‘Ice Cold Beer’ – used in a phrase those three words seem inseparable, but it wasn’t always so. From the perspective of the 20th Century it’s hard to believe, everyone drinks ice cold beer, and in restaurants and barrooms, ball parks, and picnics, beer drinkers mindlessly plunge beer into arctic-like baths of ice with hardly a thought, but why? People drink both hot and ice tea, hot and ice coffee, and hot and cold chocolate milk; why not beer?
In beer’s previous 100 centuries of history there was no refrigeration, and anyone served a frigid beer would have assumed it was negligently left out in the cold. Warm was the only way to drink beer, and it was drunk that way from the beginning. At the dawn of civilization beer was served at ambient temperature, later it was cellared to barely cooled, and for several centuries in between, piping hot was the temperature of choice.
It was easy to find a hot beer; walking into any tavern from 1500 to the early 1800’s provided ample opportunity. Called "mulled", which meant heated, it was the fashion of the day, and drinkers lapped it up in staggering quantities. Not only did they prefer their beer hot, they were convinced it was good for them.
Mulled beer was considered an aid to healthy living. The brief text "Panala Alacatholica" dated 1623, (author unknown) was one of many sources that praised the virtues of warm beer, explaining that it "…doth by its succulencie much nourish and corroborate the Corporall, and comfort the Animall powers."
In 1641 Henry Overton echoed the same thoughts in a short pamphlet entitled "Warme Beere." It maintained that consumption of heated beer and ale was "…farre more wholesome than that which is drunk cold." Overton’s claim was based on a popular if inaccurate notion of human physiology that believed the stomach was ruled by two "master-qualities" of heat and dryness. Drinking cold beer was thought to put the two in turmoil, upsetting anything from digestion to vaporous humors.
Most famous of the hot, spiced beers, dating from the early 1600’s, was Dr. Butler’s Ale. Described in the old "Book of Notable Things", Dr. Butler's Ale was considered "…an excellent stomach drink, it helps digestion, and dissolves congealed phlegm upon the lungs, and is therefore good gainst colds, coughs, ptisical and consumptive distempers; and being drunk in the evening, it moderately fortifies nature, causeth good rest and hugely corroborates the brain and memory."
Healthful benefits not-withstanding, the actual basis for drinking warm beer was simple. In the days before mechanized refrigeration beer was commonly served at cellar temperatures. During summer, both cellar and serving temperatures crept upward, but tavern keepers never gave it a second thought, it was what people expected and drank. In the winter time warm beer was equally expected and welcomed. Interior heating of those days may have been woefully inadequate but a hot tankard provided a pleasant and comforting distraction. It added variety to what at times was a difficult and mundane lifestyle, and mulled ale further soothed the colonial spirits because warming facilitated a quicker absorption of the alcohol.
Heating beer was also considered necessary because of the dominance of homebrew. Frequent use of substandard ingredients, combined with questionable brewing equipment and techniques, made most home brewed beer unpalatable. Additions of spices and warming the beer increased its appeal, and if scorched, sugars caramelized, thereby adding a more gentle roundness.
As in Europe, drinking warm ale was a convention that settlers brought with them to colonial shores. In her 1893 book "Customs and Fashions in Old New England" Alice Morse Earle compiled a list of warm colonial beer drinks. Documenting the preference for warm beer over more than two centuries, she compared the practice to other colonial beverages such as mulled cider, rum, tea, coffee and chocolate. From the early 1600’s to the mid 1800’s warmed beer was a staple of tavern life.
Typical recipes for mulled beer called for first infusing the herbs and spices in hot water, cooling, straining, and then adding the ‘liquor’ along with sugar, and sometimes cream and beaten eggs. The entire mixture was then heated again, often with a glowing poker drawn from the hot coals of a fire.
Simplest of the mulled beers was ‘Aleberry’ made by heating beer to boiling, then adding sugar, spices, and topping all with floating sops of bread. No one set of spices was recommended, that was left to individual taste.
Lambswool was another common drink. Popular in the 1700’s, preparation began by first roasting several apples until the skins burst. Strong, old ale was heated, into which nutmeg, ginger and sugar were thoroughly blended. Finally, the apples were immersed in the heated beer immediately before serving.
Most well known of all the mulled beers was Wassail. Recipes for this holiday favorite vary, but all were based upon the same basic formula. Sugar was placed in the bottom of a bowl, one pint of warm beer was then poured in along with nutmeg, ginger and cinnamon. After all ingredients were infused the mixture was allowed to stand for several hours. When ready to serve it was heated and topped with several thin slices of toast.
Hot beer drinks were plentiful in old inns and taverns, but as the 19th century progressed, mulled beers faded from view. Equal responsibility for its demise came from the introduction of lager beer and the advent of artificial refrigeration. Lager beer was brewed to drink cold, and refrigeration made its production possible anywhere, and rather than brewing only in cooler months, brewers could make it year-round. Americans responded by enthusiastically embracing light, crisp, ice cold lagers pouring out of breweries. In the process, heated ales became ‘old-fashion’ and quickly disappeared.
Should mulled beer remain buried in history? Clean, well made, flavorful beers may have eliminated the need for spice additions and heating, but the reemergence of holiday releases and other spiced brews is a call from the past. Listen to your beer drinking heritage. Malty, low-hopped beers eagerly welcome light spicing of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice, honey, and brown sugar. Winter ales patiently wait for mulling, and fruit beers offer even more possibilities.
Colder months are perfect for hot beer drinks, they warm both the body and soul, adding a festive glow to the holidays. John Bickerdyke may have said it best, "If there is one season of the year more appropriate than another to hot beer-cups, be they Wassail Bowls, Lambswool, Flip or Mulled Ale, it is Christmas."
Reprinted courtesy of Gregg Smith