One part of the history of Christmas beers began in Great Britain, where house to house carolers and well-wishers were treated to a drink of Wassail, the name of which comes from the Welsh and Anglo-Saxon “waes hael” (be well). It was a mixture of hot ale, nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, sherry, toasted bread, lemon, and apples. The toasted bread or sometimes, spiced Yule cake was placed in a bowl, and would absorb the other ingredients as they were added. The Wassail bowl would be passed around until the soggy toast or cake was gone. Then the fun would begin again—the person handing off the bowl would say “Wassail” and the receiver would reply “Drinc Hail”. Another treat was called “Lamb’s Wool”, and was a mixture of brown or mild ale, sugar, nutmeg, and ginger, along with roasted crab apples. Still another holiday treat was called “Flannel”, a smooth mixture drunk hot.
Brewing was mainly done by women in the home, and they made sure that cold visitors were treated to one of these, or maybe just a spiced ale warmed by a hot fireplace poker right in the drinking vessel. As brewing gradually became more of a commercial industry, brewers continued this tradition by making special beers to be released for the holidays, sometimes brewing them in the Summer and aging them in barrels. British and European immigrants brought these customs to the United States. Locally in the late 1880s up until Prohibition, the Springfield Brewing Company of Springfield, Mass., brewed Extra Christmas Tivoli beer, running an advertisement showing Santa putting bottles into stockings hung by the fire. Many other regional breweries did the same, even after Prohibition was repealed, but these mostly faded away by the 1960s. In the late seventies, Anchor Brewing Co. of San Francisco started this tradition up again, each year brewing a completely different beer, often using odd-at-the-time ingredients like spruce, berries and spices. Sierra Nevada then released Celebration Ale, and the next wave of 1990s brewers continued this delicious trend, with Berkshire Brewing Co. of South Deerfield releasing Holidale, a different brew every year, this year brewed with gooseberries locally sourced from nearby Nourse Farms.
At Beer & Winemaking Supplies, Inc., as we finish celebrating our 40th year, we are making available our Ebenezer’s Old Ale recipe kit, a dark English style ale which can be enjoyed well into the Winter.
Recipe from “Wines and Beers of Old New England” by Sanford C. Brown:
Lamb’s Wool: Roast 8 crab or small apples, then mash them, add one quart of brown, mild or old ale, then press and strain. Add ginger and grated nutmeg, sweeten to taste, heat, and drink while warm.