There was a time when any tavern customer could count on being greeted on a blustery February night with a mug of warm ale. It was once a basic menu requirement, although we’re talking a long time ago – more than a century at least in most places. Drinks based on warm ales or beers were the products of the time before central heating, and when the quality and freshness of local or house-brewed beers and ales varied widely and wildly. Warming and flavoring the brews made perfect sense those many years ago. Sugar, honey, spices, citrus, port, rum, brandy, sherry, even eggs, oats, wheat or bread would find their way into what became one of any number of traditional, fortifying and body-warming concoctions.
Most countries had at least a couple of warm beer beverages, ranging from mulled ale to flips to more whimsical drinks known as Dog’s Nose, Wassail or Posset. Flips have made a return recently as bartenders seek out old recipes to recreate. However, those are usually based on later versions of this particular libation, with recipes using a spirit, egg, sugar and spices rather than the original made with ale, rum and sugar heated with a red hot iron poker directly from the fireplace. Bartender icon Jerry Thomas’ recipe called for boiling ale, separately beaten egg whites and yolks, freshly grated nutmeg and sugar, and gradually adding the separate egg mixtures to combine. Making the flip “smooth and finely frothed” required a slow and steady pouring back and forth from pitcher to pitcher.
Numerous operations have taken to keeping a punch bowl on the bar to offer guests a welcome beverage while they consider the menu. New York City’s award-winning Dead Rabbit is arguably the most prominent of bars to build that sort of operational hospitality into their program. Hot flips can take some practice when made with eggs, but other beer-based hot drinks take less exacting care. And if you consider how some of the many new brews taste better at room temperature rather than chilled, it only takes a little consideration to realize how they might make a great start to a warm beverage, whether made to order or in a warm punch bowl or crock pot.
Take Kriek chaud (also known as Glühkriek), for example, the Belgian take on mulled wine with cherry lambic as a starter. A few breweries make versions specifically intended for warming versions of their sweet cherry beers, meant for warming on the stove with honey, cloves, bay leaf and cinnamon sticks added. A Dog's Nose, now mainly known only to readers of Charles Dickens and other Victorian English novelists, was primarily warm porter mixed with gin and spices. And then there are Bishops, a class of drink creeping back into fashion. At their most basic, Bishops are simply wine-, port- or beer-based concoctions: heated, spiced, spiked and seasoned.
Today’s bitter brews are not good candidates for hot beer beverages. Instead, the malty stouts, porters and other darker beers make the most sense. Sweeten if needed, and look to the back bar for some fortifying port, sherry, rum or other fruity-forward spirit such as brandy or Calvados. Fresh fruit – apple wedges, pear peels, and orange slices – can add a lot of flavor when slowly simmered, and any number of baking spices will help put a final touch to your new house winter beer drink.