Beer trends of the past three years have gotten stranger and stranger, but the latest craze is something straight out of a Stefon sketch.
It’s that thing of when, like, a man in lederhosen quenches a fireplace poker in your stein of German lager...
“Beer poking” is the practice of caramelizing beer with a two-foot steel rod called a “loggerhead” that’s been heated over smoldering embers. The tradition is, of course, German in origin, and it historically took place to commemorate Doppelbock season in late winter or early spring. Now, thanks to the dangerous and seemingly limitless curiosity of American drinkers, it’s making a resurgence.
Austin’s Strange Land Brewery made national news when they hosted their first beer poking in 2017, but unsurprisingly, Minnesota has been ground zero for the phenomenon. Fitger’s Brewhouse and Lake Superior Brewing have been giving bocks the brûlée treatment at their joint Bockfest for some years, and just last month, Northbound Smokehouse offered patrons the chance to warm up their Eisbock with red-hot Rebar.
Dig a bit deeper, and you’ll find it was New Ulm’s August Schell Brewing Company who modernized and Americanized beer poking way back in 1986. “We’ve been doing this for 30 years,” says Ted Marti, president of August Schell. Marti’s been at the helm of August Schell since before their very first Bock Fest, when he claims fire-poking beer was innovated. “It was an old German tradition. When they went to the bar, they didn’t like cold beer, so they literally had warmers, little warmer sticks, that they’d use to warm up the beer a little bit.”
Marti posits that those old Germans probably didn’t use iron fire pokers like Schell’s does at Bock Fest, but the effect on the beer is the same today as it was then. Inserting the extra-hot iron caramelizes sugar in the beer. The added layer of browning makes a poked Bock taste like s’mores or dulche de leche.
Dark beers like stouts and brown ales are most pleasantly affected by hot poking. (Beer website October found that, were you to inject a near-molten core of iron into, say, a Yuengling, it would actually suck quite a bit.) Doppelbocks, eisenbocks, and occasionally maibocks are the most popular styles for poking -- not only for the sake of tradition but also because of their pervasive nuttiness and sweetness.
“When you bring up the temperature of beer, you get a torrent of aromatics,” Marti says. “When you do it with the fire pokers, it’s a whole different flavor.”
The loggerhead itself was a common tool for 19th Century shipbuilders, but pub owners would keep them on hand to warm drinks (such as the traditional rum flip) and cauterize wounds. They’re far less common today, thus the pokers and Rebar, but that’s changing as well.
Bent Paddle started hot-poking beers at their Festiversary celebration, and it’s something they carried into the ski party they hosted in Lutsen last January. They got into the practice for the same reason as Schell’s: A smoldering loggerhead makes drinking beer outside in winter just a little bit more bearable. “You’re left with a distinctive, almost roasted or burned marshmallow flavor,” says Bent Paddle co-founder and CEO Bryon Tonnis. “It also beats some of the carbonation out of the beer, so it’s a thicker, creamier experience.”
On January 14, Bent Paddle released their Doppelbock German-Style Ale (a former entry in their one-off Valve Jockey series), and they hopped on Facebook to encourage their drinkers to try poking it at home.
For that, there’s the Beer Caramelizer (recently reviewed by, uh, Urban Daddy), a Wisconsin-made loggerhead explicitly used for caramelizing beers. The product, one of a few on the market, lets pyromaniac beer nerds take the fun of Bock Fest home. That way, you won’t have to ruin your hair straightener to get a toasty warm beer.
Though tickled by the idea of the Beer Caramelizer, Tonnis doesn’t suggest running household implements over the stove and plunging them into pints for kicks. Beer poking needs a certain context to be effective. It requires a certain moment.
“Hang out at a campfire, drink some beer, and poke it,” Tonnis says. “It’s less about altering the beer in some kind of way, it’s more about the experience of gathering together outside around a fire in winter and doing kinda cool that people don’t do on a regular basis.”
Schell’s Bock Fest
August Schell Brewing Company
March 2, 11 a.m.
March 14–16, 5 p.m.