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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Failures in Mulling Beer

Last night, I cracked open a bottle of the Kill Devil, one of the beers in the Widmers' Brothers Reserve series.  It came out weeks and weeks ago, but such is my life that I only just got around to drinking it.  Kill Devil is a high-concept beer that I guess you could place roughly in the abbey tradition.  It's dark and brewed with all kinds of sugar--molasses, palm sugar, and toffee, and aged in rum barrels (sugar liquor) for good measure.  The result is ... sweet.  This is perhaps the sweetest beer I've ever tasted.

About halfway through my glass--and also halfway through the first episode of Grimm, filmed in Portland, I had to check it out--I had an idea.  I was reminded of my conversation with Carlo Grootaert of De Struise Brouwers, when he described the origin of Pannepot.  Here's what he told me:
Photo credit: Drew
I heard that in my family, there were homebrewers at the time—100 years ago. The women were the brewers because the men were at sea to catch herrings. The women made beer in the wintertime on the stove. [Carlo comes from the village of De Panne, and from the village they fish in flat-bottomed boats called pannepots] The label is actually my great-granddad’s boat, the B-50.

Anyway, the women made beer on the stove and they didn’t like cold beer at the time. It was so strong and sweet and very alcoholic so they kept in a little cask in the cellar. If they wanted some beer, they went down with the jug and tapped off some beer—it was flat. But they didn’t like cold beer. So they had to heat it up. So they put the metal poker in the fire and it was glowing red, and when they put it in the thick beer (it didn’t have a name, it was called “thick beer”) with lots of sugars in it and the sugars instantly caramelized. It gave it a roasted, caramelized flavor.
No doubt you see where this is headed.  "So strong and sweet and very alcoholic."  I didn't build a fire in order to heat up a poker, but I did heat up the beer, thinking at the time--"this is going to be genius."  I imagined sparking a minor fad in mulled Kill Devil.  I foresaw our annual holiday party, me presiding over a bubbling cauldron of Kill Devil as the clamoring hordes thrust mugs toward my ladle.  And then I tasted it.

Let's just say that modern beers are probably not the best source for warmed beers.  Through my heated alchemy, I simultaneously thinned out Kill Devil and brought the heretofore invisible hops out in a medicinal, clashing rush.  The alcohol volatilized and created a toxic miasma where the aroma should have been--sharp and stinging like wasabi.  Not good.

Incidentally, I asked Carlo if he would recommend mulling De Struise's Pannepot.  No, he said, absolutely not.  It was only later that I remembered that part.


  1. That's awesome and hilarious. Love the story. How long did you heat the beer? Did you basically reduce it down a bit?

  2. Sometimes knowing what NOT to do is the important part. Thanks for sharing; now we'll be saved from going down that same, wrong path.

  3. the Brewing up Cocktails crew has successfully created many a hot mulled beer and found the way not to do it is heat it on a stove. Our mulled Wassail recipe that I believe you tried once Jeff is a classic example. More recently the Hot Chocklat has been very popular Let's also not forget Cascade's Glueh Kriek, one of my favorites.

  4. Rich, no, I just brought it to a warm temp. I was going to say that a reduction might have been a good call (long, slow simmer?) until Ezra came in.

    It's true, I did try that Wassail. I wonder if I'd thrown some citrus in if it wouldn't have mitigated some of the harshness I brought forth.

    Hmm, more study...

  5. never simmer or boil the beer. Your changing the properties of the beer bringing out metallic flavors and sharpening the hops. A crock pot or soup heater that takes a very gradual heat without changing the compounds is ideal. It's just like homebrewing, the hot break is key in brewing, once you hit that everything changes and you dont want that if mulling a beer.

  6. In the winter I actually warm up barleywines quite often. I think I got the idea from NW brewing news several years ago. I do heat it very very slowly and only until it is just warm, never simmering or boiling. It is definitely not for everyone, but I really like it.