12/20/2012 - Anciently mysterious and seasonally familiar all at once, wassail is a sure sign that Christmas is right around the corner.
The simple term has evolved so much over the course of its history that you may have already participated in it: wassail, in verb form, means to celebrate around the holidays, be it riotous drinking or docile toasts to health. So, with what are we toasting? What are we drinking? Well, wassail, the noun this time, is a beverage long associated with the holidays, brewed strongly alcoholic with beer, wine or cider and served warm and spiced.
Going way, way back, wassail is from Old English, meaning “be in good health” or “be thou well.”
More recently, although people still revel in merriment with alcohol, wassailing has fallen off, but it is still a tradition in a few places.
According to Bedford Library Director Mary Ann Senatro, the library has been holding a wassail since at least 1985, where they drink the hot beverage and listen to music or hold a play.
“‘During the late 1400s King Henry VII introduced the wassail bowl to England,’” Senatro said, reading from an old newspaper notice for the event. “‘The bowl contained a mixture of hot ale, spices and toasted apples.’ We continue the event today... It is a great time for the community to get together. A lot of people use it as sort of a meet up with old friends. We get a lot of the same people returning and bringing new friends each year.”
The Bedford wassail recipe, which is included here, features a fruity combo of cider, cranberry juice and oranges, spiced with sugar and cinnamon and then added rum and aromatic bitters, making for a warm, sugary drink. It’s just one kind, however.
“Wassail is simply something that is brewed for the holidays, it’s always a strong alcoholic drink, but it can vary,” said the Woodstock Inn and Brewery’s Garrett Smith.
When Woodstock Brewmaster Butch Case was looking for a winter seasonal beer, Smith said, he took from the wassail traditions, basing them around an English strong ale. They have been brewing the drink since 1996 and it remains one of their most anticipated and strongest beers.
“It’s 8 percent [alcohol by volume] and is deep ruby red in color, very malty with a balance of hops. Being the holidays and looking for a stronger beer, we added more grains,” Smith said. “Our normal grain bill is between 350 and 400 pounds, but we add 700 pounds to give it extra fermentable sugars for a higher gravity.”
People drink it cold, but Smith explained that serving it warm not only compliments the heavy alcohol content, but also the time of year. With such a brisk New England climate and darker evenings, Wassail Ale has a cozy character, he added, that goes well with the family-oriented events of the season.