The holidays are upon us, the pilsners and margarita mix are put away and the search is on for something truly festive. Holiday ales are nice, and so is a nip of something spirituous, like a well-aged rum. But nice as these are, they don’t have the drama of something rich and creamy, topped with a billowing cloud of whipped cream and dusted with the musky joy of nutmeg. It’s gotta be that last culinary survivor of jolly old England, eggnog.
At a smart holiday party last year, the host had taken the trouble to whip up a batch of homemade eggnog. It was prepared sans alcohol, so celebrants could enjoy it unadulterated or spike it with bourbon or high-quality rum, as suited one’s taste. As a beer fancier of high pedigree, this host had also laid in a store of tasty beers, holiday and otherwise. I immediately seized on the opportunity to recreate history and use the ale to spike the nog.
Gasps ensued, but after a few nervous sips, the nog got very beery.
While the idea of adding beer to eggnog may seem strange to us, “strong ale” would have been an essential part of all such early drinks. Eggnog is just one surviving member of a once large family of compounded beverages with ale as a base, and more often than not, served hot.
While this is not a typical homebrewing column that gives direction for brewing and fermenting a beer, these early mixed drinks were considered brews in their own right, and offer much the same kind of satisfaction, although in a much shorter time frame.
Caudle, Hugmatee and Flip
A few recipes have survived from Renaissance times. A thick drink called “ale-brue” or “ale-berry” was ale boiled with spices, sugar and sops of bread, often with the addition of oatmeal. One ditty goes: “Ale brue thus make thou shall/With grotes [oats], safroun and good ale.” Such porridge-like drinks later came to be known as “caudle,” and were popular in the American colonies.
No less a figure than Sir Walter Raleigh had a personal recipe for “sack posset,” which actually sounds a lot like eggnog. “Boil a quart of cream with quantum sufficit of sugar, mace and nutmeg, take half a pint of sack [sweet sherry] and the same quantity of ale, and boil them together.” He suggests letting it all mull together in a covered pewter bowl by the fire for a couple of hours. I would estimate between half and a whole cup of sugar and 1/8 tsp each of nutmeg and mace as “sufficit.”
Seventeenth century England saw a craze for “buttered ale,” which was composed of unhopped ale (by then just about extinct) mixed with sugar and cinnamon, heated and topped off with a dollop of butter. Samuel Pepys mentions it in his famous diaries as a morning pick-me-up.
A century later, a wild profusion of “beer cups” were the rage. The particulars are lost now, but tantalizing names such as “Humpty Dumpty,” “clamber-down,” “hugmatee,” and “knock-me-down” offer clues to the nature—or at least the effect—of these drinks. Not far from the slightly racy names of cocktails today.
Flip, which was also known as “yard of flannel,” had a good long run in England, the Colonies and elsewhere, and featured several unique qualities. A contemporary recipe advises, “Place in a saucepan [over a burner] one quart of strong ale altogether with lumps of sugar well-rubbed over the rind of a lemon, and a small piece of cinnamon. Take off the fire, add a glass of cold ale. Have a jug with six egg yolks all beaten up with powdered sugar and grated nutmeg, stirring while doing so. Pour back and forth until nice and frothy.” A contemporary recipe suggests about half a pound of sugar for a similar quantity. A few ounces of rum was also a common stiffener.
This detailed recipe omits one of the most dramatic—and some would say essential—steps in the flip-making process. The warm beverage is further heated by the insertion of a glowing hot fireplace poker called a loggerhead. This causes the mixture to boil violently and creates a smoky, caramelized flavor much prized by flipophiles. The term “at loggerheads” refers to arguments escalated by the easy availability of these iron bars. I have been utterly unable to locate any antiques sold in modern times with that name or specified function, so it seems likely to me that the old-timers just wiped the ashes off the regular poker, got it nice and hot and proceeded to caramelize their flip.
Another flip tradition is a unique drinking glass associated with it. These are shaped like stubby shaker pint glasses, often decorated with molded or engraved designs, and range in size from less than a pint to wastebasket-size behemoths holding six quarts or more. These were passed around the party, and must have been a test of coordination and strength, and possibly sobriety as well. One I own, circa 1800 and decorated with stylized palm trees, weighs more than ten pounds when filled.
A Nod to Nog
It’s just a short hop from flip to eggnog. George Washington was kind enough to leave us a formula, and it appears to be considerably more appetizing than his famous beer recipe: “1 pint brandy, 1/2 pint rye whiskey, 1/2 pint Jamaica rum, 1/4 pint sherry, [unspecified number of] eggs, 12 tbsp sugar, 1 1/2 quarts milk, 1 quart cream.” The sugar is creamed into the yolks, then the milk and cream are added, then beaten egg whites. He counsels, “Let set in a cool place for several days, taste frequently.” Yeah, I bet he did.
Contemporary recipes are similar. A typical nonalcoholic procedure has us separate four eggs, beat the yolks with a half a cup of sugar until smooth, mix in 1 1/2 cups of milk and a cup of cream and season with a little nutmeg or mace and sometimes a dash of vanilla before folding in the beaten egg whites. Many recipes call for the cream to be whipped before adding, and I think this does improve the texture. I should mention that the prepared stuff sold in milk cartons is beneath consideration. Make it fresh or don’t bother.
The recipe above makes an ideal base for our experimenting with making beernog. A reasonable approach is to fill a 12-oz glass one-third full of hearty ale, adding a half an ounce of bourbon, rye or dark rum, then topping up with the prepared nog mixture, leaving room for a dollop of whipped froth on top. Really puts you in the holiday spirit.
But what kind of beer is best? In our little test taste, we had success with Anchor Christmas ale, and I expect any similar dark, wassail-y holiday ale would fit right in. Barley wine, imperial stout, doppelbock and Scotch ale all work well, and we even found that the sweet mixture made for a palatable drink even when mixed with a strong, hoppy pale ale, although the bitterness was not to everyone’s taste.
And on Christmas Eve, did you ever think that Santa might be sick of milk and cookies? What he’d really like is beernog! That’ll get the kids their stockings filled.
Note: These eggnog recipes call for raw eggs. While this is traditional and done every day with no harm, some health experts recommend against the practice. If you’re dubious, specially processed eggs made to be consumed raw may be available in a health food store in your area. Otherwise, stick to the heated drinks.
A brewer since 1984, Randy Mosher is a nationally recognized writer and authority on brewing and beer styles. He is the author of The Brewer’s Companion (Alephenalia Publications, 1984), Radical Brewing (Brewers Publications, 2004) and Tasting Beer: An Insider’s Guide to the World’s Best Drink (Storey, March 2009). In addition, Mosher consults on package design and branding.