Next crowne the bowle full
With gentle Lambs wooll,
Adde sugare nutmeg and ginger
With store of ale too
And thus ye must doe,
to make the Wassaile a swinger.
—Robert Herrick, Twelfth Night (1648)
Wassailing conjures up images of scarf-draped, rosy-cheeked carolers singing to orphans and shut-ins in their snow-globe village, Hallmark-card style. You can think whatever nostalgic thing you like, but the fact is, “wassail” is a noun as much as it is a verb, and the custom is really about drinking, not singing.
Today, every beer is a self-evident masterpiece, but in earlier times, it was just another ingredient to be mixed into whatever libation suited the occasion. We think nothing of mixing fine bourbon into a Manhattan or other cocktail. So why be precious about beer?
The old recipes are pretty fascinating, and whenever I’ve tried them, they’ve been as tasty as they are attention-getting. Nothing enlivens a festive gathering more than firing up a propane torch to coax a metal bar to orange-heat, then plunging it screaming into a cauldron of sweetened, spiced ale. Do try this at home.
The old books have a ton of these recipes. A few are cider-based, but most revolve around ale. Some include fortified wine, such as Madeira, or spirits, such as rum. These are sort of halfway between beer and dessert and more alcoholic than either—this is the festive season, remember. In those days, sugar itself was something to celebrate, and because of its expense, something to be locked away from prying hands.
Some beer-based drinks were meant to be served cool, but quite a few were heated. People back then spent a lot more non-voluntary outdoor time than we do, and before central heating and down vests, people often had trouble staying warm. Hot beverages put heat directly into the body’s core. Fireplaces were universal, so devices in the shape of cones or slippers were filled with ale and shoved in the coals to warm. Many beer drinks had some starchy nourishment added in the form of oatmeal or toasted bread.
Many have onomatopoeic names–syllabub, for example–or monikers that celebrated the visuals. “Yard of flannel,” another name for flip, was about the “yard” of creamy tan liquid that an expert mixologist could create as the drink was poured back and forth between cups to enhance frothing. There are a ton of fascinating traditions around these drinks. One is the use of large pass-around drinking vessels, currently banished for sanitary reasons. Flip, which we’ll get to shortly, used elegant glass tumblers, some as large as small wastebaskets.
The common ingredients are ale, usually another form of alcohol (or two), a sweetener, and some spices—ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove being the most universal. Sugar should be unrefined. I like piloncillo or jaggery (cane and palm sugars from Latin/Indian markets), but since they’re in lump form, they’ll need to be shaved or broken up to dissolve. Don’t use brown sugar; it’s just white sugar with molasses added. It’s best to not use powdered spices, since they add a muddy glumness that’s challenging to filter out. If the recipe calls for fortified wine, the $10 stuff works just fine—save your coin for the foie gras. If you’re adding spirits, do so at the end, or let people spike their own cup to suit their taste. A Crock-Pot is a pretty useful tool to heat them, or to maintain warmth after heating. An extra cinnamon stick and a slab of sweet orange make nice garnishes.
Originally, all of these drinks would have featured amber-to-brown strong ale, hoppy or not. A malty Scotch ale works pretty well, and even a doppelbock will serve. A Belgian dubbel or strong dark ale is almost too good to transform in this way, but hey, it’s the holidays. An imperial brown ale is also a good choice. Since these concoctions universally have sugar, they can handle some hops, but stay away from burly West Coast interpretations—or go ahead, knowing what you’re getting. A bottle of Flemish red/brown ale in the mix can add a little wood-aged tang. If you want to use your favorite spiced holiday ale, back off the added spices or eliminate them so you don’t overdo it.
A Few Recipes & Twists
Let’s start at the beginning. Here’s the oldest one I’ve got, a recipe for a “Bragotte,” from Thomas Wright’s 1857 dictionary, Provincial Dialects, quoting a 14th century manuscript:
Take to x gallons of ale, iij potell of fyne worte and iij quartis of hony, and put thereto canell [cinnamon] oz: iiij, peper schort or long oz: iiij, galingale [a sort of rush] oz: 1 and clowys [cloves] oz i, and gingiver oz ij.
That old format is tough, but the recipe’s all there—see the box above left. Braggot (there are innumerable spellings) is a general term for a beer-mead hybrid. The recipe above, as printed in John Bickerdyke’s evocative 19th century masterpiece, The Curiosities of Ale and Beer, doesn’t mention whether this was a drink served warm or cool. Looking at it, I’d guess it would be equally tasty either way. Given the small amount of wort, I’d say you can skip it, but some first runnings from brew day might be worthy. Just mix it all up, stirring vigorously to fully incorporate the honey and prevent it from caramelizing as it warms. You probably want to keep it warm for 30 minutes or more before serving, to fully incorporate the spices.
This is the easiest way to get started with these drinks. I won’t burn up column inches with a recipe, since there are commercial versions of eggnog (artisanal dairies are best!), or you can find a recipe to make it from scratch. The idea is to mix two parts of fresh, nonalcoholic eggnog with one part strong, dark ale. If you’re using a hoppy beer, you may want to add a little more sugar in the form of maple syrup or raw simple syrup (sugar dissolves very slowly in a cold drink). Then, toss in a half-shot of bourbon, dark rum, or brandy, and stir it up. This concoction made me recognize that I really do like eggnog if it’s lightened up just a little with something tasty (read: beer).
Flip, or Yard of Flannel
This tastes pretty much like liquid cookie dough. In addition to ale, sugar, and spices, it incorporates eggs. To avoid curdling, it must be very gently cooked and never heated above 180°F (82 °C), so a good thermometer is recommended. A double boiler allows the gentlest heating.
To make a batch, place in a saucepan or double boiler:
- 2 pints (946 ml) strong ale
- 4 Tbs (50 g) piloncillo or muscovado sugar
- 1–2 cinnamon sticks
- 2–4 whole cloves
- 1 lemon’s zest (use a sharp knife or peeler), cut into strips
Heat to simmer, no more than 180°F (82 °C), then turn off the heat and remove the cinnamon and other solid ingredients. Beat four eggs and gradually add some of the ale mixture to the eggs, stirring steadily. Then, slowly add the egg-ale mixture back to the rest of the drink, beating furiously until foamy.
Then comes the showstopper: thrusting a red-hot poker into the beverage. Originally, this was a “loggerhead,” an iron bar with a swollen end employed to heat tar and pitch. A heavy fireplace poker will work, but you want something with at least a pound of mass. I have a disk of stainless steel about the size of a fat hamburger patty on a long handle. You want it red hot or better. I don’t have to tell you to not be an idiot around this dangerous object. Best to torch this to a red-hot glow outside—away from the children, please.
When you plunge it in, the flip will bubble vigorously and add some heat to the mix, depending on how large and how hot your loggerhead substitute is. Best to have the mix at about 150°F (66°C), so it won’t overheat and curdle. This transfer of heat will caramelize the sugar and eggs, which creates the rich cookie-dough taste. Two ounces of good aged rum, brandy, or whiskey can be added at this point.
Space prevents me from detailing more than a few recipes here, so if this is your kind of thing, here are a few tantalizing clues to research over the holidays: wassail-bowl and its offspring, lamb’s wool, ale-brue/ale-berry, syllabub, buttered ale, sack posset, and Oxford grace cup. Waes hael!