Another season has passed, and we are into our last few days of 2014. And what a season it was!
We started the dog days of summer with a new brew: a sweet and spicy Ginger Beer. Then we toasted Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers as we hosted the Humber River Shakespeare company on our own Town Hall Green. The hops were harvested and ghostly tales consumed alongside historic ales. We said, “Cheese!” and “Cheers!” and warmed ourselves with Ed’s delightfully citrusy Winter Warmer. You toured with us, sampled with us, and some of you even made beer with us.
Yes, another wonderful season. But what now?
The historic brewery will be closed from December 24th to May 1st, but you will still find our beer in the LCBO. In fact, our LCBO gift pack is in select stores now, featuring our Rifleman’s Ration, Pale Ale, Porter, and a new beer – the Brilliant. Clearer and more effervescent than one usually expects for our time period, the Brilliant is a light, slightly sweet, and oh-so-quaffable brew. Lightly toasted malts blend well with a dry finish.
And I’ll still be here, writing away! While I hope for a wee rest with my wee heavies the rest of this month, you can expect more of the usual social history and beer geekery in the New Year. With several trips to the US planned, I’ll once again be resuming my role as travelling beer journalist, reporting on brews and breweries stateside.
Thanks again, all of you who came down to our historic brewery to chat, to taste, and to cheer. Have a safe and happy holiday season and we’ll see you in 2015!
As we learned last week, alcohol and winter celebrations have a long and intertwined history. This is particularly true when you start looking at the old tradition of wassailing. “The Wassail Song” is one of my favourites anyway – but you can imagine how my ears prick up when we get to this verse:
Call up the butler of this house,
Put on his golden ring,
Let him bring us up a glass of beer,
The better we shall sing…
So what is wassailing, exactly? The word can refer either to a custom of drinking someone’s health and/or going from home to home singing, or to the drink itself. A “wassail” drink is often mulled cider, wine, or beer. A specific type of wassail called “lambs’ wool” was frequently used: this was dark ale, whipped into a froth, spiced and decorated with roasted apples. The admittedly peculiar name may arise either from the appearance of the froth, or from a corruption of the Irish celebration “La Mas Ubhal.”
Looking at “wassail” as a verb, there are a few different types. For instance, wassailing can refer specifically to a custom of blessing apple and other fruit trees.
In England’s West Country, usually on Twelfth Night (January 5th), or Old Twelfth Night (January 17th), people carried mulled cider and/or spiced ale to apple and cider trees. Cider-soaked cakes were laid at the trees’ roots, and more cider splashed on the tree itself. Guns fired into the branches, pots and pans were banged together—the commotion was meant to frighten away evil spirits. At the same time, wassail songs were sung, encouraging good spirits to protect the trees and ensure their fertility for the next year.
For it’s our Wassail, jolly Wassail,
Joy come to our jolly Wassail,
How well may they bloom, how may they bear,
That we may have apples and cider next year.
– Apple Tree Wassail
Wassailing can also refer to passing around a common cup or bowl, called a “Loving Cup.” The tradition of passing around a common drink and toasting good health dates back centuries in English history; there is even a reference to wassailing in Beowulf! The term “wassail” itself comes from the Old English phrase “Waes hael!” or, “To your health!” The traditional response to this was, naturally, “Drinc hael!” or, “Drink your health!” It’s interesting to see alcohol consistently used to seal off deals, oaths, and wishes—perhaps a remnant of the practice of pouring libations to the gods?
Bryng us in good ale, and bryng us in good ale;
For owr blyssyd lady sak, bryng us in good ale.
Bryne us in no browne bred, for that is made of brane,
Nor bryng us in no whyt bred, for theriun is no game.
But bryng us in good ale.
Bryng us in no befe, for ther is many bonys,
But bryng us in good ale, for that goth downe at onys;
But bryng us in good ale.
– Bryng us in no Browne Bred (Thomas Wright, Songs and Carols Now First Printed, From a Manuscript of the Fifteenth Century, 1847)
Finally, wassailing can also refer to the practice of going around to people’s houses with a wassail bowl and a song. The group would sing and bless the house in exchange for money and more alcohol—this tends to be the version of wassailing in many of the songs with which we’re familiar today. Interestingly, there was a concern in the early decades of the nineteenth century that the old wassail songs and carols were dying out, prompting a concerted effort to record tunes and lyrics (much like Thomas Wright did, just above!). We have much to thank those Victorian writers for!
Wassail, wassail, all over the town,
Our toast it is white, and our ale it is brown…
– Gloucestershire Wassail
Wassailing also gave rise to carolling: travelling around to sing to people’s homes, but without the involvement of alcohol. We’ve kept this tradition at Black Creek, with our own wandering carollers during our Christmas by Lamplight! Feel free to join in the singing—perhaps after a visit to the brewery for some “Waes hael!’ (Hey, with the bitter orange peel and coriander, our Winter Warmer actually makes a decent wassail!)
Somehow, the Wheel of Time has turned, and Ages come and passed…and we’re onto our final specialty brew of 2014 (seriously, how did that happen?). Naturally, for December, Ed has brewed up a Winter Warmer.
Traditionally, Winter Warmers are big, malty beers with higher-than-usual alcohol content. Most examples range from almost black to reddish brown, though there is considerable variation. Spices are common in American Winter Warmers, but not strictly necessary: many English versions don’t include them. The Winter Warmer is related to the “Old Ale,” a dark, high-alcohol style that has been well-aged. Sometimes, breweries gave younger, milder ales an “old” taste by blending them with stock ales – very aged ales that had been kept behind at the brewery, rather than being sold.
Our 2014 Winter Warmer is a little different than years past. Rather than being a dark, very malty beer, this Winter Warmer is an amber ale, deep tawny-gold in colour. The main players in this ale are Ed’s additions of bitter orange peel and coriander. Orange is the first aroma I noticed, and certainly the first thing I tasted. This is a medium-bodied beer, with a bit of an edge on the front of the tongue, mellowing on the swallow. The lemony, citrus-y coriander makes more of an appearance on the finish, coming up through the nose.
At 6% ABV, this beer is a little more alcoholic than our usual offerings, which is true to style. As I went back outside into the cold, I definitely noticed some alcoholic warmth smouldering in my chest. The mix of warmth and citrus puts me in mind of Christmas oranges – a different approach than the usual malty-chocolate-y Winter Warmers, but very much appreciated!
Ed’s doing several brews of the Winter Warmer, but it will only be available here at the historic brewery, not the LCBO. It hits the fridges in time for our first Christmas by Lamplight on December 6th, so be sure to pick some up before we close for the season on the 23rd!