When I host or attend holiday parties I usually make a beverage that is easy to prepare, festive in nature and inspires good cheer and conversation among family and friends. With this focus in mind and a desire to use beer as a main ingredient, I often find myself stirring up a bowl of wassail.
Wassail is an English mulled punch that historically was made with any combination of warm spiced ale, cider, wine, or mead. It is often fortified with sherry or brandy. The more traditional versions include blended egg and may even be served with a side of toast to sop up the liquid and provide something that resembles more of a meal than a beverage. I hardly ever make it with egg because of the extra time, utensils, and decadence that is involved.
I find the easiest way to make a wassail is just to plug in the crockpot, throw in a six pack of malty beer (a less expensive brown ale like Big Sky’s Moose Drool or Newcastle works well), turn the heat to low, then add to your liking any traditional wassail spices like cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, allspice, ginger, brown sugar and fruit. Using a malty or sweet beer is preferred to a more bitter beer like an IPA because the hop bitterness is unpleasant when heated with spices.
Adding some hard cider can contribute some tartness that rounds out the flavor nicely. Or, replace some of the brown sugar with a soft cider that will bring more apple flavor and sweetness. Brandy or a sweet sherry will increase the warming sensation as well as provide sweetness. Total prep time for all this is about 15 minutes. The heating and melding of flavors can take half a day, but it’s pretty much on autopilot after you give it a stir and put the lid on.
Here’s a sample recipe:
WASSAIL — Makes 4 quarts
— 1 cup brown sugar
— 72 ounces brown ale (or some equivalent malty beer)
— 1 cup brandy or sweet sherry
— 16 ounces soft cider
— 10 whole cloves
— 10 allspice berries
— 1 teaspoon ground ginger
— 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
The great thing about having a wide variety of historical recipes for wassail is that it allows for a lot of creativity. With the variety of beer styles and exotic spices that are now readily available, the possibilities for moving your wassail into the 21st century are limitless. I have made a wassail with an English-style milk stout, cacao powder, cinnamon, orange zest and cayenne that brought about much good cheer. It more closely resembled a hot chocolate, but I am still counting it as a wassail.
In Old English, wassail means “be you healthy” and is often associated with people gathering in a group around Christmas time, traveling door to door, and singing/wassailing to the health of neighbors. The neighbor would then provide a drink or warmth by the fire in exchange for the song. The most notable reference to wassail and wassailing in U.S. culture is the popular Christmas song, “Here We Come A-wassailing.” A perhaps more ancient and pagan form of wassailing in England is the toasting and singing to fruit trees so that they produce abundant crops the following year. This custom most likely accounts for wassail recipes that focus on cider as opposed to ale.
Whatever history you use to define wassail, whatever recipe you follow, or whatever songs you sing, wassail is meant to bring people together in celebration, love and hope. I wish all of you a pleasant and peaceful end of 2012 and beginning of 2013.