Winter is upon us! It’s the time of year to brew and drink strong ales that pack a punch, warm the belly, and delight the palate. There are all kinds of winter and holiday beers, but the sort I want to focus on here warms the belly in a direct way, and not just with alcohol. I’m talking about wassail.
Often associated with caroling and other merriment, wassail was chiefly a drink that was traditionally served spiced and warm. There are a lot of old wassail recipes, and often they play fast and loose with ingredients and spices. (For more about this and some old recipes, see Randy Mosher’s “Wassailing Through the Holidays,” beerandbrewing.com.) It wasn’t just a matter of brewing an ale and warming it up. The ale—or the cider, or wine, or spirit—was only a key ingredient. Others included sugars, spices, more booze … and, of course, fruit.
There are modern examples, too. Mulled wine and cider are obviously fruit-based, but even in Belgium around the holidays you can occasionally spot glühkriek, a warmed-up cherry beer that riffs on German glühwein.
Thus, the long tradition of heating up fruited beer for cold nights survives in new forms.
Usually, my own homebrewed wassail gets some holiday-inspired spicy character from different hop combinations. However, winter is also one of the best times of the year for seasonal fruits, many of which come up from sunnier climes—think citrus, tropical, cranberries, and more. (Or check out my article from last year: “Warm It Up with Winter Fruit,” beerandbrewing.com.) This year I’m going in a new direction by combining these two kinds of seasonal beers—I’m bringing those winter fruits into a flavorful holiday wassail.
That’s the idea, in a nutshell: a punch-inspired, warmed-up ale that brings some fruit-forward fun to our yuletide party. Notably, it doesn’t take a fully automated brewhouse or an advanced brewmaster’s degree to do this. This party is open to all levels of brewing experience, whether extract-based or all-grain.
To get there, we have some fun choices to make.
First, let’s talk base beer. There are a lot of directions you could go here, and you might want to dig into some historical recipes for ideas. After doing some reading myself and comparing notes on wassails of the past—and partly inspired by some research on Merseburger bitterbier, a lost style from northern Germany—I’m embracing a type of spiced brown ale. According to Andreas Krennmair, author of Historic Austrian and German Beers for the Home Brewer, the beer was brown, top-fermented, and quite bitter—partly from hops, but also from the addition of orange peel and Gentian root. Without trying to brew an authentic version, I’m happy to use that fascinating tidbit as a creative jumping-off point.
Next, let’s choose our fruit. When it comes to wintertime availability, there is an abundance. There are many types of citrus—such as lemons, grapefruits, limes, and oranges—plus myriad spices and herbs that could complement them. Other fruits include cranberries, kiwis, pears, persimmons, apples—you can even bring your cider to this party—plus all kinds of dried fruits, such as figs or dates. A quick trip to the supermarket will give you an idea of what’s in season. Looking at some of the older recipes—and again, thinking about that Merseburger—I like the idea of embracing lots of orange zest.
Want to add other flavors? Consider anything that reminds us of the holidays—could be cinnamon, chocolate, cloves, ginger, hazelnuts, juniper, vanilla, and so on. A favorite dish or seasonal dessert might inspire you. However, beware of adding too much of a good thing. Keep balance in mind. As I’ve said before, nobody likes drinking a Yankee Candle. As fun as these beers are to brew, they should be at least as fun to drink.
Toward a Recipe to Sing About
For my wassail, I’m thinking of a very dark brown color. If it’s all-grain, you can use two-row, Munich, Vienna, or some combination thereof for the base, but there are a variety of quality liquid or dry malt extracts that can serve as our foundation. For the rest of the grist, let’s think color and body. Some debittered black malt could help us dial in the darkness—or, steeping some chocolate malt can bring some rich brown or auburn hues while adding beautiful cocoa-like depth. Adding a pound of flaked barley, oats, or wheat can help with the body, especially because we’re going to lighten that body somewhat with sugars.
Various sugars can add flavor, help with attenuation, and boost the alcohol. Cane sugar is an easy choice, but not too much—a half-pound (227 g) is plenty, to avoid thinning out the body too much. However, cane sugar and lighter candi sugars and syrups don’t add much flavor. Darker Belgian candi sugars and syrups can add both color and flavor, and so can honey or treacle. You can add these sugars anytime during the boil, but my preference is late, with about five minutes left—or, for more delicately aromatic sugars such as honey or maple syrup, at flameout. Molasses is a traditional option, but get the non-sulfured variety, and use it sparingly, or else you can get some unpleasant off-flavors. (Same goes for any dried fruit—always use unsulfured.)
With hops we want a relatively light touch—this is not an IPA. A few hop additions are enough—one for a balancing bitterness, another for flavor in mid-boil to complement the fruit and other flavorings. Varieties that offer more subtle citrus, spice, or floral aromas are welcome. The key to a great-tasting wassail is remembering that the hops are there to support and balance the malt, fruit, and other flavors. The old Merseburger beer was apparently very bitter, and it must have been an acquired taste, but I want my own wassail to be more festive than immediately challenging.
For yeast, I’m going with a classic English ale yeast of the kind often used for English bitters, pleasantly estery. Your water may vary, but I like to add a bit of calcium chloride to help soften and round out the flavors.
Once you’ve settled on your ingredients, brewing your wassail is pretty straightforward. Heat your water to 156°F (69°C) and steep your specialty malts for about 45 minutes. Once those are out and fully drained, fully dissolve your extracts in the warm water with the heat source switched off, to avoid any scorching—I like to add a little bit at a time, stirring with a long-handled spoon that can scrape any clumps off the bottom. Once dissolved, get it to a rolling boil and add your hops and other additions at the allotted times, with sugars going near the end. Like most other ales, cool your wort, pitch your yeast, and ferment for a couple of weeks or so before packaging.
Choose a name to evoke that holiday feeling—Angry Gnome? Jolly Roger? Bad Santa?—and invite some friends over to share. Light a fire and warm your ale over low heat for about 30 minutes, until steaming—and be sure not to boil it, which will make your alcohol fly away like magic reindeer. Alcohol starts to evaporate at about 172°F (78°C), and you’ll likely find that 140–160°F (60–71°C) is a pleasant range for keeping warm.
You’ll probably love the flavor—but if you don’t, remember that adding some more fruit, spices, sugars, or even straight booze to the pot is well within the spirit of wassail. That ale you brewed is just an ingredient, and the goal is to get those friends to sing.