When it comes to restorative boozy beverages enjoyed on cold winter nights, hot toddies have enjoyed their reign for years. And while they may very well remain on top for decades to come, a relatively unknown but increasingly popular alternative is brewing in Portland, Oregon.
Every winter, Cascade Brewing releases a limited-edition, seasonal brew called Glueh Kriek. “It’s pronounced glue creek, like Elmer’s glue,” Kevin Martin, Cascade’s lead blender, helpfully explains. A blended sour ale flavored with Bing and tart pie cherries, spiced, and served warm, Glueh Kriek is a winter special available just four months per year.
Glueh Kriek’s closest kin is mulled ale, an ancient beverage traditionally made by thrusting a red-hot poker into spiced beer. Known as glühkriek in Belgium and glühwein in Germany, mulled ales and hot beer cocktails resembling flips have been recorded as far back as the 15th century. Variations on the theme list ingredients ranging from egg yolks to rum, cubed bread, hot milk, wine, and spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, and ginger.
Historically, these beverages were more about using beer to solve such issues as the absence of refrigeration or reliable indoor heating than gastronomic innovation. In a 2016 deep dive into the origins of hot beer, DRAFT magazine unearthed this chestnut from an 1845 edition of The New York Spectator: “There is nothing in the world so democratic as mulled ale; it is an arch leveller of all conventional dignity.”
Cascade’s 8.6 percent ABV Glueh Kriek is served at approximately 160 degrees Fahrenheit and garnished with a clove-studded orange slice. Martin credits its inception to Cascade brewmaster Ron Gansberg, who was inspired by his travels through Central Europe.
“These products have existed for a long time in Central Europe, usually made with wine,” Martin says. Cascade’s beer-only approach bucks tradition, but there’s a huge variety in this style.
In recent years, a few bold bartenders have tried their hands at hot-beer-and-spirit cocktails. Anthony Bruno kept mulled stout in a crockpot behind the bar of Plank Town Brewing Company in Springfield, Oregon. His lightly sweetened version was spiced with tarragon, bay leaf, black pepper, and grapefruit zest, and spiked with coffee liqueur. “I wanted something for customers coming in out of the cold,” he told The Wall Street Journal.
Cascade is currently the only American brewery that regularly releases a hot beer. (It even offers a mulled apple sour as an autumnal precursor every fall, building anticipation for the annual Glueh Kriek winter release.) In 2013, Dogfish Head partnered with Eataly’s Birreria on a limited-quantity hot beer, FLIP Ale. It was sold exclusively at its brewpub and heated with custom-made grog irons. Cleveland’s Great Lakes Brewing Company has also put out a one-off in years past.
The logistics of producing a flash-heated beer prohibit most commercial enterprises from even attempting it, but the technology has come a long way since the days of hot pokers. Cascade uses a 120-foot-long stainless steel coil that acts as a heat exchanger leading directly to the barroom tap. When a bartender pulls the tap handle, the beer moves from the keg through the coil, jumping from 36 to 38 degrees to around 160 degrees in a matter of seconds. This rapid heating technique preserves the characteristics of the beer, unlike an earlier method of transferring the beer from kegs into Crock-Pots to keep it warm.
“The problem is, as soon as you remove it from the keg, you begin losing carbonation and some of the nice spice volatiles,” Martin says. “The spicy aromas start to blow off in the air, which makes the pub smell great, but that’s less flavor and aroma in the glass. You can even start to get some oxidation if it’s in there for a while.”
Cascade’s Glueh Kriek uses equal parts sour red and blonde ales that have been aged in oak wine barrels for 14 months. It’s then back-sweetened with wildflower honey and infused with winter spices. The base beer remains the same every year but, since it’s a relatively small batch, even slight changes in temperature can noticeably alter the acidity in the fruit harvest.
“We’re trying to strike a balance of sweetness and acidity and spice,” says Martin. “What we’ve found is we can’t successfully just say year after year, ‘well, it takes 200 pounds of honey,’ because one year that’ll be plenty and the next year it won’t be.”
The hot beer concept may be foreign to many contemporary drinkers, but Cascade’s unusual offering draws Portland locals and beer travelers every year without fail. “When the weather starts turning in Portland, we start to get a lot of calls and emails requesting this beer, wanting to know when it goes on,” Martin says. “It’s been one of our most popular beers on draft.”
“It is a very cool thing to think that we may be one of a handful of people on the planet who actually do this,” Martin says.
Fortunately, those eager to join his ranks don’t need to travel to Portland to enjoy a hot beer. Making your own at home is relatively easy. Just dissolve some sort of sweetener, such as honey or agave nectar, in a bit of water. Heat until it’s nearly boiling. Add whatever spices you want, such as ground ginger, nutmeg, or cloves, and let it steep for 10 to 20 minutes at 180 to 200 degrees. Add your sugar solution to the beer of your choice (a fruit-based sour works best), and keep warm in a Crock-Pot or steam tray.
To serve, ladle into mugs. Garnish with a few orange slices and you have a presentation worthy of company, but easy enough to pull together at home on a chilly Tuesday evening.
All photos credit: Cascade Brewing