Wintertime, and the Holiday season in particular, is a sensory experience. The sights, sounds and smells of the season evoke strong emotional responses that take us back to the past and draw us closer to our present company of family and friends. Given that we often use this time of year to remember and to celebrate, what better time to explore the celebratory traditions of winter beer and toasting?
Ever wonder why we toast? And, for that matter, why we call it a toast in the first place? As it turns out, the longstanding ritual really goes back as far as our recorded history of alcoholic drink. Drinking to one’s health or to honor another in some way, shape or form can be found in almost every world culture but the moniker “toast” finds its origins, most agree, in 17th Century Roman revelry. Unfortunately for the Romans, the quality of their drink was often suspect and the common practice was to drop a piece of spiced or fruited toast in the cup to temper the harshness of the drink and make it more palatable to consume.
In Old English tradition, we find wassail, or “waes hael,” a Saxon phrase for “be well,” that evolved over time from a salutation to the descriptor for an actual type of beer-based, mulled beverage served hot during the winter holidays. Again, actual toast would often be served along with the drink for dipping. The descendent of wassail, in our contemporary context, is commonly known as a winter warmer. Winter warmers are not so much a defined beer style, but rather a loose category of ales (and sometimes lagers) that are typically higher in alcohol content and often spiced in some manner; particularly the Americanized versions of the British classic.
For a sensory description of the beer, here is an excerpt from an article I wrote for Beer Connoisseur Magazine way back in 2010 that is still a propos:
”A classic British-style winter warmer pours a reddish amber to brown color and typically displays a tall, rocky off-white head that lasts long into the cold night. On the nose, you’ll be greeted with slightly sweet and bready malt notes, a hint of toast and mild spicy — and even faintly citrusy — English hops in varying proportions. Some mild fruitiness from the malts or yeast is not uncommon. The palate features the same bready malt profile with a complex interplay of caramel and dark fruit sweetness and bold earthy and herbal hops that often exemplify a subtle orange or grapefruit-like character that hint of the holidays without the addition of adjunct spices. Typically possessing a medium to medium-full mouthfeel and ample carbonation, the winter warmer can finish with some residual sweetness or quite dry. More traditional examples of this style seem to suggest at holiday spices without actually using them in the beer. A good winter warmer will showcase the constituent ingredients in proper proportion to create a rich, complex ale that has all the charm and holiday appeal of a warm spice cake.”
So, no need for toast (the noun) in modern examples since advancements in brewing technologies yield a much more consistent, palatable beverage with hints of toast and spice already present in the brew. Save the toast (the verb) for a kind word for friends and family and drink to the sensory splendors of the season. If you are looking for local examples of winter seasonal beers that fall into the winter warmer category to accompany your toast, try Big Muddy Brewing’s Winter Ale, Excel’s Winter Warmer or Route 51 Brewing Company’s winter seasonal offerings. Cheers!