Hot Cross Beer
It’s days like today (ahem, “RealFeel”: -4 degrees) when a cold beer simply makes me shiver. I turn to room-temp-friendly sippers like barleywines and dubbels. But bock season is nearly upon us, and that means only one thing – warm beer.
Have you tried plunging a red-hot fireplace poker into your beer recently, or asked someone to do the same? If you’ve been to Schell’s Bockfest, you know what I mean. Maybe you don’t have the gumption (or the fireplace) to try this at home. But why do we do it?
I recently attended Northbound Smokehouse’s annual hot poking of the eisbock, and overheard some rather incomplete explanations as to why the tradition exists. It’s a favorite event of mine, in addition to the Schell’s festival, which is nationally known for the odd tradition. Unsatisfied as to its origin story, I did some digging.
As John Holl writes in All About Beer, “The idea of warming a beer with a hot poker is likely a German creation, and there are a handful of breweries in the United States keeping the tradition alive.” The hot poker, sometimes called a loggerhead, is often made of iron.
Bock, the malty and smooth beer with Northern German roots, comes alive in the darkest, coldest months of the year. While there are many variants of bock (including eisbock – made by concentrating the alcohol through freezing), the original is the most ubiquitous stateside. It’s characterized by relatively high alcohol with a smooth body and an intense caramel flavor. A bock should never be heavy or hot.
That’s just where the poker comes in. The process is called Bierstacheln in German. According to the sister brewer-owners of Meinel-Bräu in Hof, Germany, the hot metal spike reaches a temperature of about 1000 degrees. A beer like bock, which has residual sugars, reacts with the heat and results in a rapid caramelization. I simply love the effect this has on the beer — a dense foam head, almost like a latte, suddenly appears on the beer, just begging to be sipped. The foam is warm while the beer barely changes in temperature. Each sip has an irresistible contrast!
The sleuth ladies over at Crafty Beer Girls got to the origin of this, and it’s brilliantly pragmatic:
“The bierstacheln tradition owes its creation to the art of blacksmithing. Beer was typically kept outside or in a cold cellar during the winter months. The beer was too cold to enjoy directly from storage, so it would need to be warmed up somehow before drinking. Using the knowledge of their trade, blacksmiths would naturally use a hot piece of metal to warm the beer up to an enjoyable temperature. The resulting beer was much improved, with the added effect of elevated flavors and aromas.”
And there you have it. What began as a necessary de-icing process lead to a desirable flavor. So desirable that I’m willing to stand outside in subzero temps for one hot poke.
If, like me, you’re curious about the possibility of losing one toe to frostbite for the sake of Bierstacheln at Schell’s, 2019 Bockfest is Saturday, March 2nd. If you’re the DIY type, see Holl’s at-home tips.