The idea seems strange today, but heated ale drinks were once staples of home and tavern life. They provided warmth on chilly nights and nutrition when meals were scarce. And although we’re in the midst of a craft brewing renaissance in which no style of beer is too exotic or obscure to bring to market, warmed ales are conspicuous by their absence.
If the allure of hot beer is mysterious, it helps to consider that both the beer and the setting were very different when these drinks were popular. Today’s crisp, clear lagers and bitter, hoppy IPAs are not conducive to being at enjoyed at high temperatures. Prior to the 20th century, English and American drinkers were more likely to be quaffing malty ales. These fermented quickly without refrigeration, and at their best they offered a full-bodied sweetness that could be enjoyed unchilled or even hot.
They weren’t always at their best, however. Publicans could let them go stale and the ales were prone to spoilage by bacterial invaders. As historian Maureen Ogle writes in Ambitious Brew, a history of beer in America, “Wise drinkers edged toward a mug of ale, taking a delicate first sip in order to find out whether the tankard contained sweet beer or sour; a thick, yeasty pleasure or a rank broth with the taste and texture of muddy water.”