Echoes of the past drift in my thoughts… scenes from an old farmhouse where, as a young adult, my friends and I warmed ourselves by the fireplace from late autumn harvest through winter snows. Not just one fireplace, though. This house had one in every room, including the six bedrooms upstairs. One in the kitchen was impressive, with a firebox so high we could dance inside, if we dared.
My imagination always ran wild, watching the fire consume such a hulking space. It was easy to feel the spirits of bygone generations, the women cooking soups in huge copper kettles while the men went about, mulling their ale.
Beginning around the 17th century, mulled ale was a staple in every household, a comfort item that was routinely enjoyed. It developed into a love affair that lasted for three centuries. So intense was this affair that an author, identified only as F.W., wrote “A Treatise of Warm Beer,” a volume of 143 pages extolling the benefits of this hot beverage.
These days, we can hardly imagine such a practice. The advent of gas and electric stoves made mulling ale a hassle and it soon disappeared. But evidence of this practice can be found in many antiques shops, from Stoudtburg Village in Adamstown to Skippack PA, and onward throughout Lambertville, NJ.
The items used for mulling carry funny names: asses ears, hooters, loggerheads, flipdogs, boots, slippers, and hottles. The fact that so many pet names exist for these items is a testament to their popularity. Some were nothing more than pokers, heated in a fire; then plunged into cellared ale. Boots and slippers carried the ale in a cupped section, while the toe was heated at the fire, transferring the heat to the beverage. Asses ears, also called hooters, are reminiscent of Xenainspired armor. They were cone-shaped, fashioned of copper, lined in tin, and complete with a handle. Some were pint sized, while others held as much as three pints. They could be filled with ale and plunged, by their point, directly into the hot coals, or heated without liquid; then immersed into a pewter mug filled with ale.
In some cases, sugar and spices were added. The lower classes in England, particularly sailors, drank a variation in which brandy and sugar were the extra ingredients. They called it Flip. But America wasn’t so judgmental. The higher classes in New England regularly enjoyed this Flip beverage, along with hot cider. They heated these specialties with flip-irons, also called loggerheads, flipdogs, or hottles.
Germans were not excluded from this practice of drinking warm ale. They used a tool called a Bierwärmer. This was a tube, filled with boiling water that was gingerly lowered into the mug. It had a hook that hung on the side, and often came with a stand to hold it upright when not in use.
I felt compelled to taste a bit of the past, to heat up my chilly autumn nights with a selection of Pumpkin Ales. These ales are luscious on their own, perfect with cranberries and nuts, warm oatmeal cookies, spiced breads, roasted duck and turkey club sandwiches. Mulling in a fire adds a bit of romanticism and smokiness that would be lost in a microwave, but the modern efficiency of the latter is hard to beat. My beer head took on the appearance of moussey foam, while the spiciness heightened. I was careful not to raise the temperature to boiling, knowing that the hops would impart an unpleasant bitterness with too much heat. A cinnamon stick and spritz-ofnutmeg served as garnish.
The Autumn Mulling
Devious Imperial Pumpkin from Fegley’s BrewWorks stands malty and spiceinfused at 9% ABV. Its coppery body seems to glow in the firelight, begging to be the first hot beverage in my lineup. Brewed with pumpkin, nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, ginger and clove, Devious does not disappoint, whether served cold or with added heat. The alcohol delivers a power-punch when warmed – one that you won’t notice until pink elephants bounce in your brain.
Sam Calagione’s idea for Dogfish Head Punkin Ale debuted with Delaware’s Punkin Chunkin event in 1994. Selected as the first place recipe winner in the Punkin competition, Punkin Ale was a winner even before the brewery opened in 1995. Crafted with real pumpkin, spices and brown sugga’, it clocks-in at 7% ABV. As a perfectly balanced, fullflavored seasonal, Punkin Ale, when mulled, lies on the palate with silkiness that sizzles in the warmth.
Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale arrives in autumn like a luscious pie, full of gourd-like richness, clove, nutmeg and cinnamon. With its towering 8% ABV, it transforms into instant seduction with a little heat. Whiskey Barrel Aged Brown Ale, also a Weyerbacher delight, sparkles as dark as Columbian coffee, with garnet red highlights around the edges. The nose is full of dark bread maltiness, caramel, molasses, bourbon, peat, leather and oak. This combination of flavors and aromas is brought to the foreground when put to the coals, although it stands firm on its own with a beefy steak, dripping in savory juices.
And what about other styles? Great Lakes Oktoberfest, with its toasty breadiness, liberates Märzen as a style the Germans may well have embraced in their Bierwärmer. Stunningly orange, with brilliant clarity, the head rises up like a velvet blanket to the gentle touch of heat. Delicate flavors are enhanced, and I cannot bring myself to add sugar or spices that may interrupt the sweetness inherent in this style. Fegley’s Bagpiper’s Scotch Ale is perfection in the warmer though, and a little brandy turns this already assertive wee heavy into a potent little animal.
Mulling is not befitting to all autumn beers. Some ignite their own heat in the provocative form of sexual desire. Dock Street’s September 26th release of Spanish Fly is one of these beers that may infuse fire as swiftly as Casanova propositioned Aphrodite in infinite escapades. Brewed with wormwood, yarrow and ginger – herbal aphrodisiacs, cultivated on the rooftop garden of the Four Seasons Hotel – this appropriately French-style Biere de Garde sports a heathen earthiness and Belgique ambience. As a Beer Four All Seasons, it remains a limited-edition, Dock Street exclusive, available in champagne-style bottles at the Four Seasons Hotel following its debut on the elegant Swann Terrace.