I think it’s human nature to believe that the olden times were boring and monochromatic. The people were more innocent, their interests less racy, their choices few and limited by what would grow on the back forty. That may be true of most things, but not beer. Beam back 300 years, and you’d find an orgy of exotica inhabiting the average pint glass. One of my favorite descriptions, from a 17th-century source, suggests starting with wheat and oats and “one bushel of beans.” It continues: “once fermentation begins thirteen flavorings are added, including three pounds of the inner rind of a fir tree…” Another source, from the 1500s, mentioned laurel, ivy, henbane (a poison) and chimney soot. Tasty!
But even more interesting were cocktails our ancestors made out of beer, wine, cider, mead, and liquor. They would allow these several potables to commingle together in a way that seems almost scandalous to our modern sensibilities. Splash rum in your beer? Borderline hedonistic. (Who’s the puritan now?) One of the more popular veins of booze cocktails were mulled beverages, often with ingredients like eggs, apples, and toast thrown in for good measure. (Which makes sense when you recall that 16th-century buildings were ill-heated and drafty.) Wild times.
You don’t even have to go back all that far to find these strange drinks. When I spent an afternoon with De Struise’s Carlo Grootaert a few years back, he described his grandmother’s practice of keeping a cask of homebrew in the chilly basement. When the family wanted a tipple, she’d fetch a pail of the stuff and bring it to the hearth. Then, “they’d put the metal poker in the fire and [when] it was glowing red, they put it in the beer. It gave it a roasted, caramelized flavor.” The homemade ale didn’t have a name—Grootaert said they just called it “thick beer”—but it stuck in his memory. It’s the preparation that inspired him to make De Struise’s Pannepot.
Grootaert’s story that transfixed me at the time, and I even tried mulling beer when I got back to the States. The trouble is, these recipes are not very specific, and it’s hard to know what kind of beer to use, which beans to add (kidney, green, soy?), or how to handle henbane without killing yourself. It’s why I was really fascinated to see Portland mixologist Jacob Grier take a crack at these old concoctions as he was writing Cocktails on Tap: the Art of Mixing Spirits and Beer. For years, he’s been hosting events where these exotic cocktails these were served, both old-timey recreations and new inventions, and I have grown slowly more comfortable with the proposition that adulterating your beer with bourbon and spice may not be as heterodox as I first imagined.
The pièce de résistance came this February, though, and after that I became a convert. Grier calls it a “flip,” but it was exactly what Grootaert’s grandmother used to make in Flanders. Behold.
Beer drinkers have to reorient their palates when approaching these cocktails. For pedants like me who search for hallmarks of beer ingredient and process to help navigate our way through the experience, it can be disorienting. Of the flip, I made notes that included “ferrous, metallic, bloodlike.” Another patron took a sip and said, “It tastes like a Civil War battlefield.”
These are not descriptions beer writers use. They’re also not the way beer is supposed to taste. If you believe beer is a perfected, finished state, adding rum and a hot poker can only be seen as adulterants. But it’s worth putting on your 16th-century hat and approaching these odd potions with a broader mindset. Beer doesn’t need rum and fire to improve it; on the other hand, beer can add something to a cocktail other ingredients can’t. Don’t think of them as adulterated beer; think of them as enhanced cocktails.
That’s Grier’s thinking. “As with any other cocktail, it’s mostly about understanding ingredients, how to balance them in a drink, and how flavors complement each other.” His book is divided into modern and old-timey cocktails, and the modern ones benefit from the strong, hoppy and well-attenuated beers made today. “You can make some drinks just by topping a glass with beer,” Grier says. “But you can also use powerfully flavored beers in smaller amounts or transform them into syrups.” He uses IPAs, with their intensely citrusy flavors, to create things like Yakima Sling, Slow Clap and Mai Ta-IPA (a mai tai with IPA). Grier deploys witbier regularly and also saison, as in his Portland Rickey, which was selected as the official cocktail at the 2013 Tales of the Cocktail conference.
Perhaps because I’ve been reading Martyn Cornell so long, I am more intrigued by the old recreations, particularly the mulled ones. Those cocktails require beer that is increasingly rare—malty, sweet, brown or black in color. “I went through a lot of Morland Old Speckled Hen, Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome, and Anchor Porter while trying those recipes.” The recipes he suggests are as bizarre as the ones Cornell documents. Lamb’s Wool, for example, uses apple puree, which floats to the surface of a sugary mulled ale, giving it its name. Or check out Royal Posset.
“I’m not going to lie. This is a weird drink. As if this chapter’s exploration of hot beer and eggs wasn’t already strange enough, the Posset takes things to the next level by adding milk or cream and intentionally making it curdle… Don’t be put off by the strange procedure. This drink is actually very enjoyable, with a richness comparable to eggnog.”
I haven’t yet tried the Posset, but I did sample Grier’s Hot Scotchy a few years back and fell in love. What these old potions have in common are incredibly intense flavors—much like modern beers. The Hot Scotchy is made by adding a shot of Islay Scotch to fresh wort (purportedly an old brewer’s tipple). The smoke of peated malt and the sweet wholesomeness of the malt combine to make a drink that’s at once cocktail and dessert. Grier’s Flip was much more adult-tasting, full of brimstone and carbon. I’ll try the Posset soon to see what curdled milk can add to the mix.
Modernity isn’t always the most vivid of times. It brought us the flavorless apple, corn syrup and light beer. It benefits us to remind ourselves of what people were eating and drinking before chemists learned to create flavor in a test tube. In a time when we are looking for ever more novel flavors, we might learn something by looking backward first.