Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Joe Sixpack: In today's spicy holiday beers, the wassail bowl lives on

Wassail! wassail! all over the town, Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown. - Traditional Gloucestershire

Wassail! wassail! all over the town,

Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown.

- Traditional Gloucestershire


This weekend, I'll be ready when they come a-wassailing in my neighborhood, those destitute gangs of not-so-merry gentlemen, belching carols and clamoring for strong ale.

Ever since the Dow tanked, they've been wandering the streets up here in Roxborough - accountants from Lehman Brothers, the securities division of Citibank, ex-vice presidents from General Motors, their faces blackened with coal dust, shivering and begging for coins.

I saw a former hedge-fund manager from Bear Stearns on the corner in a tattered stovepipe hat and black cape, warming his hands over a barrel fire.

At night, with the holidays upon us, they go from house to house with their palms out, caroling fa la freaking la . . . I'm tempted to turn out the lights

Bah humbug!

But I can't stand to see grown men cry while singing "Frosty the Snowman."

This weekend, I'm warming up a big bowl of spiked holiday punch - what our great, great grandparents would've called wassail.

Until World War I, it was the custom throughout Europe and America for villagers to troop door to door, banging drums, singing and trading good wishes. The revelers carried cups decorated with ribbons, expecting them to be filled with a warming brew.

A fitting bowl would be a strong English ale flavored with nutmeg and sugar, garnished with toast and roasted crab apples. Some called the beverage "lamb's wool," perhaps because it was so warming.

The entire tradition - the cup, the greetings, the drink itself - was known as wassail, from a 5th-century Saxon toast: ves heill - good health.

It's a grand old practice that evokes sentimental images of Dickens and Christmases past. You can just hear the song:

A mug of your Christmas ale, sir,

Will make us merry and sing

But money in our pockets

Is much a better thing.

Only a Scrooge would (and famously did) chase them off.

The tradition eventually died, partly because many Christians objected to drunken behavior on their holy day, and partly because the wassailers had become a public nuisance. In New England, it wasn't unheard of for groups of caroling hoodlums to vandalize houses that had closed their doors.

The contents of that old wassail bowl live on, however, in spicy winter warmers that are a familiar part of today's Christmas beer scene. Sip a glass of, say, cinnamon-flavored Sly Fox Christmas Ale, and you can taste - and hear - the faint echoes of wassails from long ago.

Bring food from off your table and beer from out o' your barrel.

For if you don't, we'll stop and sing another ancient carol.

Wait a minute! That's no distant memory - the Wall Street buggers who bottomed out my pension are gathering outside my front door this very minute!

Be prepared, friends, they're coming your way, too.

Here's a basic wassail recipe that makes enough for a good-size party. I used Victory Hop Wallop, which gave the punch a pleasingly bitter bite. Use a lager (perhaps a bock) for something sweeter.

Bake 12 small apples in a shallow pan at 375 degrees for 20 minutes.

Pour 3 bottles of beer into a large stock pot, and add 1 cup brown sugar, 4 cinnamon sticks, 2 teaspoons whole cloves, 1 teaspoon ground ginger, 8 whole allspice, a pinch of nutmeg and two strips of orange peel. Simmer for 10 minutes.

Add 6 more bottles of beer plus 4 cups of cream sherry. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer 5 more minutes.

Pour into a punch bowl with the apples and 3 more bottles of beer (or keep warm in a crock pot).

Ladle into mugs.

More for wassails ya

Too lazy to make your own? Here are six more spiced Christmas beers:

Anderson Valley Winter Solstice (California): Has an understated cherry-vanilla flavor.

La Dragonne (Switzerland): Similar to German gluhwein, it's served warm.

Hitachino Nest Commemorative Ale (Japan): An ice bock flavored with coriander, orange peel, nutmeg, cinnamon and vanilla beans.

Samuel Adams Old Fezziwig (Boston): Named for the young Scrooge's wassail-pouring party host in "A Christmas Carol."

Appalachian Grinnin' Grizzly Spiced Ale (Pennsylvania): A glass full of pumpkin pie.

Harpoon Winter Warmer (Boston): A holiday classic spiced with cinnamon. *

"Joe Sixpack" by Don Russell appears weekly in Big Fat Friday. For more on the beer scene in Philly and beyond, visit Send e-mail to