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Wassail Away

The British sing for their winter warmers

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We’ve already looked at Belgian, German and Austrian holiday beers. This week, we take a look at the Christmas beers of Great Britain. The English holiday ale tradition has its roots in time-honored ritual, specifically wassailing. Wassailing, or singing for Christmas treats, is traditionally done on Twelfth Night (Jan. 5). The peasants of old(e) would sing in front of their feudal lord’s home in exchange for figgy pudding and wassail drink, sometimes made of strong hard cider or strong ale.

Historically, the actual wassail recipe varied from location to location. One popular variant, known as lambswool, consisted of hot ale, roasted crab apples, sugar, spices, eggs and cream. Small pieces of toast were floated on the surface of the drink.

In the beginning, spices were merely added to the warmed beer. Eventually, the Brits would start brewing with spice. Today, winter warmers and Christmas ales include many flavors, ranging from spicy gingerbread to tart cranberry.

Southeast of London, in Kent County, the Shepherd Neame Brewery has counted a whole lotta holiday seasons. The Faversham-based company’s roots reach as far back as 1573, though it didn’t take on the Shepherd Neame brand until 1698. For centuries, these brewers have taken advantage of stellar local ingredients. We’re talking Kent hops and mineral water from the town’s chalk-filtered aquifer. The result? A range of superior British beverages, including the imaginatively named Christmas Ale. Available only during December, this brew is a full-bodied, warming winter ale, featuring a combination of fruits and spices. It combines pale and crystal malts with Target and Challenger hops for bitterness, with additional Goldings hops for aroma. While not overly strong, checkling in at 7 percent ABV, this thick winter warmer has enticing aromas of raisins, dates and molasses, and all the while displaying flavors of vanilla, leather and apricots.

Ridgeway Brewing is located just west of London on an old trade route named—wait for it—the Ridgeway. Husband-and-wife team Peter and Vanda Scholey established the brewery in 2002 and immediately made a name for themselves with beers brewed using what they call “cutting-edge tradition.” One of their many brews is the winter warmer called Santa’s Butt, a rich, 6-percent ABV porter. (The name is a play on words. In England, a “butt” is a large cask equal to 108 imperial gallons, or about three kegs.)

Now we look to The North. Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery was established in Tadcaster (between Leeds and York) in 1758. It wasn’t always Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery, though. The venerable institution has also been known as John Smith Brewery and, simply, Old Brewery. It’s known for rich beers and its Winter Welcome Ale. The malty, complex winter warmer is no disappointment. It possesses a pleasant aroma of dark fruits and dark toast with flavors of dark-roasted malts and nuts. Hop bitterness: moderate.

The British may be known for regal pageantry, afternoon tea and keeping a stiff upper lip, but as the originators of the winter warmer style, they deserve a place at your beer-tasting table this holiday season, too.

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