Mulled ale with its enticing aromas coupled with smooth, warming sweetness is perfect for when the outside temperature is in the vicinity of 17°F. But you knew that.
Now that I have stated the obvious, let me indulge in some fact sharing with a touch of personal sentiment. Mulled ale can be as thought provoking as it is warming:)
Until recently I simply regarded mulled ale as a beverage I’d drink around Christmas if I happened upon it. The less popular sibling of ultra sweet mulled wine and for that reason preferable to me as I am averse to anything too sugar intense. In my not so distant past whenever I could get some warm, spiced beer at Christmas markets I did. Two or three cups, because 1) I like to stay warm as I linger, buy a few things and snack on roasted chestnuts or almonds, 2) it is not a drink one comes by very often, so better take advantage of its availability and 3) it is delicious.
Mulled ale delivers a waft of allspice, nutmeg, anise, cinnamon and clove and coats the tongue with a rich malty sweetness. It is neither acidic, nor bitter, more importantly it is never offensively sweet. In Poland they prepare it with ginger and honey, a little bit different and still quite tasty.
By definition, ‘ale is mulled by sweetening and spicing, then heating; it was sometimes thickened by the beaten yolk of an egg’. The most numerous historical records of mulled ale are from England, it was a very popular drink as far back as the sixteen hundreds, possibly earlier. In the book In Praise of Ale the author this recipe: “One quart of ale, one glass of brandy, two glasses of sherry, and a quarter of a pound of lump sugar. Spice according to the palate. Boil the sugar in half the ale, and then mix the whole together” (scroll to page 608).
In England (and later in Colonial America) people even had special tools to heat ale – from hot pokers to copper cone mullers (sometimes called pointers). I found this informative article, complete with some vivid lifestyles descriptions from English literature if you are interested to learn more.
Certain beer styles lend themselves much better to mulling and selecting the right brew is arguably the most important element in preparing mulled ale. The rest, as already established, consists of warming the beer along with sugar and your preferred selection of spices and adding brandy or Cognac to it. The hard liquor addition is optional, but I highly recommended it, it makes a rather positive difference.
Stay away from overly hoppy beers with high IBUs (clearly IPAs are not promising candidates) and seek out flavorful ales with a strong malty backbone like English milds and brown ales. Also, if you must choose a lager, be sure it is along the lines of a Dunkel, Bock or Doppelbock. Like this spiced bock we used to make Winter Beer Sangria.
Excellent results are being reported from mulling Belgian sour cherry lambics (Kriek(en) lambics), the drink is known as Glühkriek (or Kriek chaud). We have two large bottles of this year’s Kriek brewed by Funkwerks we are saving for Christmas Day and I hope to convince Chris to mull a little of it to start the day (it is going to be crazy, so some mulled Kriek might help). If we do, I will update this post, if not, I will dedicate a full post to Glühkriek in the near future and buy a bottle imported from Belgium. I also found a German recipe for mulled beer that uses Dunkel, rum and citrus juice, very curious to try that one too.
To prepare my recipe and take the pictures in this post I was going to use a local Christmas ale from Breckenridge Brewery that Chris and I really enjoy. It is very well suited for mulling and I do recommend it. However, on the day I had designated to make the mulled ale we received some beer samples by The Microbrewed Beer of the Month Club and I was sooo very happy that one of the boxes contained a few bottles of this beauty below.
Holy beer, that Pickled Santa is beyond delightful on its own and it transformed into a great mulled ale. It is imported from the UK, brewed by a smaller brewery dedicated to the traditional English styles with an amazing brew line up and very interesting story – Ridgeway Brewery. And it was brewed especially for seasonal export and distribution to the US. So thrilled that The Microbrewed Beer of the Month Club sent it to us. I have a post coming up reviewing their various options for monthly shipments.
Pickled Santa is considered a ‘winter warmer’ ale , ie, spiced, higher alcohol content winter beer. Its ABV 6% is actually on the lower side of the spectrum for ‘winter warmers’ and it has this beautiful velvety mouthfeel. I am not sure what the grain bill is, but it really feels creamy, as if some oats were involved. Brewed with fresh spices that the brewery grinds themselves in a rather intriguing way, it’s as if created for mulled ale. I could drink it for weeks to come if I had more. On its own and in mulled ale state. When we go to London next time I definitely want to travel the thirty miles to Ridgeway Brewery and try more of their brews.
In general, when you start mulling ale be sure to pour it in the saucepan or pot before you heat it up. Add the sugar and spices and slowly bring to simmer, never let the beer come to a boil. Once it has simmered briefly you can keep in on low heat for hours (the alcohol will eventually all be gone) and the spice presence will intensify. Or you can serve it shortly after it has simmered – your choice. I recommend adding the brandy before serving the mulled ale if you want it to be strong.
- 2 12 oz Christmas ale (you will use only one 12 oz bottle and a half)
- 2½ tbsp dark brown sugar (use more if you want ale to taste really sweet)
- 4-6 cloves (to taste)
- 2 star anise
- 1 cinnamon stick
- ½ tsp ground nutmeg
- 6 pieces orange peel (thin top layer of skin only, without the bitter white layer)
- 3 oz brandy (substitute with Cognac if you feel like splurging)
- In a saucepan or small pot mix the ale (one and a half bottles, 18 oz total) with the brown sugar and nutmeg, immerse the cloves, star anise, cinnamon stick and orange peel.
- Bring to gentle simmer (do not allow to boil), stir for sugar to dissolve and let simmer for 2-3 min to become well infused with the spices.
- Remove from heat and add the brandy.
- Serve in mugs with an orange slice and enjoy responsibly.