MINNEAPOLIS -- Combining red hot metal and alcoholic beverages may sound like a bad idea, but fans of "beer poking" say the results are delicious, not dangerous.
Beer poking basically involves heating a metal poker in a fire until it's glowing red and then plunging the tip into a glass of beer for a few seconds. The poker flash heats and instantly caramelizes the residual malt sugars abundant in certain types of beer.
The result is variously described as adding smoky, roasted, smooth, soft, creamy or toasted marshmallow notes to the flavor profile of your brew. The hot poker also creates a foam cap on the top of a glass of beer, but it isn't kept in the glass long enough to make the beer warm.
Drinking a poked beer is a little like drinking a hot chocolate with whipped cream on top, but in reverse. Instead of tasting warm milk coming through cool whipped cream, you get cool beer coming through a warm, sweet foam. Food & Wine magazine called it "The Beer Equivalent of S'mores."
Beer historians say the practice has been around for more than 400 years. In the winter, when beer might be too cold to comfortably drink, colonial Americans were said to use hot pokers to warm their ale a bit.
Weihenstephan, a Bavarian brewery that has been making beer for close to 1,000 years, says the practice is called bierstacheln in Germany, or beer spiking. It credits blacksmiths who always had hot pokers handy to warm up their drinks.
A similar practice was used by imbibers from the late 1600s who heated metal tools called loggerheads, mulling irons or toddy rods and used them to froth and caramelize a mixture of rum, ale and sugar in a toasty cocktail called the flip. Flips are enjoyed by characters in novels by Dickens and Melville. George Washington was also said to be a fan.
The beer poking tradition has been practiced in Minnesota for more than 30 years by the Schell's Brewery in New Ulm. Since 1986, it's been hosting a daylong outdoor Bockfest in early March, which features fire pits for heating pokers to caramelize seasonal bock-style German dark lagers. The festival attracts thousands of participants.
"It's kind of like a rite of passage when you come here. You've got to have one poked," said Kyle Marti, marketing vice president at Schell's.
In recent years, Schell's has been spreading the beer poking concept, bringing a portable fire pit to Bockfest pre-parties and demonstrations held at local taverns. It's also has been embraced by many of the newer craft breweries.
"It seems like it's become a lot more popular in the last few years," said Jordan Weller, programming and entertainment director at Utepils Brewing in Minneapolis, which does beer poking in its outdoor beer garden.
"People don't know about it until you do it, and then they love it," said Delta Brown, marketing director at Utepils.
The right stuff
Utepils uses a tool designed specifically for beer poking called the 1571 Degree Beer Caramelizer (1571f.com) made by a company in Menomonie, Wisconsin. Entrepreneur Kim Nimsgern launched 1571 Degree in 2018 after a friend, Forrest Schultz, encountered beer poking at a beer festival in Wausau, Wis.
"I thought it was a cool concept," Schultz said.
But Schultz, who at the time was a chemistry professor at University of Wisconsin-Stout, thought he could come up with a better tool to caramelize beer than the steel rebar that was being used at the beer festival.
Working with Nimsgern, he developed prototypes that would optimize heat transfer to a mug of beer. The design that eventually came to market features a food-grade stainless steel shaft with a gumdrop shaped caramelizing tip "engineered for the perfect amount of heat to react with the sugars for a richer and smoother taste."
"It adds an additional flavor profile to your beer," Schultz said.
The device features a wooden handle that is interchangeable with your favorite beer tap handle and optional accessories like a screw on prongs that will hold marshmallows or hot dogs to roast over the fire. (The company is named 1571 Degree because that's the average temperature of a campfire.)
The company said the beer caramelizer can be used to add flavor to a variety of mixed drinks like the Brown Betty, a combination of brown sugar, lemons, brandy and English style ale.
Nimsgern's sold about 25,000 beer caramelizers at $34.99 apiece, typically as gifts for men.
A beverage toy
That's how Mike Hartmann got his beer caramelizer after he suggested his wife get him one for their anniversary. Hartmann, an engineering manager from Saline, Michigan, used to review Reuben sandwiches on YouTube. When the response to the pandemic shut down restaurants, he switched to reviewing beers in his kitchen for TikTok. More than 600 beer reviews later as mikevsbeer, Hartmann has amassed nearly 150,000 followers.
His most viral beer review video -- 3.6 million views -- was the one in which he used an oxygen torch in his kitchen to heat up a 1571 Degree beer caramelizer, which he stuck into a glass of Busch Light Apple beer.
"It almost takes this Busch Light Apple and turns it into Busch Light Apple pie," Hartmann said.
Since then, he's tried the beer caramelizer on everything from a Rogue Double Chocolate Stout ("chocolate creme brulee") to a Nitro Pepsi ("definitely smells like burnt sugar").
"This little gadget is by far the most intriguing toy I've ever had with beer," he said.