CHRISTMAS is a good time to be a beer drinker, as wassailing songs remind us.

Wassail was a spiced ale or mulled wine, traditionally drunk between Twelfth Night and Christmas Eve, with groups of people going from house to house singing wassail songs and collecting both food and drink from the householders for their efforts. This practice is now largely replaced by carol singing. Wassail comes from the Anglo Saxon greeting wæs þu hæl meaning “be in good health”

Christmas ales are often darker and stronger: good strong stout or porter like Goose Eye’s Over and Stout or Bridgehouse Porter with its chocolate and coffee flavours will go well with both the crunchy roast and the Christmas pud. If dark ale is not your thing then a glass of Tim Taylors Landlord, or a Bingley Brewery Session IPA will also go well with the mains; nothing too hoppy though, or that flavour will swamp the food.

Obviously if you want draught ales at your table you will need to plan ahead, but bottles and increasingly canned real ales (check out the Moor Brewery range certified real ale by CAMRA) are available, both online and from specialist ale shops. Really hoppy beers, such as the newer American Pale Ales or APAs come into their own with the cheese course; something sharp and slightly citrusy helps cut through the fat. Saltaire Wines often has a good selection, but increasingly the range at larger supermarkets is worth exploring.

The style of winter warmers and Christmas spiced beers really started to expand in the late 1980s. Mauldons Christmas Reserve, Goose Eye Christmas Quackers and Batemans Rosey Nosey. These seasonal beers owe their existence not to the baby in the manger, but to the much older celebration of the winter solstice. The shortest day of the year, when the sun sat lowest to the horizon, marked the start of gruelling cold months (remember last year’s Beast from the East) before the earth would be reborn in the spring.

Therefore at the Solstice people gathered, food was prepared, and drink was fermented from the dependable gruel mixes. The strongest beer was made with ample malted grains, flavoured with the very best spices and herbs. And it would have flowed freely, gloriously creating a physical bond between man and the gods, between earth and sun.