored ale draws sweetness from cardamom and coriander, and a peppery zing from grains of paradise and mace. Sweet orange peel emerges subtly in the aftertaste. This big fruitcake of a beer also has notes of banana in the aroma, a characteristic often imparted by Belgian yeast strains.

A little less successful is Monk's Blood, the new limited release brewed by Minnesota's Cold Springs Brewing Co. for the 21st Amendment Brewery in San Francisco. The beer bills itself as a "Belgian-style dark ale brewed with cinnamon, vanilla, oak chips and dried figs." A tannic bitterness clashes with the cinnamon, although the vanilla does its best to smooth things over. Still, this is one of the most ambitious and unusual brews to be packaged in a 12-ounce can.

The Het Anker brewery in Mechelen, Belgium, can trace its roots to 1369, a time when Geoffrey Chaucer was gathering material for his "Canterbury Tales." The brewery's Gouden Carolus Noël is a rich, mahogany-colored ale with a rummy, liqueurish sweetness that makes it a great accompaniment for spiced cake, gingerbread and other holiday desserts. The company's Web site claims the beer is flavored with six herbs but does not reveal the recipe. Importer Martin Wetten of Lorton pegs anise as a definite, and a few home-brewing friends of mine suggested cardamom and ginger. An older bottle of the Noël was drier, with a flavor reminiscent of spruce sap. (The beers mentioned in this column are fairly strong, between 8 and 12 percent alcohol by volume, and should tolerate up to several years of aging.)

Two Turtle Doves, a holiday ale from the Bruery in Placentia, Calif., is another Belgian-style ale containing an unusual combo of cocoa nibs and toasted pecans. It has an intensely fruity aroma with notes of orange or peach; a roasty, almost-burnt flavor; and loads of bittersweet chocolate. This little microbrewery intends to brew a beer for each of the 12 days of Christmas, guaranteeing some interesting holiday releases for the next decade.

When serving strong, flavorful beers like these, avoid refrigerating them to near freezing, the way you would a light lager. Serve them slightly chilled or even at room temperature. Our ancestors went much further, heating the wassail bowl over an open hearth or plunging in a red-hot poker to raise a thick, white froth that led to the nickname "lamb's wool" for certain holiday punches.

For a recent beer dinner at the Reef in Adams Morgan, the restaurant staff added lemon, nutmeg and cinnamon to two-year-old Liefmans Kriek (a Belgian sour brown ale fermented with cherries) and served it piping hot with a side of gingerbread. "It was awesome!" enthused Jeff Wells of DOPS distributors in Fort Washington. The Web site for Unibroue, a brewery in Chambly, Quebec, recommends heating its Quelque Chose (a strong cherry ale) to 160 degrees as a substitute for mulled cider.

Neither of those beers seemed to be available locally at press time. (I'm hoping readers will alert me if they find them.) But there are plenty of fruit and spice beers on the market worth trying this season. Nuke a mug's worth in your microwave to create your own winter warmer.

Kitsock can be reached at

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