Ladies and gentlemen, friends of John Barleycorn, it's that time of the year when we take a three-and-a-half week meander through the beers of the festive season as we get out the Badass Digest Beer Advent Calendar and pin it on the wall above the fireplace. Every day between now and Christmas Eve we'll open a window and examine the ale (or lager) that's revealed, and perhaps give a bit of back story or even go off on a complete tangent. We'll travel all over the US and make a few trips to Europe, and we're going to begin this year in the Pacific Northwest.
The Full Sail Brewing Company of Hood River is one of Oregon's earliest microbreweries, being founded in 1987, and they didn't wait long (1988) before brewing a beer for the autumn and early winter season. Wassail falls under the category of winter warmer - a deliciously dark, malty and relatively sweet beer, often pepped up with spices and usually with an above-average ABV to give you a warm glow on a cold December evening and send you home from the pub full of good cheer. Wassail gets its name from a drink and a tradition with a history that goes all the way back to pagan times in England.
The word originates from the Middle English wæs hæil (meaning 'good health') which became Waes Hail, and eventually morphed into wassail, and it wasn't long before booze became associated with the word. Wassail is a kind of mulled cider or ale made with the usual spices and fruits (once the trade routes to the East were opened), although these days it might just as easily be made with wine. To go wassailing, though, can be one of two activities.
In the southwest of England where cider is king, wassailing is a ritual that takes place in orchards each year around Christmas, sometimes on Twelfth Night. The local cider makers will walk amongst the trees with flaming torches while shouting 'Wassail', banging pots and pans with a stick, blowing whistles, anything that makes a noise. The idea is that this will ensure a good crop of apples for the following year's cider by driving away the Devil and any other spirits who might be tempted to make some mischief in the orchard. Some cider circles will choose one of the trees to be Apple Tree Man (more of that pagan tradition), guardian of the orchard. Toast soaked in cider is hung in his branches and his roots are anointed with some of the previous year's brew, and after all this exertion it's likely that everyone will head back to the cider press to get well and truly bladdered.
The other wassailing tradition is a bit more refined and genteel, being, essentially, carol-singing, although after visiting several houses and being offered a cup of wassail at each one, there's a good chance that the proceedings could get pretty rowdy towards the end of the evening.
Full Sail Wassail, while being a traditionally malt-forward winter warmer, has a strong hop character which is reflected in its piney, citrusy flavours (from the Oregon/Washington hops it's brewed with) and an IBU rating of 56. That's starting to get up there in bitterness and it makes Wassail a particularly well balanced beer.
Here's looking forward to the next 23 days.