Countless chemical reactions take place before that first delicious drop of beer touches your tongue. Carefully planned and monitored by the brewer, this science remains beyond the consumer’s control.
But one piece of brewing alchemy you can do, even after bottling, is beer poking. This involves taking a red-hot iron and plunging it into a glass of malty beer.
Why poke perfectly good beer?
There are two main reasons, and the first is straightforward: “Because it’s fun,” said Dan Justesen, president of Utepils Brewing in Minneapolis.
The second is about science and taste. The hot iron caramelizes residual malt sugar left over from the brewing process, Justesen explained. At the same time, it activates the CO2 to create a billowing foamy head, not unlike a marshmallow atop the cold beer.
“It’s kind of like a hot fudge sundae,” Justesen said. “When the hot fudge is still warm and you’ve got that cold ice cream, you get those two sensations at the same time. So we’ve not only changed the beer itself, but we’ve also given you a sensory overload.”
When did beer poking start?
While it may be trendy – and very Instagrammable – it’s not new by any means.
The practice originated in Germany in the Middle Ages. Per Weihenstephan, the world’s oldest brewery, the Bavarian blacksmiths of yore didn’t appreciate how their beer became slushy during winter, so they tried to warm it using a hot poker, fresh from the forge. Thus was born “Bierstacheln,” which translates to “beer spiking.”
It gained steam in Colonial America as well, according to 1571°F, a Wisconsin company that sells beer-poking kits. Colonists would poke their Flip – a mix of rum, ale and sugar or molasses – to beat New England’s bitter chill.
Even in Minnesota, it’s not novel. August Schell Brewing Co. deserves the most credit. Beer poking has been a mainstay at Schell’s Bock Fest since the annual event started in 1978.
“New Ulm as an old German town, we had a lot of old-timers that didn’t want cold beer,” said Ted Marti, president and CEO of Schell’s. “They literally had little warming irons to warm up the beer, so we took it a little farther with the fire poker and the fire.”
A perfect cold weather activity, beer poking has grown across the state. Maybe it’s because breweries adapted their patios for social distancing during Minnesota winters and needed something exciting. Whatever the case, it’s not just for a brewery’s anniversary or major event anymore.
Breweries that focus on German styles – Schell’s, Utepils, Waldmann Brewery in St. Paul, Lupulin Brewery in Big Lake, etc. – regularly offer beer poking. But it can also be a fun addition for your next bonfire or camping trip.
How to poke beer
Remember to use common sense. Wielding red-hot irons and drinking alcohol could be dangerous. Because the process is fun, you might end up poking and drinking several beers in short order. Consider designating one person to be the poker.
Step 1: Get your gear. Kits on the market, like those from 1571°F, have compact irons and other attachments. You might be tempted to use your fireplace poker, but it will prove unwieldy and difficult to heat.
Step 2: Choose the right beer. Bocks are ideal, but any malty style will work. Justesen has poked nearly every beer Utepils serves and really enjoyed how it changed the Hefeweizen. Just stay away from hoppy beers, which lack the necessary sugars.
Step 3: Crank up the heat. A campfire will work, but you could consider a propane burner. Justesen swears by it because the blue flame gets the iron hotter and prevents carbon buildup.
Step 4: Fill your glass and drink it down to about two-thirds full. This will provide room for the foam and allow you to taste the difference caramelization makes.
Step 5: Submerge the iron into the beer. Be careful not to touch the glass. Leave the iron in for a few seconds, then slowly remove it. Justesen lets it linger at the top for a better foam taste. In and out, it should take about 10-15 seconds.
Step 6: Enjoy quickly. You’ll have time to take a picture, but to taste that marshmallowy foam, you shouldn’t wait long.
This was my experience, at least, in the snowy beer garden outside Utepils’ Fernweh Taproom. Justesen plunged the iron into a pint of Minnator, a rich 7.8% ABV Dopplebock. The liquid bubbled out from the hot poker. Then a lovely tan foam welled up and over the side.
It was New Year’s Eve 2021, and people warming up around the large fire ring glanced up from their beers and conversations about the year passing, the one ahead. They asked Justesen questions, then wanted a turn.
Each time was magical. None of us had a hand in crafting those beers, but we could all play a part in their transformation.
James Figy is a writer and beer enthusiast based in St. Paul. In Mankato, he earned an MFA in creative writing from Minnesota State University and a World Beer Cruise captain’s jacket from Pub 500. Twitter and Instagram: @JamesBeered
This article originally appeared in the March 2022 issue of Mankato Magazine.
All photos by James Figy.