Beer Town: The wonder of wassail

“A-wassail, a-wassail, throughout all this town. Our cup it is white and our ale it is brown. Our wassail is made of the good ale and true, some nutmeg and ginger, it’s the best we can do.”

Those lyrics from “Gower Wassail,” a folk song from the Gower peninsula in South Wales, celebrate both the drink called wassail and the tradition of traveling from house to house, singing and bringing a wassail cup to be filled.

There are many versions with alternate lyrics. The first one I heard was on the album “Ten Man Mop or Mr. Reservoir Butler Rides Again,” recorded in 1971 by the great British folk-rockers, Steeleye Span.

The band’s rousing rendition filled me with wonder and confusion. It was pretty clear that “Gower Wassail” was a drinking song. The white cup and the brown ale are mentioned from the get-go. But wassail?

A quick wiki search reveals that the word “wassail” comes from the Anglo-Saxon “wes hal,” meaning “be whole” or “good health.” Beyond that, there are all sorts of historical notions, going back to pagan rituals involving apple trees and harvest time.

Apparently, the practice of going door-to-door was originally something like Halloween, with rowdy bands of young men wandering the village, demanding drink from the neighbors, and threatening tricks if there were no treats.

Nowadays, wassail is associated with Christmas and caroling, and it’s best known as a warm, spiced punch, meant to fortify the singers and celebrate the season.

Exactly what should go into wassail can be a subject of debate. Mixtures of mead, cider and fortified wine show up in ancient and modern recipes. But in many a song, ale seems to be the choice.

For today’s holiday cocktail party story, we asked JCT Kitchen bartender Lara Creasy to come up with a couple of winter drinks. She happily offered a heady wassail recipe, made with Port wine and Christmas ale, spiced with cinnamon, allspice, cloves and cardamom.

Creasy often features wassail at the restaurant this time of year. She warms it in a slow cooker at the bar. Walking through the door at JCT, you’re greeted by the glorious aromas of Christmas.

“It works wonders for me here at the bar,” Creasy said. “It’s the first thing people notice when they come in. It immediately creates an atmosphere that’s very inviting. I hear so many people say, ‘Wow. It smells great in here.’ And then they’re excited to find out what it is.”

Check out Creasy’s Holiday Wassail recipe in today’s Food section. She recommends using Anchor Christmas Ale. But I think it could be made with any good brown ale, as referenced in “Gower Wassail.” And Samuel Smith’s Winter Ale, with its delicious toffee notes, would be a nice splurge.

Steeleye Span singer Maddy Prior recorded a version of a wassailing song — “Wassail!” — with The Carnival Band on “Carols and Capers” (1991). The album evokes the spirit of Christmas in merry old England and makes a perfect soundtrack for a traditional wassail or 12th Night party.