“Here we come a-wassailing” announces the first line of the 19th-century carol that is now a standard of the holiday season. The song refers to the tradition of singing door to door, wishing goodwill to the householder in exchange for a cup of a strong, warming libation known as “wassail.”
Wassail was ale, wine, cider, mead or a mixture thereof, seasoned with spices and sometimes served warm. It offered the glow of both heat and alcohol to cut the chill of a winter’s night and rouse the spirits of the singers. As the third verse of the song proclaims,
Call up the butler of this house,
Put on his golden ring.
Let him bring us up a glass of beer,
And better we shall sing.
The brewing of festive beers to mark the season survives to this day. Whether spiced or plain, light or dark, high-alcohol or low-, they share in evoking the season’s spirit of communal good cheer.
One can’t talk about winter beers in Minnesota without mentioning Summit Winter Ale, which was first introduced in 1987. Brewed in the tradition of the English winter-warmers, the deep-mahogany color sets up a malty palate of toasted bread crust, nuts, bittersweet chocolate and dried fruits. Moderate bitterness and spicy/minty hop flavors keep it balanced and provide a subtle reminder of winter’s chill. It is one of my favorites from the St. Paul brewery.
Schell’s Snowstorm is another local fixture of the season. While the name stays the same, it’s a completely different beer every year. This year’s iteration is a straightforward but delicious red ale. It’s built on a sturdy base of bready and bread crust malt. Touches of caramel add some depth. A subtle hint of roast gives an impression of dryness in the finish that accentuates a lingering bitterness. Herbal/floral hops waft over the top. A faint impression of orange peel makes me think this beer would be lovely with an orange twist.
A newer Minnesota entry is Tip Up from Beaver Island Brewing Co. in St. Cloud. Tip Up is brewed with locally grown hops and spruce tips, and a bit of beechwood-smoked malt. There is a lot going on in this nearly black ale. Complex layers of chocolate and toasted grain, subtle smoke, berrylike spruce and minty hops vie for attention and yet meld beautifully into one delightful experience. It is at once rich and warming yet brisk and wintry. A friend of mine described its taste as “like breathing outside in the cold.”
Brewed every year since 1975, Anchor Christmas Ale from San Francisco is another steadfast signal that the holiday season has begun. It’s also another beer that changes each year, although less dramatically than Snowstorm. Christmas Ale 2019 is a spice-forward brew. Aromas of cinnamon and ginger hit your nose before you even raise the glass. In your mouth the piquant spice is joined by raisins and gingerbread, with just the slightest touch of chocolate roast. The whole thing conjures the image of a festive tray of gingerbread men fresh from the oven.
Avery Brewing’s Sweater Party is a malt-forward warmer brewed with mulling spices, including cinnamon, orange peel, allspice, cloves and ginger. This 8% alcohol beer is Christmas in a glass. Flavors of cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg sit prominently on a bed of bread crust and gingerbread malt. Bitterness is low, but the beer is not sweet. Notes of orange peel and date-like fruitiness bring it to a deliciously warming finish.
Great Lakes Christmas Ale is an oldie-but-goodie that I had not tasted in a long while. It was a pleasure to return to it. Great Lakes Brewing Co. makes this one with honey, cinnamon and ginger. The spices are more subtle than some other spiced beers. They provide a pleasing background without overwhelming everything else. Bitter chocolate flavors get stronger as you work your way through the glass. Although there are no cherries in this beer, notes of dark cherries are one of the loveliest things about it. Together with the spice and chocolate the beer is like a cinnamon-tinged chocolate-covered cherry.
Until a few years ago, holiday ales from England were commonplace on local store shelves. As the focus of the market has shifted ever more toward local brewers, their appearances have become fewer and farther between.
One of my favorites from across the pond is the classic Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome. This English-style old ale is unspiced. It pours with a deep copper color and moderate white head. Biscuit and caramel malt flavors dominate with just enough floral hop bitterness to balance. Light alcohol warming, subtle fruit and characteristic Samuel Smith mineral notes round this one out. It’s a nice beer to sip by the fireside.
Another English offering that I have seen around town is Rosey Nosey from Batemans Brewery. Unlike many other winter beers, this full-bodied and full-flavored ale comes in at a modest 4.7% alcohol. You’ll be able to enjoy a couple of pints by the fireside. This is a malt-forward brew with rich layers of biscuit, caramel, raisins and brown sugar. It’s on the sweet side, but a late-arriving bitterness does cut through the treacle. Cooling, herbal hops also provide a tasty contrast. A bit of butterscotch and orange marmalade complete the picture.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at email@example.com.