You might get the impression that we, the beer gurus of ACB, understand all there is to know about beer, yet we’re still learning just like you. It’s this thirst for knowledge that drives us to dig deeper into the stories behind the beer we drink, thus protecting you from the embarrassment of not knowing exactly what it is you’ve decided to put in your mouth.
So welcome to the latest in our ongoing series (drum roll please…) “What the Hell is a Wassail?”
The Wassail breed of beer is a rare beast you’ll only find during the holidays. It’s a dark, malty style birthed as a different kind of beverage. The word Wassail comes from the Old English ‘Waes Hail’ (pronounded Woss-el), which literally means ‘be well.’ The traditional drink is a hot mulled or spiced cider, wine, mead, or beer utilizing cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, and less often coriander, star anise, peppercorn, or cardamom.
This concoction was imbibed as part of a ritual known as Wassailing, which includes singing and drinking to the health of cider apple trees by awakening them, scaring away “evil spirits to ensure a good harvest of fruit in the Autumn.” To take on such traditions outside the realm of Southern England may earn you some strange stares from the locals and decrease your opportunity to spend the rest of your evening with the opposite sex, yet it may be worth the gamble if a strong cider harvest is a top priority.
While Wassail Ales are a rare find, they can be found in the Northern States and in England where there are a number of brewpubs and smaller brewers that take on the style. This Winter Warmer often imparts flavors of raisins or figs, is made using three or four types of malt, and varies in hue from red-mahogany to dark brown with an alcohol content between 6 and 9% ABV.
Wassail Style Beers We Like and You Might Want to Try:
Full Sail Wassail Winter Ale (Hood River, OR) – This is the largest produced Wassail in the country; recipient of 8 Gold Medals at the World Beer Championships.
Woodstock Inn Brewery Wassail Ale (Woodstock, NH) – While the brewer considers this a Winter Warmer, there are no spices added beyond a creative dose of hops.
Matt Brewing/Saranac Winter Wassail (Utica, NY) – A classic English Ale with hints of cinnamon, nutmeg, orange, and allspice.
It’s always difficult for us to turn down a potent, dark brew during the holidays; yet too often, Winter Warmers can be overbearing with spice. The great thing about most Wassails is that they are big English Ales first, with the spice often taking a backseat to those sweet and savory malts. If you can still find this in your local brewpub, get it while you can. If you’re unable to find it nearby, know that it’s also a popular homebrew, with plenty of good recipes to be found.