The Communal Origins of a Festive New Year’s Drinking Tradition

Tap into an ancient tradition with this recipe for lamb’s wool wassail. No sheep required.
wassail.JPG

wassail is an activity, toast, drink, and the drink’s receptacle all in one.

Photo from Jereme Zimmerman

Winter festivities were always a good excuse to drink ale, both for warmth and to pass the time with food, friends, and family while the land was hard with frost. One festive health-drinking tradition that is still alive in some communities today is the wassail. A wassail (stemming from the Old Norse ves heill, or “be healthy”) is an activity, toast, drink, and the drink’s receptacle all in one. On New Year’s Day (although sometimes during the time between Yule and New Year’s Day) revelers would go through the village and enter their friends’ houses unannounced, bearing a wassail-bowl of spiced ale—singing carols and presenting wishes for a year of good health by exuberantly exclaiming “wassail!” as the bowl was held up, drunk from, and passed along. It was then expected that each household contribute to the festivities by adding its own brew to the bowl and then joining the throng as it moved on to the next house. There are many, many wassail songs celebrating all of the aspects of life for which good health and cheer are offered. 

Nearly every household had its own wassail recipe, which could vary quite a bit. In general, the drink was warm and spiced with exotic flavorings. It could range from a mulled wine, to a mulled mead, to a spiced ale or cider, to any combination of these. Often it was a bragot—a spiced honey ale—although the bragot wasn’t always made with fermented honey, or even spiced at brewing. Sometimes the honey and spices were added later, after the ale was warmed. The wassail-bowl didn’t always consist of liquid nourishment only; a version known as lamb’s wool was made by sprinkling apples with sugar, grated nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, and other spices, then roasting them until soft. The skins were removed from the apples, warmed ale was poured over them, and everything was blended into a puree. The bowl was then served while still warm, often with spiced sweet cakes or toast floating on it. I have come across claims that to offer a drink as a “toast” came from this tradition but have been unable to verify it. Still, it’s a worthy concept to consider.

INGREDIENTS TO SERVE 6–8

6 apples


1 teaspoon each freshly grated nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, or any other spices that suit your fancy


1⁄2 cup (125 milliliters) organic cane sugar or brown sugar


1 cup (250 milliliters) water (or substitute hard cider, ginger beer, red wine,

Madeira, port, mead, or what-have-you)


1 small lemon or orange


4 pints low-to-no-hopped ale, preferably British-style ale, spiced dark ale, or bragot


Dark rum, brandy, or other spirits (optional)

Core the apples and place them in a pot or deep baking dish. 


Sprinkle the spices and sugar and pour the water or what-have-you 
over the apples. 


Squeeze the juice of the lemon or orange (or both) over everything. 


Place a pot on a medium-high burner, or put a baking dish into the 
oven at 350°F/180°C. 


Cook for about 45 minutes or until the apples are soft and mushy. 


Remove from the heat and allow the apples to warm enough to 
carefully remove their skins. 


Once the skins are removed, take a masher, large fork, or blender 
and blend everything (including the ale) into a puree (for the lamb’s wool option; otherwise, remove the apples and make them into boozy applesauce). 


Place the lamb’s wool in a bowl with a serving spoon, or ladle it into individual mugs. 


Optional: Add as much additional dark rum, brandy, or other spirits as you desire; I like to keep this going for several days by continuing to add various drinks and spices to it and rewarming it. 


Wassail!

This excerpt is from Jereme Zimmerman’s Brew Beer Like a Yeti (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.

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