03 Jan I Could Really Use a Steaming Hot Beer This Winter – Don’t Laugh, It’s a Thing
It’s easy to conger up an image of a hot summer day – finishing the yard work and hankering for an ice-cold brew. It’s been used on countless beer commercials and ads, and in truth, there really are few things better than a cold beer on a hot day. But what about the other direction, a hot beer on a cold day? Believe it or not, warm/hot beers used to be served all the time – and I just learned that they’re making a slow, but steady comeback.
Mega-beer corporations have been the major forces behind the ice-cold beer move. It’s great for them. The colder you drink their beer, the less you taste – and you don’t really want to taste that beer. They use phrases like “cold as a mountain stream” and have labels that turn color when the beer gets colder than dry ice so that you’ll learn that you are only supposed to drink beer that’s on the verge of freezing. I suppose it isn’t completely their fault, light lagers are better served cold, but in the days before lagers, many beers were served hot, especially in winter.
The common example of a historical beer served warmer than ice cold is cask ale, served slightly below room temperature. However, that’s not the only example, before refrigeration most beer was served at room temperature, or perhaps a bit lower when stored in an ice house or in a cellar below ground level. But in long ago winters beers used to be served hot. There was no heat except for the fire in the hearth, and the buildings leaked winter wind like sieves – who’d want a cold beer then?
Now that winter is upon us (to the tune of eight inches of snow before Christmas), I got to thinking about why beer is never served hot. And then Walter and I had a unique experience in Dayton over that same weekend. We got to try winter beer the way that millions used to have it. Mulled wine was sometimes made with cider or ale, but they are served more like cask ales. Our weekend included a hot beer, like what was served from the 16th to the 19th centuries.
It’s true that today’s crisp lagers and hoppy ales don’t respond to well to high temperature, but what about malty beers – that’s what people in the late renaissance and early colonial periods were drinking; they heat up pretty well. They have more body, and usually retain more sugar, so they can stand up to higher temperatures; in fact, some people say they’re better that way.
Imagine a pub or beer hall in England or Bavaria in the 1600s or 1700s during the cold winter. The wind howls and the snow blows as you trudge toward the door in your moth-eaten wool coat. Once inside, the only source of heat is the hearth, exactly where everyone is sitting. So you order an ale (lagers enter the picture only in the 1800s) and watch as the publican takes a red-hot poker out of the fire and plunges it into your beer. Do you gasp and demand your money back? Nope, that’s exactly how you like it.
What you’re getting is a mug of Flip, a combination of ale, rum, sugar, and spices, served scorching hot. Alternatively, you might opt for a mulled ale with spices that is kept on the side of the hearth in a copper kettle and served warm but not hot. These were definitely meant to warm the body and soul, but they also had a digestive function. Like we said, these were big beers, malty and thick. As such, they continued lots of vitamins and carbohydrates – a good substitute for a meal. Charles Dickens rejoiced over the treat in The Old Curiosity Shop as, “Happy circumstances attendant on mulled malt.”
That, and the fact that what passed for science back then prescribed hot liquids as a way to aid digestion and keep healthy, meant that hot beers weren’t just for warmth, they were considered meals and health drinks, much like how people today live quite well on a diet of Guinness (look it up). The hot beers of yesteryear were often called soup wine or ale beer, but there were other options as well. Ale berry was a hot beer with spices and chunks of dark bread in it. Caudle was an older, thicker version of mulled ale with an egg yolk added. Lambswool was hot beer and roasted apples with spices. And there was the wonderfully named Dog’s Nose, a porter mixed with gin and then served warm.
The one version of hot beer that has survived to any degree is called Gluhkriek, but we’ll talk about that in a second. The question is why is it’s the only surviving example of a hot beer. A few things came together around the same time (within a hundred years or so) that doomed the tradition. German lagers came on the scene in the 19th century, and the proliferation of brewers of German descent in America meant that cold was the word of the day.
The advent of rudimentary climate control (better heat sources in houses and pubs, and some refrigeration) meant that people didn’t need hot beers so much, and could get lagers colder. Finally, diets were improving due to improved agriculture and ranching, so people didn’t need to use a beer as a meal. Add it all up and the days of hot beer were numbered.
I’m sure that in pockets of America and Europe the hot beer tradition survived, but during the craft beer era, it has largely been forgotten. The number of styles has exploded in the last 10 years, both new and historical, but the resurgence of hot beer has not been seen. Vine Pair and other magazines are more than willing to tell you the proper serving temperature, but those range from 36˚F to 55˚F. For the most part, they don’t consider even cask ales – getting them to talk about 140˚F beers would probably break their keyboards.
But a couple of hot beers do exist. Glueh Kriek from Cascade Brewing showed up in 2011, and they have brewed it a couple of times since. This is a cherry sour (kriek) with added spices and served hot in the taproom. I guess it didn’t catch “fire,” there, but a version of this beer has been, and still is, popular in Poland. Called Grzane Piwo, this beer name translates to English as “hot beer.” It uses spices in the mix with an ale, and is served all over the country to this day. The winter fests in Poznan and Warsaw are good places to find this delicacy, but Walter and I found one a bit closer to home a few weekends ago.
One of our favorite out of state breweries, Branch & Bone Artisan Ales in Dayton, had a great bottle and can release last weekend (the 14th). They brought their latest collaboration beer, L’Internationale, a historic Bier de Garde that they did with Josh Hambright before he left Central State Brewing for Daredevil Brewing. They also had two or three different beers in can form that were very popular, including Morning Candle, a breakfast stout. But the beer that caught our eye was the Cherry Apple Maple Hot Sour.
They took a sixtel of a ….get this……solera style, post-fermentation fruited, Berliner Weiss and ran it through the coil of a jockey box immersed in 140˚F water. It was fantastic! Just slightly tart, nice and fruity, and not surprisingly rather flat, we both thought this was very much like a mulled wine with more body and depth. The color was gorgeous and it was extremely popular, we were lucky to get some at all, having arrived an hour after the release began.
So there you have it, the rebirth of the hot beer in the Midwest of the United States. We, for two, hope that it catches on. If anyone from Upland Brewing‘s Sour Wild Funk Fest happens to be reading (held on April 4th in 2020, tickets here), you could do a lot worse than to invite Branch & Bone Artisan Ales to the 2020 SWFF. And if you do, ask them if they might not try serving a hot sour there. People will eat it up, even in April.
banner image and some information for the piece from The Atlantic