Relegated to the Burn Pile

I’ve been neglecting the blog lately due to some heavy dissertation writing, rewriting, and career hand-wringing.  Many paragraphs have been relegated to the burn pile.  Grafting new ideas onto old roots.  Trying not to get swept away by some new theoretical position.

Cider is always on the mind, though, and I’ve been in on several conversations lately that hinge on the market capacity for craft breweries, cider, wine, and spirits.  Speaking with some of my marketing friends, it sounds like keeping on top of the next big thing is increasingly fast-paced: new social media platforms to populate, new trends to mastermind.  One day, it’s cider, the next, it’s craft distilleries.  A colleague of mine with a more optimistic attitude is hoping to open another brewery here and is pretty sure that there’s more than enough space in the market, while another friend is convinced cider is the way to go now.  And still a third thinks both are way behind the curve and the craft distilleries are the wave of the future.

It makes me wonder how fast trends are coming and going, and what incentive there is to get into the very long-term and labor intensive work of growing apples and grapes?  I muck in on a part time basis at the vineyard here, and the losses from this past winter’s brutal cold are forcing the vineyard crew to pull some pretty long days dealing with the vine maintenance and replanting.  It makes conversation about the ever-changing winds of market trends feel positively inane when you are cutting down vines in the early summer and contemplating the months of tying, training, shoot selection, and the years of re-growth before you get another harvest.

For me, the long term patience, and the care and cultivation that go into orchards and vineyards are what contribute to the magic of cider and wine.  The importance and pleasure of the drink is not just in the taste – though that is certainly important – but in the mind, in the story of the place where that grape or that apple grew.  The patience of wine and cider is something that appeals to my own personal sense of just being tuned into time and place and labor, where human stories and natural environments collide in agricultural artistry.

I see a parallel with organic or sustainably grown food, and my distaste for marketing that promotes it as a consumer choice for personal health or better taste.  The importance of that enterprise is not increased nutrition, health, or taste – though of course these things are important too – but the  knowledge that the food was grown and cared for in a way that was sensitive to the long term health of the environment and the economic and social sustainability of local communities engaged in this work.

I know good marketing is important for the success of a business and its ability to devote itself to the long-term care of its resources (trees, workers, community, as well as dollars).  I still think that cider, in order to be viable in the long term, and not just another market trend or rising drinks category, needs to communicate its identity in a way that emphasizes its heritage, its sustainable environmental impact, and its connection to agricultural families, businesses, and communities.  In order to do justice to the years of cultivation and care it takes to grow an apple, we need a message that can transcend the marketed, trending moment and put roots down for years to come.  I’m more convinced than ever, after dragging dead grape vines to a burn pile and planting tender new ones for the future, that we need to be able to communicate the heritage, labor, and patience of cider orchards in the same way that the wine industry does for its vineyards and grapes.

Well, after that little missive, I’ve got to get back to the dissertation and the dirt.

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Posted in Landscapes, North America, Orchards | 3 Comments

Cider Con 2014 – (Re)Learning to Taste

IMG_0354There are so many things to discuss about Cider Con 2014, but I want to start off by talking about tasting.  It makes me think of the movie Playing by Heart from the nineties that started off with a character saying “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture”.  It’s so hard to talk about tastes and smells – trying to translate a sensory experience into words.  Of all the senses, smell and taste are so intimately linked with memory that talking about them is like translating a whole language of memories, each one intimately connected to other memories.  And personal memories are just the beginning of talking about whole cultural vocabularies of taste and smell.

I remember tasting cider at the Barrels Pub in IMG_0355Hereford with the Three Counties Cider and Perry Association, and as we were describing the grassy scent of freshly cut hay, I wondered, how can anyone who has never stood in a hayfield, looking at all the wildflowers, and the birds, and smelling the earthy musty smell of dirt, have any idea what to call that aroma trapped inside a glass of cider? So how do we come up with a vocabulary for taste and smell?

The Sensory Analysis Workshop on Wednesday at Cider Con is one method of establishing some common sensory terms, while simultaneously linking them to the underlying chemistry of fermentation.  By starting with a reference cider and doctoring samples with various chemical additives that represent possible outcomes of fermentation chemistry, we were able to compare this with the reference cider to identify certain scents and tastes that might occur as a result of production processes.  These included diacetyl, the compound responsible for buttery flavours, which results from malolactic fermentations, as well as sulphurs, phenolics, and acids.  Charles and Gary, who led the workshop, told me that they developed it as a way to train judges for the Great Lakes Cider Association competition, so that they would have a common understanding of how to evaluate ciders for off-flavours and faults.

When I experienced this workshop last year, I was really confounded by it.  My days of tasting small batch barrels in the barn to determine a good blend had never included discussions of phenolics.  Nor had my experience ever included complex chemical approaches to fermentation.  So this sensory analysis approach kind of floored me last year.  This year, however, I found it a really interesting tool.  This kind of tasting vocabulary helps create a specific kind of palette – one that understands the chemistry of fermentation.  It does not speak about apple varieties, or terroirs, or cultures of cider, or personal memories.  It should be understood in that light.

Palettes and vocabularies of taste are created in many different ways, and it is interesting that the American palette, at least in this specific instance, is being informed around a vocabulary of fermentation chemistry. (See the end of this post for a rundown of the sensory analysis workshop in detail).

Session Tasting: Eden Ice Cider

Session Tasting: Eden Ice Cider

The whole conference, however, was a multitude of tasting opportunities.  In between sessions, tables in the lobby would fill up as individual cider makers brought out bottles of their products to share with professional contacts and passers by.  Sessions on ice cider, mixology, and cheese pairing provided opportunities for guided tasting and creative uses of products.  And of course, as we spilled out into the bars and restaurants of Chicago, the tasting went on.  I ended up in a hotel room with a handful of folks sampling Spanish ciders imported by Ciders of Spain. I tasted some ciders from several west coast cider makers that were made using fruit flavour additives that were a little too strong for my taste, but were interesting experiments in a diversifying marketplace.

Cider Summit Chicago

Cider Summit Chicago

And the giant Cider Summit Chicago on Saturday was an exercise in stamina as the crowds and noise assaulted your other senses.  Since I was pouring at the event rather than tasting, I found many customers weren’t sure what they wanted, or what kind of tastes were available.  They were floundering from vendor to vendor, trying to identify what tastes were available, and what appealed to them. It made me realize that among the many factors in trying to create an identity for cider in the United States, is the need to create a vocabulary of taste that consumers can understand and relate to.  I doubt this will be a vocabulary of fermentation chemistry.  Nor have I heard a vocabulary of apple varieties bubbling to the surface.  It is, in a way, a golden opportunity for marketing directors to work some creative magic in a relative void of terminology.  The time is right to ask, how will Americans talk about the tastes of cider?

Finally, on the way home, I stopped in to see an old friend who had asked if I could give my opinion on his first batch of cider.  A home-brewer, he had decided to try a batch of cider, and purchased the juice from Great Fermentations in Indianapolis.  I, in turn, brought a bottle of Ross on Wye cider for him to taste.  For a first try, his ciders were really nice – clean, fruity, light, bottle fermented. Just a hint of yeasty aroma on the nose was a little overpowering.  Tasting Ross on Wye next to it, with its complex tannins, was a really great comparison between the results of a quick fermentation of eating apples and a long slow fermentation of cider apples.  Both are great in their own way, and sitting at his kitchen table talking about taste at the end of my week at Cider Con brought into focus the variety and nuance of flavours, texture, and aromas we have to work with in cider, and the dynamic ways we can imagine to talk about taste.

Here are my notes from the Sensory Analysis Workshop.  The sample is given, followed by the sensory reactions of the audience.  Bulleted underneath are the chemical additives and explanations of the effects they have on the cider. 

Sensory Analysis with Charles McGonegal and Gary Awdey from the Great Lakes Cider and Perry Association

Reference Cider  – ‘New World Cider’ by Gary Awdey, dessert and culinary blend.

  • 5.5% ABV ph 3.64, 330 mg / L gallic acid equivalents.  Back-sweetened to 2% RS with AJC

Taste – what you have tastebuds for: sweet sour bitter  + Mouthfeel: body, viscosity

Sample 1 – reference cider

Sample 2 – more sweet, more acid, thin, less complex, less mouthfeel, drier

  • increased acidity by 1gram per litre – with malic acid -Tastes thinner because malic acid cuts the body or viscosity of alcohol

Sample 3 –sweeter, smoother, thinner, less body

  • brought down the CO2 levels – lower CO2 levels

Sample 4 – sweeter, hotter, bitter

  • added alcohol: 1% ABV increase

Sample 5 – more acid, more mouthfeel

  • ½% spike in sugar (sucrose) – sugar contributes viscosity and body.

Sample 6 – lower carbonation, citrusy, bitter

  • bitter addition 10% quinine

Sample 7 – thinner, smoother, tannic, astringent, lower alcohol

  • polyphenols (chlonrogenic acid, pholidzen Epicatechinp, procyanidin)– bitterness and astringency (makes it taste less acid)

Aroma and Flavor

Sample A1 – nail polish

  • ethyl acetate – < 50ppm indistinctly fruity, may be a positive attribute; 50-150ppm slightly sour, solventy; >150 ppm harsh sour, reminiscent of nail polish remover.
    • A component of vinegar.  Usual in small amounts.  Especially in young cider or Spanish cider. Often seen in wild fermentations.

Sample A2 – fresh, appley

  • Acetaldehyde – sensed as grassy taste, raw apple skins, bruised apples, green apples.  At higher levels it may be a sign of cider sickness (framboise)  Reminiscent of banana peel or rotten lemon.  Produced from zymomonas infection.  Resistant to sulfite treatment.  Stopped by ph less than 3.7 and lack of fructose.  French ciders particularly susceptible

Sample A3 – bandaid, blue cheese

  • Fruity esters, acetates (isoamly acetate – banana flavouring) Amly acetate
  • Fruity acetates produced by yeasts during fermentation.  May affect your choice of yeasts.  Several yeasts are offered by various suppliers to enhance this character.  Acetates added as ‘natural flavor’ blur the lines between cider as a craft product and a food production

SampleA4 – smells like butter and popcorn

  • Diacetyl
  • Sensed as buttery, artificial butter flavour, butterscotch
  • .2-.4 ppm may round out flavour in some ciders but no consensus on desirability
  • greater than that (especially above 1ppm) it becomes a clear detractor

Sample A5 – smoke, band-aid, burnt tires, peaty, scotch

  • phenolics –the 4 E combo: 4 ethyl phenol (plastic bandaints, mothballs), 4 ethyl catechol (barnyard horsey), 4 ethyl guiaicol (smoky ham, clove, spicy)
  • produced by lactobacillus, legal caveat: it is starting to be more apparent which bacilli produce more desirable results.  However the only bacteria currently approved by the TTb for MLF in wine is oenecoccus oeni
  • present in eating and cooking acid as well as the bitters.  But the bitters – phenols are suppressed – not the same qualities. tannins suppress the brett

(Mouse sample not used this year  but discussed – is PH dependent.  So it can wait in your mouth for a change of ph to express itself.    You may find that it expresses with certain foods)

Sample A6 – Metallic, high sulphur

  • sulphur

SampleA7 – body odour, cat urine, socks

  • cocktail of two sulfides: diethyl di sulfide – rotting garlic and rubber
  • also cat urine, or blackcurrant
Posted in Cider Con, Events, North America, Tasting | 2 Comments

Cider Con 2014 – Michigan Cider Bus Tour

Cider Con 2014 left the gate this year in the form of a bus tour to Virtue Cider and Vander Mill Cider in Michigan.  Two coaches full of Cider Con attendees set off, rounding the snowy southern tip of Lake Michigan, one heading for Virtue, one heading for Vander Mill.  I wish I could say we studied the landscape along the way, but most of my bus seemed buzzing with the conversations of eager cider colleagues new and old.  I was delighted to find myself in the gregarious and entertaining company of Neil Worley of Worley’s Cider, Somerset, who brought me back to the folk roots of English craft cider making.   And I had a lovely chat with Kristen Jordan from Sea Cider, about organic methods and the ways we communicate values of many kinds to our customers.  In the midst of lots of folks embarking on a frenzy of entrepreneurial American spirit facilitated by well-considered business plans, it was also really encouraging to chat with Neil and Kristen about approaches to cider making that are experimental, seasonal, and local to their particular apples, soils, climates, materials, and communities.

I’d never thought about how slow the learning curve on cider making is, until Neil described the limitations of seasonal production, where you only get the chance to practice your craft once a year. It makes you realize that the road to becoming a really good cider maker is a long one, characterized by the slow patience of seasons that spread out across the other changing arcs of one’s personal and social life.

The need to consider cider as a business first rather than as a craft, a hobby, or an art form, sometimes necessitates a cautiousness in production that can leave little room for intimate experimentation with materials and ideas and processes that lead to the distinctiveness and uniqueness of a truly craft cider.  It’s a balance – a trade off between art and business.  How much do you want to try and control processes and materials to achieve an imaginary desired, saleable product?  Or do you let the unique properties of your apples and environment direct how you respond and innovate your production?

But enough of such philosophical musings when there are tanks to envy and admire.  Upon our arrival at Virtue Cider’s headquarters in Michigan, we all strolled into the timber framed barns and stared wide-eyed at the beautiful facilities while sampling Virtue’s ciders.  My personal favorite was the Percheron, a French-style ‘cidre fermier’ which was innoculated with brett in the mysterious quarantined brett barn on the other side of the property.  I also liked the fresh, fruity character of the Cidre Nouveau, a young cider made in homage to the tradition of young Beaujolais nouveau wine.  But the farmyard full bodied character of the Percheron reminded me of what I liked best about some English farmhouse ciders – full of robust flavors, even a little bit of funk.

But let’s not forget about the tank envy folks.  Walking into the tank barn was a bit like passing over into another realm, descending below ground where these stainless steel beauties bathe in the cool even temperatures of the earth in which this bathtub of concrete rests.  Even I, someone who is not heavily into the production side of the business, was impressed by the elegance of this facility.

So we boarded the bus and went on our way to Vander Mill. It was a very warm and homey welcome we found there, complete with delicious donuts to accompany an impressive range of ciders with added flavours such as blueberry, pecan, and hibiscus.  My favorite was the cider called the Loving Cup, the peppercorn and hibiscus flavoured cider on draft. The pecan flavoured cider was actually really interesting – almost like eating a pecan pie.

I wish I could be more descriptive, but at this point in our journey the Virtue ciders had been filtering through our brain cells, and the keg at the front of the bus had been tapped.  It was a long trip through Michigan in a bus full of cider in a snowstorm.  But it was a damn good time.

Posted in Cider Con, Events, Tasting | 2 Comments

Our Own Midwest Wassail

I hosted a very modified wassail for about 15 of my friends here in Indiana.  No orchards, no bonfires, unfortunately, but as it was only about 15 degrees F, I think we were happy to stay inside.  But I got out the stash of cider I have been collecting and hoarding for a celebratory tasting.  I was really excited by all the questions my friends asked about cider!  It made me realize that even amongst my friends, who listen to me rattle on about it endlessly, there was a severe lack of information about cider.  It was not something they knew much about, beyond Woodchuck, Angry Orchard, and Strongbow.  We have lots of market education work to do cider community!

We did a geographical tour of Britain / France, the Northwest, the Northeast, and closed with a couple from the Midwest.  Here’s the line-up of emptied bottles:

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From across the pond, we started out with the commercial giant Strongbow*, moved onto the Virtue/Oliver collaboration Goldrush*, jumped the channel over to Normandy for Etienne Dupont Organic 2011*.  I then broke out a John Teiser special – a single variety Damelot cider as an example of a very tannic French variety.  Then we jumped back to England for a taste of Perry – the Holmer from Ross on Wye.  People generally really loved these ciders, with the exception of the Damelot, which was unsurprisingly palette challenging.  Special appreciation went to the Gold Rush – which surprised people with its  complex tannin, and to the Ross on Wye Holmer Perry, which was of course delightful and a new taste for most.

IMG_2402Next, we headed to the Northwest Coast of North America – two from British Columbia and two from Oregon.  We began with 2 Towns Ciderhouse Nice and Naughty from Oregon, which was a bit perplexing.  I think we weren’t quite sure about the spiced flavor.  Perhaps we just weren’t in the right holiday mood for it.  We then moved on to the Left Field Cider Big Dry from BC.  Some folks found the aroma a bit challenging.  I had tried the Little Dry while back in BC, and I believe I preferred that cider’s cleaner, more fruit forward taste.  We then opened the Sea Cider Pippins from BC, to which almost everyone responded with exclamations of enthusiasm.  One person said if they didn’t know it was cider, they would have assumed it was wine.  A very complex rich flavor.  Finally, the Wandering Aengus Wanderlust* from Oregon, which we found very simple and straightforward, which split the field between those who liked a more straightforward flavor and those who liked something more complex.

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Then onto the Northeast.  We began with Farnum Hill from New Hampshire, moved onto Hudson Valley Farmhouse Cider from New York, and finished with Aaron Burr Homestead Apple from New York.  All were well liked, and my wine-distributor friend noted that they all improved with a bit of breathing.  The flavors in these three seemed to develop gradually, both with a little time in the glass and a little time on the tongue – first seeming quite simple and then unfolding on the palette.

IMG_2400And then we came back to the midwest with two ciders from Michigan for a sweet finish.  First the J.K’s Scrumpy Farmhouse Organic* and then the Zombie Killer*.  Both ciders were quite sweet – and after a tasting full of dry ciders, response was mixed.  Many found these much too sweet, but the Zombie Killer – actually a Honey, Cherry Apple Cyser, was very interesting – something I can imagine sipping over ice on a hot summer day.

Thus finished our wassail!  It was a really great way to pass on the Gospel of Cider to friends and foodies in my neighborhood.  My cupboards might be a bit bare at the moment, but it was much more enjoyable to share these lovely ciders and enjoy them with other enthusiastic tasters.  Hopefully, I’ll collect some more at Cider Con 2014 next month.

*Asterix indicates ciders which were available at a retail outlet in Bloomington, IN.  All other ciders were acquired by me and lugged home in a suitcase from some travel adventure.

Posted in Events, North America, Tasting | Leave a comment

Wassail: An Unexpected Revival

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Flyer for the Foxwhelp Morris Wassail, Preston on Wye 2012

I was sitting it a pub in East Hackney, London one January night a few years ago trying to convince a young man from Portsmouth that English people did in fact practice the custom of wassail.  “Wassail?” he said.  “I’ve never heard of that.  English people don’t do that.  I don’t believe you.”  I parried his aura of certainty with my own indisputable fact: I had just travelled down to a remote corner of Devonshire to participate in a wassail.  I had seen it for myself.  We had traipsed round a village in the Blackdown Hills singing for cider and wishing good health to the farmhouse, the garage, the old vicarage, the pub, and finally the orchard itself. English people DO wassail.

The young man’s incredulity about the existence of this custom is understandable, though.  With a few notable exceptions of wassail celebrations that claim to have survived unbroken into the present, such as the one at Carhampton, Somerset, the custom seems to have died out or disappeared most everywhere else, surviving only as a festive Christmas drink or an obsolete word in a carol.  In the past few years, however, a notable revival has been rising, and as several of my friends in England put it, everyone seems to want to have a wassail now.

So why did wassailing die out in England, and why is it being revived now?  These were some of the questions I set out to answer when I first trekked out to torchlit winter processions on the twelfth night of Christmas in Devon, and later Somerset, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Shropshire, and Worcestershire. 

Many people think of Wassail as a remnant pagan custom, and it is easy to see why, when black-faced Morris men lead hordes of otherwise tame urbanites carrying torches through old orchards to sing to the apple trees and scare off witches with gunfire.  It’s an enthusiastic performance of what some might think of as a primitive, superstitious approach to life, which might seem refreshing after the daily grind of rational civility. Being outside after the endless indoor Christmas parties feels like a release, and the bonfires and torches light up the night in a way that wakes your tired soul from the dreary sleep of midwinter. And the cider, well the cider just makes you feel sublime, a bit euphoric.  The torches seem brighter.  The night seems blacker.  And it feels like anything is possible inside the circle of trees that almost seem alive.

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Morris Man from Silurian Morris at the Tenbury Wassail 2013

I think the custom’s visceral tactile appeal stems from the sensory stimulation of frost and fire and the imaginative tunnel of superstition usually silenced in a society based on scientific rationality.  It’s an opportunity to get out and be a little wild for a night, and that’s what rituals and festivals are often good for, shaking up our everyday habits and injecting the mundane world with mystery and significance we don’t usually feel.

 Some of the people I came to know who had helped revive wassail over the last twenty years had a much less superstitious orientation to the custom, though, and their perspectives shed light on some of the social realities of rural agricultural life and highlight the enormous social changes it has undergone in the past century.  Wassail, a custom historically based in rural society and food production, has something to teach us about the changing ways we work with each other, as well as the ways we interact with natural and agricultural resources.

 For Eric Freeman, a life-long farmer in the rural countryside of Gloucestershire, and his friends Pete Symonds, a former electrician from the Forest of Dean, and Albert Rixen, a plumber and engineer, wassail was a tribute to the work of the agricultural year and an emblem of the social contract between farmers and their agricultural workers. Pete Symonds is a skilled tradesman in a rural community whose livelihood suffered with the outsourcing of industrial work overseas.  He saw in wassail the opportunity to celebrate the social bonds of working men and commemorate the cooperative nature of agricultural labor in an era before industrialization. Albert Rixen, devoted to restoring old steam engines, including antique steam powered cider equipment, also lends his workman’s approach to wassail and cider making, keeping alive the mechanical heritage of agricultural work.  Eric Freeman, a tireless supporter of agriculturally-oriented social networks such as the Young Farmers and groups devoted to saving rare breeds of livestock, has dedicated much of his life to the practice of farming not just as a business or even a personal vocation, but a way of life still full of social and cultural richness. 

 

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Eric Freeman holding the Wassail Cup at his annual Wassail in Huntley, Gloucestershire

For these men, the resurrection of the custom of wassail was not about superstition at all.  The considerable labor involved in preparing the bonfires and torches and orchestrating the festival mirrored the kind of labor they wanted to celebrate – shared labor, social labor, the kind of labor that was necessary to keep a pre-industrial farm going.  This is the kind of labor that makes work worthwhile, and which seems to be slipping away in a world of global markets, where labor is outsourced, rural communities are left slowly crumbling, and agriculture produces commodities instead of food. 

It’s also important to remember that the social contract didn’t always work, that standards of living for agricultural workers in the pre-industrial era were generally dire.  But wassail was a moment when the contract was tested, when the workers held the orchard and the farm hostage for a night, demanding food and drink from their employers in return for performing the wassail and ensuring a fertile crop in the year to come.  Superstition becomes bare social reality here, because without a satisfied workforce, the farm could not be productive.  Without workers, there would be no harvest, no fertility.  Wassail was a kind of symbolic labor negotiation, with the potential harvest hanging in the balance.  And the next Monday after twelfth night, known as Plough Monday, work started again.  The fields were ploughed for the coming year.

 

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Leominster Morris Wassail in Eardisley, Herefordshire 2013

It all seems a bit serious for a rowdy evening of cider drinking, morris dancing, and bonfire lighting.  And don’t get me wrong, sometimes of the most obvious reasons to join in a wassail is simply for a good prank, a good drink, and an excuse to dress up in funny costumes and indulge in a little pyromania.  But the interplay of superstition, social history, and a walloping good time is what makes wassail a tradition with depth and complexity that can appeal to people on many levels, even as they face adapting to economic, social, and environmental change in their communities. 

Can wassail take hold in North America?  A real, strong tradition here will depend on our own social needs and reasons for adopting a custom.  It will be exciting to see how it takes shape as we begin to re-invest attention in our agriculture, our orchards, and our cider.  In a way, the social contract we are now re-exploring with our food system, our environment, and our economies makes wassail all the more relevant, and the tables have turned.  Wassail, in all its irreverent topsy turvy midwinter glory, reminds us that agriculture and food production, even in our industrialized, exploitative, globalized era is still a social, and an environmental contract.  In an old-fashioned way, it poses the question “Are we in it together folks?”  And its pretty exciting to hear folks replying: “Here’s to thee old apple tree.” 

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Orchard near Preston on Wye, Herefordshire, Foxwhelp Morris Wassail 2012

 

Posted in History, Orchards, UK, Wassail | Leave a comment

Wassail: Some Historical Reports and their Contexts

5710196-MHave you been dying for some historical sources for the custom of wassail?  Come on, I know you have.  Lucky for you I am the folklorist with the super folklore library collection a mere 30 minute walk from my doorstep.  So I made my way over to the stacks at the Wells Library at Indiana University to forage for some old folklore collections that document Wassail (and then I found some handy online google books versions to share with you!)  Some of the questions a folklorist asks when researching a custom like wassail are:

  • Where was this custom previously documented?
  • Why did people want to document it in the first place?
  • What does this tell us about the meaning of the custom?

So, a little history here: the study of folklore emerged at a time when the rationalism of the Renaissance and Enlightenment eras (roughly the late 1500s-1800s) created a class of educated men who, infused with the new scientific method, began to wonder why many of their fellow countrymen still believed in or practiced ‘superstitious’ customs.  Early on, this study was called Popular Antiquities, and some of the scholars engaged in collecting and documenting these customs were Protestant clerics, clergymen who were particularly unsettled by the continuation of superstitious beliefs and practices of Roman Catholicism.  They concluded that many of these beliefs and practices weren’t grounded in biblical texts at all (and therefore, not properly Christian), but leftover pagan customs that had been adopted into the Catholic Church.  Sometimes their aim was to discover the origins of these pagan customs in order to root them out.  It is interesting today that many of our modern popular interpretations of folklore customs still hinge on an explanation of their pagan origins, even though the original impetus of Protestant reform has long since disappeared. (For some other ways to interpret wassail other than pagan fertility ritual, stay tuned for my next post)

What does this mean?  Knowing this goes a little way to understanding the perspective of those who documented wassail in the early days of folklore and popular antiquities study.  It answers some of questions 1 and 2 above.

So what does this tell us about wassail, and what it meant to those who documented it?  It means we should always be a little wary of taking their descriptions at face value.  Is wassail actually a relic of a pagan fertility custom?  Or is that what the observers in the Enlightenment wanted it to be, due to their own biases of class, religion, and education?  Further, could their informants – the regular folks telling them about the customs – be yanking their chains or manipulating the information given to these early scholars for any reason? It is impossible to know anything for certain, but by reading between the lines, we can make more nuanced interpretations about the place of this custom in history.  History is not a case of fact and fiction, but of documents and interpretations of the content and creation of those documents.

Here is one selection from John Aubrey’s early collection of popular customs Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme written between 1687 and 1689.

Writing slightly later, the antiquarian John Brand, one of the rationalist Protestant clerics, documented these wassail customs in his book Observations on Popular Antiquities: Chiefly Illustrating the Origin of Our Vulgar Customs, Ceremonies, and Superstitions, which was first written in 1777 enlarged and edited by Sir Henry Ellis in 1813.There’s lots more in the library, and you can wend your way around Google Books for many of the older texts.  For more information about the early Antiquarian folklorists in England, check out The British Folklorists: A History by Richard Dorson.

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Wassail links and Lambswool recipe

Check out this cool post on Lambswool, forwarded by a cider friend at United States of Cider.  Chock full of historical and literary anecdotes and nice pictures and recipe offered.

Also, keep on eye on United States of Cider’s Campaign for Wassail in the United States.  More wassail posts coming.  Stay tuned.

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