Rapid Creek Cidery will be presenting their second annual Wassail event on Saturday, Feb. 1, with doors opening for VIP ticket holders at 6:30 p.m. and the downstairs opening for everyone at 7:30 p.m. Standard tickets are $25, and include a pint of cider, light appetizers and the sounds of Flash in a Pan, Iowa City’s notably excellent bluegrass band. Those who wish to be VIPs can pay $60, which includes that extra hour and three drink tickets, as well as an assortment of appetizers from the British Isles.
As was true last year, guests are encouraged to dress up with crowns of ivy, feathered masks and festive hats adorned with natural elements in celebration of the Apple Tree Man — in English folklore, the spirit of the oldest tree in an orchard. In addition to offering a special hard cider, the company will also sing wassailing songs and dance around the Wilson’s Orchard’s oldest apple tree while banging pots and pans in an effort to drive off evil spirits and ensure a good crop.
I attended the first Wassailing event, beckoned by the promise of a night at Rapid Creek Cidery (which I like) and the promise of hearing last year’s musical guests, the Ben Schmidt Trio (who were great). As a devout lover of apples and student of religious practices, I was curious about the process of waking the spirits of trees from their winter slumber. I found the basement of Rapid Creek has the same warm, inviting décor as the upstairs, with wooden walls and windows softening the concrete floor. The table décor was well-done: candles, wood, sprigs of green. Although modern, one sensed that they were a pretty close cousin to what may have appeared at a more ancient Wassailing event.
My impression was that nobody who attended the first event — predominantly 20- to 30-year-olds, a handful of people in their 40s or older — was sure of what to expect. The signs of a very different night, lacking the frigid rain we received again, crowded the shadows: pots and pans to alert the evil spirits away and preparations for what would have been a great bonfire. Paul Rausch, dressed up with a fake long beard and hair, began the night by explaining the history of Wassail. Although brief, it was part of the event that felt right.
The fact that most people stayed indoors, however, shifted things into a cross between a wedding reception and a night at the bar. This seems to be more aligned with the advertised blueprint for 2020. Long tables hosted groups that came together, with a few new friendships formed. The food was a snack buffet of different sausages, fish and breads — while it was tasty (as I expected, given the quality of Rapid Creek’s menu), it also was scarce. The servers refilled the table a few times throughout the night and occasionally brought plates to tables, but long lines and empty plates made it seem that people expected a bit more food given the price of the ticket.
Rausch’s stories about the history of cider and Wassail were definitely the best parts of the night. The cider samples were also tasty — the Gold Rush was the standout served that night. The fact that the crowd was bigger than anticipated also was signaled by the fact that they ran out of the featured ciders before the night ended. At the midpoint of the night, Rausch rallied attendees to sing the Wassail song, backed by the Ben Schmidt Trio. This also seemed right — especially with the half-inebriated, off key, raucous missed lyrics that emerged. Something festive, something true happened because of that.
The masks and costumes that staff wore — twigs, greens, masks — somehow lent a bit of fun and sprightliness to the night. Toward the end of the night, Rausch led those who wanted into the upper restaurant in order to serenade the cooking staff with the last half of the Wassail song — it was a nice touch, although it broke up the audience for the band fairly drastically. I suspect that Flash in a Pan will provide something that feels even closer to a traditional Wassail Night, with their harmonies and instruments more attuned to the sort of raw roots the event itself conjures.
All in all, Rapid Creek’s Wassail seems more streamlined for 2020 and should be an wonderful alternative to the usual night out. Although I found the traditional elements interesting, even those less inclined to myth should still enjoy excellent cider, delicious food and fantastic music.