In Search of a Good Mulled Beer

December 21, 2017

By Gray Chapman, December 21, 2017

Hot beer may have once been a staple in colonial taverns and English pubs, but these days, it’s a tough sell. Even in peak hot toddy season, bars successfully selling warmed-up beer drinks are pretty few and far between, and not just because hot drinks are kind of a pain in the ass.

When I queried a handful of bartenders in search of a hot, beer-forward mixed drink, I came up with little beyond revivals of historic recipes, like Jacob Grier’s flip – which he heats up using the traditional method: plunking a red-hot iron poker, called a loggerhead, straight from the fire into the drink. One friend who previously worked at Nashville’s Pinewood Social told me they had a hot Cynar beer flip on the menu when she was there. “I only ever had one person order it in four months,” she says. Probably because, to the average bargoer, “hot beer” isn’t exactly the most appetizing combination of words to appear on a drink menu.

But… could it be?

I’m not a professional bartender, but I do like to mix myself a drink at home. And I really, really love a hot toddy. I even judged a hot toddy competition, with over twenty entries, not one, but two years in a row. I’m still not sure whether that means I’m dedicated or masochistic. Maybe both? 

So, I set out to see whether I could come up with a decent hot beer drink using what I had at home.

Rather than attempting a complex cocktail, I figured I’d shoot for the basic template for mulled wine, which usually involves the base booze, the mulling spices, a sweetening agent, and often, an additional higher-proof element like brandy or port.

My method was equally unscientific and simple: secure a handful of relatively common beer styles, warm each of them up for a half-hour over low heat on the stove with roughly a tablespoon of mulling spices – cinnamon, allspice, and cloves – and determine whether any additional ingredients, such as sugar, citrus, or additional booze, would elevate it into a passable version of hot mulled beer that I’d willingly drink at home.

Here’s how four different beer styles fared when I turned up the heat.

Gray ChapmanStart with raisins, figs, and brown sugar, heat, and add an orange peel?

Beer used: Ommegang Abbey Ale
Ingredients added: Bigallet China-China

To me, a spicy, semi-dark Belgian ale sounded like a pretty suitable base for a hot drink, with their dark fruit and baking spices. Ommegang’s Abbey Ale is reminiscent of Christmas baked goods, with raisins, figs, toast, and brown sugar – basically liquid panettone. Once warm, the beer proved a little too aggressively bitter to stand on its own, so I added a ¾-ounce splash of Bigallet China-China: a French bitter liqueur made from macerated orange peels. The combination tasted like raisin toast with bittersweet orange marmalade. Next time, I might add an orange peel for aromatics, and maybe a stick of cinnamon for maximum holiday effect.

Verdict: Serviceable, but polarizing! If you like bitter cocktails, you might be into this (I do, and I was), but it’s not something you’d want to whip out for a house full of guests unless you know they’re on your level.

Gray ChapmanBut are we sure it's an improvement on the beer?

Beer used: Wicked Weed Milk & Cookies Stout
Ingredients added: St. George NOLA Coffee Liqueur, orange peel

Robust, opaque stouts are pretty much my favorite beer to drink in the winter, and with their characteristic rich roastiness, they have all the makings of a good, sturdy winter warmer. With chocolate, malt, cinnamon, raisins, and vanilla, Wicked Weed’s Milk & Cookies Stout sounded like the Platonic ideal of a warm beer drink. After warming this up with mulling spices, I sweetened it and turned it into kind of a biscotti-and-coffee situation by adding St. George’s NOLA Coffee Liqueur... and topped it off with an orange peel because I’m a total sucker for anything that tastes like these things. It worked – really well, in my opinion.

Verdict: Hell yes. This was really good: rich, smooth, creamy, almost dessert-like – so much that I’m tempted to add whipped cream on top. I’m excited to try this again with a silky oatmeal stout… maybe even for breakfast.

Gray ChapmanSomething about this doesn't make any sense.

Amber ale
Beer used: Creature Comforts Reclaimed Rye
Ingredients added: brown sugar, Laird’s Applejack

I like this Georgia beer so much that I currently have it on tap at home; to me, it sits squarely in the middle of the Venn diagram between “flavorful enough to be interesting” and “drinkable enough to consume regularly without getting sick of it,” which is how I usually pick my home keg beers.

So, I was especially curious to see how its warm, toasty, almost nutty flavor profile would hold up under heat. Served warm, it became maltier and oakier, so I decided to sweeten the pot with a tablespoon of brown sugar. I had pie on the brain, so I tipped an ounce of Laird’s Applejack, an inexpensive blend of apple brandy and neutral grain spirit, into my glass.

Verdict: It was okay – not my top choice, but if I were sitting next to a firepit on a chilly evening and someone handed this to me, I would not recoil in horror. It does smell a bit like apple pie, which is nice.

Gray ChapmanWarmed up... liquid beach? Hmm.

Wheat ale
Beer used: Bell’s Winter White Ale
Ingredients added: Plantation Pineapple Rum, honey syrup, lemon peel

Call me literal, but if any wheat beer would be worthy of a warm winter drink, I figured it was going to be Bell’s Winter White, which is clean and crisp in sort of a bracing, cold weather-appropriate way, but with the fruit and spice from Belgian yeast. As it was mulling, my house began to smell like banana bread.

So, I figured I’d embrace the pseudo-tropical thing going on and add a half-ounce of Plantation Pineapple rum, plus maybe an ounce of honey syrup (made by combining equal parts honey with boiling water) and a lemon peel garnish. The end product tasted a bit like a warmed-up winter riff on a tiki drink: sweet, a little spiced, and a tiny bit tropical.

Verdict: Man, I wanted this to work and it just... did not. The fruity, tropical flavor didn’t translate very well as a hot drink; it was kind of a weird cognitive dissonance to be holding a hot mug that smelled like the beach. Next time, I’d skip the pineapple and go for something like a dark, raisin-y spiced rum to fully embrace that banana bread vibe. It did make my house smell great, though.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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