The last two decades have led to an unprecedented beer boom in America, with all manner of speciality brews, niche regional styles and wild experimentation gaining traction in the beer zeitgeist.
Nowadays, it’s not so weird to hear that adding coffee to your beer is a delicious idea, or that slushy “smoothie” beers are worthy of the craft-brew treatment. Practically anything goes, as long as it tastes intriguing and adds joy to the hobby of nerding out over beer.
But I have to admit that using a red-hot steel poker to caramelize beer is, by all standards, a truly bizarre-seeming technique. The method is as simple as it sounds: You heat up a chunk of metal until it’s blazing hot, then dip it into a pint of beer, fizzing up a creamy head and cooking the malt and sugars inside the beer. Unsurprisingly, the technique is most commonly done with darker, sweeter beers, which some fans say makes for a flavor reminiscent of s’mores.
Doing it right means following a few basic rules: You need a long piece of metal that will retain heat and is food-safe, and an efficient way to heat it up. In the past, I’ve used a small utility kitchen knife and a wide stainless steel straw, heated using a kitchen butane torch; you can use a stove’s gas burner or even an actual fireplace if you prefer.
Malty beers like English or red ales, stouts and black lagers are perfect for the hot-poker treatment; the key is to use an ice-cold beer and pour it slowly, not releasing much of a head. Leave some room in the glass for a head to fizz up when the poker is inserted, and remember that the poker doesn’t need much to do its job — a few swirls of the tool is enough. Then drink while the foam is aromatic and the beer is still cool.
Hot-poking beer isn’t a new fad: There’s a long history of colonial-era “flips,” as well as mulled wine and cider, that use a piece of hot metal to add flavor to alcoholic drinks. Beer-obsessed communities around Europe have long enjoyed the use of a hot poker in beer; in Germany, the tool is called a bierstachel. You can even buy speciality tools called toddy rods, mulling pokers and ale warmers.
In 2022, consider the hot-poker beer as a perfect transitional drink as cold nights fade into the warmer days of spring. It’s a party trick that doubles as legitimate flavor-tweaker for your favorite malty beers — and besides, who doesn’t like playing with fire?