Mulled Ale: Warm Beer for Cold Nights

The hot, spiced drink is a centuries-old winter warmer
December 18, 2020 Updated: December 18, 2020

We are now entering the season when “ice cold” doesn’t necessarily sound like the best thing—maybe even for beer. Winter seasonal beers are often heavier brews, stronger in alcohol or thicker in body and maltiness (think imperial stouts), and get more flavorful as they warm up a bit toward room temperature. But what about flat-out heating the stuff? Cider, wine, and a few cocktails winterize well, so why not beer?

The tradition of mulled beer is perhaps lesser known today than its wine cousin, but goes back at least to the 17th century in England. Often considered a health drink that could combat fevers, colds, and other ale-ments, mulled beer was sometimes served with an egg in it, perhaps approaching the heft of a proper meal. Oh, and did I mention workers drank it in the morning, like taking one’s vitamins?

References and recipes are abundantly from the UK, but the Germans have Glühbier, a sibling to Glühwein (mulled wine), and the Belgians heat up kriek beer with spices as well. Recipes, of course, vary, but typical sweeteners are brown sugar or honey, while common spices include ginger, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, and coriander, as well as star anise, which has the added bonus of looking rather Christmas-y with its star shape, or even juniper berries, which seem to beg for gin as an easy and readily available substitution.

Pre-made bottled varieties can be warmed in a water bath of about 105 degrees F, but making your own may be more fun and adjustable to your tastes.

RECIPE: Basic Mulled Ale

Serves 2 to 3

  • 24 ounces ale or lager (generally something malty, but lagers or even wheat beers have been used; overly bitter hopped beers aren’t the best), divided
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 4 cloves
  • 2 star anise
  • Several long strips orange zest (avoid the bitter white pith)
  • 3 to 4 ounces brandy or dark rum

In a pot, mix 18 ounces of the ale with the sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon stick, cloves, star anise, and orange peel. Slowly bring this to a low simmer; do not boil. Aim to simmer for about 20 minutes to start. The longer you leave it, the more the seasonings will infuse, but this also boils off the alcohol eventually. But no worries there: Remove from heat and add the remaining 6 ounces of beer and the brandy or rum. Serve in mugs, garnished with an orange slice and cinnamon stick.

To Egg or Not to Egg

Add some body and texture to mulled beer with a bit of egg. For each serving, separate a yolk from its white (use the white later, maybe for a whiskey sour!), and whisk the yolk very well with 2 teaspoons of sugar, until it looks more white than yellow. Add a couple ounces of the unheated beer to dilute this so it doesn’t go scrambled on you when you add it to the warm mixture. Stir it in and heat the whole mixture about 5 minutes more, then pour and serve.

Juice It Up

Grzaniec or Grzane Piwo is the Polish version of mulled beer. For each serving, use half a liter of lager (Zywiec if it’s available), and heat only half of the beer in a pot over low heat with 1 to 2 tablespoons of honey, 1/2 cup orange juice, 1 cinnamon stick, 2 cloves, and 2 thin, peeled slices of ginger. Let it cook slowly for 20 minutes. You do not want this to boil, but to heat to about 150 to 170 degrees F. When you take the pot off the heat to serve, add the remaining beer and perhaps the egg yolk.

RECIPE: The Dog’s Nose

I have to love a literary reference, and this mulled ale recipe gets a mention in Charles Dickens’s novel “The Pickwick Papers,” wherein a character “is not certain whether he did not twice a week, for 20 years, taste ‘dog’s nose,’” which was “compounded of warm porter, moist sugar, gin, and nutmeg.” Be warned that said character ended up “out of work and penniless.”

With the variety of gins out there—and for that matter, porters—you can get a nice variety of flavors just by playing around with the base ingredients. Not a juniper fan? Use a craft-distilled gin with alternative botanicals giving it dominant flavors that can be citrusy, spicy, or even sweet. Chocolate porter? Vanilla or coffee stout? As you wish. It’s the holidays, after all.

Serves 1

  • 1 pint of porter or stout (perhaps Guinness)
  • 2 teaspoons brown sugar
  • 1 to 2 ounces gin (London dry for the juniper)
  • A pinch of nutmeg

Heat the beer, adding the sugar until it dissolves. Pour into a glass with the gin and pinch of nutmeg.

Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler and the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey,” and several outdoor and brewery guidebooks. He is based in Madison, Wis., and his website is TheMadTraveler.com