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.