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 Many other regional breweries did the same, even after Prohibition was repealed, but these mostly faded away by the 1960s.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.
We celebrate Thanksgiving this month, and it is interesting to learn how beer played a role in this favorite of holidays. The English settlers were beer drinking people, as wine was affordable mostly to the aristocracy, who imported it from Europe. While they were accustomed to making certain country wines, they mostly partook of ale and other beers, which were safer than many plain water supplies, especially in cities. Young’s “Chronicles of the Pilgrims” quotes Mayflower second mate Robert Coppin’s diary entry: “We had yet some beer, butter, flesh and other victuals left, which would quickly be all gone, and then we should have nothing to comfort us…so in the morning after we had called on God for direction, we came to this resolution to go presently ashore again and to take a better view of two places which we thought most fitting for us; for we could not take time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our beer, and it being now the 19th of December.”
Again: “Monday the 25th, 1620, being Christmas Day, we began to drink water aboard. But at night, the master caused us to have some beer; so on board we had, divers (sic) times now and then, some beer, but on shore none at all.” Another entry talks of pursuing some natives and lamenting that no beer was brought from the ship. In “Of Plimoth Plantation”, Governor Bradford remembered” “We were hasted ashore and made to drink water that the seamen might have more beer.” The Pilgrims did not immediately plant barley for brewing, as they had to survive a very difficult winter in early 1621. They learned to plant corn from the native people, and after that first horrible winter, which wiped out almost half the colonists, hopes brightened in the summer of 1621. The corn harvest looked good, and Governor Bradford decreed that a three day feast be held. The natives brought wild turkey, venison, bear steaks, geese, duck, fish, and shellfish. The Pilgrims contributed roasts, pumpkins, squash, journey cakes, corn meal bread with nuts, succotash, and pigeon (probably passenger pigeon, one the most plentiful bird in North America, but now extinct). It is not known whether beer was served with the feast, as the English relied heavily on being supplied from Britain. They had developed beers using Indian corn, as barley was difficult to cultivate successfully. Hops grew wild, but had to be found by dangerous searches in the woods. As time went by, they developed other “beers” made from what was available: pumpkin, spruce, birch, root, ginger and ground ivy, just to name a few. There was a time in this country, before the lager beer revolution, that ginger beer actually outsold hopped beer.
The Puritans had a song, handed down through generations, which seems to indicate their ability to improvise when it came to fermentation:
“If barley be wanting to make into malt,
We must be content and think it no fault,
For we can make liquor to sweeten our lips,
Of pumpkins, parsnips & walnut tree chips.”
One of the Pilgrims, after the Thanksgiving feast, wrote to a friend in England: “Let your casks for beer be iron bound!” It is not known if they received their beer, however among those that came to Plymouth in 1623, was John Jenney, a brewer by trade, the first to be mentioned in the Colonies, and he became proprietor of a corn mill. It is not known if he brewed for the colonists, but one can suppose that he did.
These examples illustrate how much beer played a role in the Pilgrims landing and staying at Cape Cod, which changed the course of history.
Have a Happy Thanksgiving and hoist a home brew to the Pilgrim forefathers, who were true beer lovers!
In 1975, the last brewery in western Massachusetts closed its doors when Hampden Brewing Company ceased operations in the Willimansett section of Chicopee, just across the Connecticut River from Holyoke. A few years later, in the late 1970s, two friends began discussing what it would take to get a small brewery up and running. Rick Quackenbush and George Peppard were home brewers, buying their supplies from Frank Romanowski, founder of our store on King St. in Northampton. Frank acted as an advisor, as the wealth of information for starting a brewery did not exist back then. Their intense interest in beer and brewing grew, and they came up with a business plan, which estimated that it would take $200,000 to start. They decided to operate in Easthampton, and would be called Nashawannuck Brewing Co., Inc. The company would be run by George, with Rick as the brewer. George incorporated with the state on December 2, 1980. Rick set up an apprenticeship with an established British brewery and travelled there to learn the commercial side of the industry, living and working there.
There was just one little problem—banks 36 years ago had no idea that a small brewery could be successful, as all the smaller ones like Hampden were closing their doors or consolidating with other small or regional ones. After trying various sources and even friends and family, the money could not be raised. Regrettably, the project was abandoned and the corporation was dissolved 3 years later. This left the area without a brewery until Janet Egelston and her brother Peter began to formulate a plan for the Northampton Brewery/Brewpub, which opened in 1987 and is currently the oldest in New England, after Commonwealth Brewing in Boston shut its doors. Ironically, Rick would later become the head brewer at Northampton and then at Paper City Brewery in Holyoke. If all had gone as planned, Nashawannuck would possibly be the granddaddy of the local brewing scene, and way ahead of its time!
Recipe to make one gallon of wine from local New England grapes like Concord:
- 6 lbs, fresh grapes
- 3.25 cups white sugar
- 5 pints of water
- 1 tsp. Yeast Nutrient
- 1 package wine yeast for red wine
- ½ tsp pectic enzyme
- 1 Campden tablet (crushed)
- Nylon straining bag or cheesecloth
- Wash grapes, remove from stems and discard moldy or badly bruised grapes.
Put in nylon bag or cheesecloth and tie top, squeezing as much juice as you can into your food grade plastic primary fermenter bucket, leaving bag filled with crushed grapes in bucket. Take a sample of the juice and get a hydrometer reading if you have one, which will tell you how much alcohol you have the potential to make. Stir in all other ingredients except the yeast, and cover bucket loosely or with an airlock in place. After 12-24 hours, add your yeast, stir, and cover again. Stir and squeeze daily, and after 5-6 days, squeeze remaining juice out of bag, and discard or wash out. Siphon to one gallon glass jug and attach airlock and stopper. After 3 weeks, siphon to a clean jug, and repeat every 30 days until clear. Take a hydrometer reading if using one, and it should read right around zero, meaning that you attained the alcohol content that your original reading indicated. Wine will be dry, but can be sweetened if desired by adding ½ teaspoon of Potassium Sorbate stabilizer and ½ cup dissolved sugar. Wait 3 days to make sure sugar doesn’t start to ferment, and then put in wine bottles and cork. One gallon makes 5 bottles. You can multiply all of this by however many gallons you want to make, except the yeast, which will do up to 5 gallons.
Let your wine age for at least a month, then enjoy! Longer aging can improve your wine.
Cider season is upon us, and as always it creates excitement and anticipation, as we New Englanders transition from Summer to Autumn. Although Summer is not technically over, Labor Day weekend usually kicks off the apple fermenting season. I first got into making hard cider in the early 1980s after turning twenty-one and remembering the stories my grandfather told me about when he was the caretaker at the old White Reservoir in Westhampton, Massachusetts. He and my grandmother lived in a remote house on the protected property, with my dad and his sister, with not a single person for miles around. They used to call it the “Hotel Shivers” because in the Winter it never warmed up!
Mark’s grandfather, standing on the far right, and father, sitting far right.
There were hundreds of old heirloom apple trees on the property, mostly from old orchards that existed before they dammed the stream to make the reservoir. My grandpa was a robust and hard worker, a World War One veteran, born in 1898, and never could get enough of hard work. He would pick, collect off the ground, grind, and press all the apples he physically could, and put the cider into large barrels. He did not add yeast as we do today, mostly because he could not get anything but baker’s yeast, so he did what the local cider mills did and let the natural yeast that was on the apple skins do the work. He would add store-bought white or brown sugar to some of the barrels to increase the alcohol content, but leave some to ferment as they came off the press. It got very cold over the winters in those days, and there was no heat except for fireplaces, so usually he would sell as much of it as he could in late Autumn, and people would drive from all around the area to buy it in gallon jugs.
However, his greatest notoriety came from his Apple Jack, which is a crudely distilled hard cider. He would drain some of the remaining barrels into maple syrup pails, carry them down to the frozen surface of the reservoir, and wait in the freezing cold until ice crystals began to form, using a fishing strainer to get them out. When you keep doing this, it removes the water and concentrates the alcohol, making what is commonly called “Apple Jack”. For this extra effort and the extra “kick”, he would charge a premium, and customers would come from all directions, including law enforcement personnel, to whom he gave a nice discount. I come from a long line of home fermenting pioneers, and will be relating more true stories of my fermenting heritage in the near future.