Das Poke

Though they didn’t invent the stuff, the German people have always embraced beer with a passion akin to obsession. So much so, in fact, that the nation and its language have become inextricably intertwined with all things beer in the world’s collective consciousness. German traditions and lingo have traveled around the globe. Some exports have become commonplace, like the biergarten and beer festival, while others remain esoteric.

Enter the bierstacheln.

Bierstacheln, or beer spikes, are red-hot metal pokers (taverns of old often used shipbuilders’ loggerheads) used to rapidly warm beer. In the process, the sugars in the beer become caramelized and the carbonation decreases, leaving a sweeter, smoother beer. The spikes can also be used to warm up other drinks such as toddies or flips, old-time beer cocktails containing rum, sugar and sometimes egg and cream. Yes, the tradition can be traced back hundreds of years and, yes, the red-hot spikes were reportedly used to cauterize wounds, too.

According to the German beer website was-mit-bier.de, “Beer spikes were invented by blacksmiths in the Middle Ages. If their after-work beer was too cold for them, they briefly dipped a glowing poker into it. So they could quickly bring their beer to drinking temperature after hard work.”

The best beers to poke are bocks. First brewed in the northern German town of Einbeck in the 14th century, bock beer quickly became a favorite further south, in Munich. There, the Bavarians mispronounced the name of the beer’s city of origin. Einbeck became “ein bock,” or billy goat. As the heavy, malty and highly alcoholic lager grew in popularity, the name stuck (and clever brewers often light-heartedly featured goats on the label).

Bock beer gave rise to several variations. Dopplebock, literally double bock, is a stronger version, clocking in at 7 to 12 percent. Maibock is slightly lighter yet still strong. Eisbock is frozen to remove some of the water and raise the alcohol content. Weizenbock, finally, is a wheat version of the brew.

For beer-poking purposes, the darker bock variants are the best, as are stouts, browns and porters.

The practice of poking—some American breweries call it gustungling, but I could not find a translation for the word—has become something of a gimmick in the U.S., particularly at craft breweries located in the colder climates
of the country.

Minnesota seems to be the beer-poking capital of North America. Fitger’s Brewhouse and Lake Superior Brewing Co. (both in Duluth) have been giving bocks the brûlée treatment at their joint Bockfest for some years, and just last month, Minneapolis’ Northbound Smokehouse offered patrons the chance to warm up their Eisbock with red-hot Rebar.

Word is now spreading. Austin’s Strange Land Brewery joined the poking party in 2017 with a big marketing splash. Watch out for more hot irons.

Sticking a hot poker in your beer may not sound like something you’d want to try here in the warm climate of Florida, but the novelty of it all—and the smooth flavor—might be appealing. But do not attempt this technique after consuming too many beers or you may end up cauterizing yourself, wound or not.