If there’s one thing big beer marketers know, it’s that people like their beer cold. “It’s a simple fact that consumers love ice-cold beer, and we love providing it,” writes MillerCoors, touting their cold-activated labels with mountains that turn blue to indicate when beer “goes from cold … to Super Cold.” The problem of insufficiently frigid beer apparently plagues the American consumer and technology is here to help.
But since this is the middle of winter, consider an alternative suggestion. Why not drink hot beer?
The idea seems strange today, but heated ale drinks were once staples of home and tavern life. They provided warmth on chilly nights and nutrition when meals were scarce. And although we’re in the midst of a craft brewing renaissance in which no style of beer is too exotic or obscure to bring to market, warmed ales are conspicuous by their absence.
If the allure of hot beer is mysterious, it helps to consider that both the beer and the setting were very different when these drinks were popular. Today’s crisp, clear lagers and bitter, hoppy IPAs are not conducive to being at enjoyed at high temperatures. Prior to the 20th century, English and American drinkers were more likely to be quaffing malty ales. These fermented quickly without refrigeration, and at their best they offered a full-bodied sweetness that could be enjoyed unchilled or even hot.
They weren’t always at their best, however. Publicans could let them go stale and the ales were prone to spoilage by bacterial invaders. As historian Maureen Ogle writes in Ambitious Brew, a history of beer in America, “Wise drinkers edged toward a mug of ale, taking a delicate first sip in order to find out whether the tankard contained sweet beer or sour; a thick, yeasty pleasure or a rank broth with the taste and texture of muddy water.”
Warnings abound of unscrupulous publicans adulterating their ales with all sorts of unsavory additions to cover up defects. Famed barman William “The Only William” Schmidt cautioned in his 1891 book The Flowing Bowl that “[this] healthy and agreeable beverage used to be prepared often enough from a mixture containing many violent poisons, as Indian hemp, opium, sulphuric acid, sulphate of iron, etc.—nay, the addition of strychnia even was suspected.” One hopes he was exaggerating. Even so, when the quality of beer was unreliable, the temptation to season it with sugar, spice, and spirits, all of which were common additions to heated ales, is understandable.
The heat in taverns serving these drinks would have come from a fireplace around which stiffened, weary travelers would gather, warming up with a hot beverage of some sort. An ice-cold beer was probably the last thing they desired.
The fire served as a source of heat for the drinks, too. Iron loggerheads were kept in the flames, ready to be plunged into tankards of Flip, a popular mixture of ale, rum, and sugar. Less dramatically, metal mulling pots were nestled amongst the coals to bring malty ales to warming temperatures.
Many of these drinks provided not just warmth and a buzz, but also nutrition. Beverages like caudel and ale berry supplemented alcohol with grains or dairy, blurring the line between food and drink. Books from the 1800s such as The Practical Housewife, Bar-Tender’s Guide, or Cooling Cups and Dainty Drinks contain many variations on the theme of hot and hearty ale concoctions. The strangest and most substantial of these was posset, which was prepared by curdling milk or cream with hot wine or beer in a specially designed pot. The warm liquid was drawn from the bottom for drinking and the spongy curds spooned from the surface. (If you ever wondered what the king’s ghost in Hamlet meant when he described poison causing his blood to “posset and curd, like eager droppings into milk,” now you know.)
Historian Dorothy Hartley described the appeal of such “soup wine” or “ale meal” in her book Food in England. “After long hours of travel, hot wine, or spirits, on an empty stomach … often you were too tired to eat. Thus, the compromise of a caudel, which warmed you, fed you, and ‘kept you going till you could obtain a solid meal.’”
Indeed, heated ale was often perceived as being more healthful than cold beer. A pamphlet first published in 1641 with the title “Warm Beer” cautioned that although a cold drink is pleasant when one is thirsty, “pleasant things for the most part are very dangerous.” The unknown author of the preface claims that drinking cold beer caused him to suffer a headache, toothache, stomachache, cough, cold, and other illnesses, but drinking his beer “hot as blood” restored him to good health. He goes on to warn that cold beer could be downright lethal, recounting numerous tales of overheated imbibers falling deathly ill after attempting to refresh themselves with cold beverages.
As bizarre as the argument seems, it was grounded in classical theories of medicine that held that the stomach was like a cauldron boiling and breaking down cooked food. "Well into the 17th century, and long after that in the popular imagination, it was taken as a given that digesting was cooking in the fires of the stomach,” explains Rachel Laudan, author of Cuisine and Empire. “Anything that quenched those fires, endangered this vital process. And what more effective dampener of the flames than cold, wet drinks?"
These theories of digestion eventually gave way to more empirical approaches, but enjoyment of warm beer continued through the 19th century. Even so, trends were underway that would eventually drive heated ale drinks out of fashion. By 1888, W. T. Marchant was lamenting their decline in his In Praise of Ale, published in London. “It is a matter of regret that some of the more comforting drinks have gone out of date. When beer was the staple drink, morning, noon, and night, it was natural that our ancestors would prefer their breakfast beer warm and ‘night-caps’ flavoured.”
Perhaps the most important change was the rise of German lagers. Previously enjoyed in the United States mostly by German immigrants and sold in close to proximity to breweries, the development of pasteurized bottling lines and refrigerated rail cars allowed these beers to travel much longer distances and reach much larger markets.
American drinkers gradually took to the style and Prohibition helped complete the transition. When the ban on alcohol was repealed, dormant breweries offered plenty of capacity for making beer, but the market had irrevocably shifted away from the saloon and toward home consumption. “Brewing’s future lay not in barrels of beer rolled behind mahogany bars,” Ogle writes of the period, “but in the cool, well-lighted interiors of the nation’s refrigerators.” Americans traded their ales for lagers that were colder, cleaner, and more consistent.
Appreciation for craft beers has revived in recent decades and it is a great time to be a beer lover. With such an abundance of excellent beers to choose from, one may question whether there is any need to heat them up with all sorts of other ingredients. We no longer believe that our bellies are fiery cauldrons that could be extinguished by a cold draft. We have better ways of feeding ourselves than scooping curds off a pot of posset. We have bosses who frown on starting mornings with a breakfast beer, regardless of its temperature.
The demands of good health and nutrition no longer dictate that we drink our ales hot. The only reason left to do so is for pleasure, as a small handful of bars and breweries have rediscovered. The New York cocktail laboratory Booker and Dax has brought back the practice of heating beer cocktails with red-hot pokers. In London, a bar called Purl gets its name from a warm ale-and-gin drink once popular among laborers on the Thames, and it serves a modern spin on the beverage. In Portland, Oregon, Cascade Brewing offers their Glueh Kriek, a tart cherry ale served hot with spices.
As brewers and bartenders plunder the past for inspiration, could hot ale drinks become the next big thing? Will heat-activated cans soon appear at a store near you? It’s unlikely. But however dubious their theories of health and digestion, our ancestors did know a thing or two about consuming beer. Perhaps in these cold winter months, adventurous beer enthusiasts might be willing to step back in time and enjoy what Charles Dickens described as “the happy circumstances attendant upon mulled malt.”