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Feb. 19, 2010: Cold day, cold beer? Give warm beer a try
But what about snowblower beer? What do you drink after plowing your car out of a drift?
Midway through the worst winter in Philadelphia history, I've given this question a lot of thought and have come to the conclusion that there is no easy answer.
On the one hand, you want something to quench the thirst from hoisting shovel after shovelful of the white stuff.
On the other hand, my freaking toes are numb. The last thing I want is to cool down.
Anyone who has tried to untie frozen boot laces while his or her face is dripping with sweat will recognize the conundrum. Grab an ice cold pilsner, and you might be visiting the E.R. for frostbite. Suck down a heavy-duty barley wine, and they'll be treating you for heatstroke.
For centuries, the solution was hot beer.
In the cold months, taverns commonly served warmed tankards. At home, a kettle of beer with mulling spices was always steaming. When the wind gusted and the firewood was scarce, at least you could warm up with a potent cup of heated ale.
"Not only did they prefer their beer hot," writes beer historian Gregg Smith, "they were convinced it was good for them."
Smith cites a pamphlet published in 1641 by an Englishman named Henry Overton, which claims "warme beere" was "farre more wholesome than that which is drunke cold." The temperature of beer, Overton said, should at least equal the temperature of your blood.
After knocking the icicles off my beard the other night, I gave that theory a test with a bottle of La Dragonne, made in Switzerland by Brasserie des Franches-Montagnes. Now, you've got to figure that a brewery in the shadow of the Swiss Alps should know something about cold-weather beer, and this one is just the ticket.
It's a dark, medium-strength ale of about 7 percent alcohol made with smoked malt. Instead of the usual post-fermentation chill, the ale is reheated to 167 degrees and steeped with honey, cinnamon, orange peel, juniper and other spices, like a hot, mulled tea.
Before serving, you warm the opened bottle in a pot of hot water to raise the ale's temperature to about 110 degrees.
Yeah, I know, weird. But I was a desperate, frozen man.
Wrapping my hands around a warmed mug, I took a small sip. The spices tickled my nose and - carried by a waft of alcohol - rose right through my cranium like a hot toddy. The ale is completely uncarbonated, but somehow its roasted, smoky malt made it easy to drink.
I wouldn't call it thirst-quenching, but it was entirely satisfying.
La Dragonne is extremely expensive (about $30 for a 750ml bottle) and hard to find. You might have better luck tracking down a bottle of Liefmans Glühkriek, from Belgium. It's a spiced cherry beer that's also meant to be served warm.
Now, I'm not advocating a return to those days of yore, when everyone drank warm beer. If we did, Coors ("the coldest tasting beer in the world") would go out of business in a heartbeat.
But it does seem that old Henry Overton was onto something.
Try this: Next time you come in from the cold, reach for a dark ale with a hearty body - a malty barley wine, like Anchor Old Foghorn, or a Belgian-style dark ale like Dogfish Head Raison D'Etre.
Don't boil it, just let it sit near the fireplace till it reaches about 70 or 80 degrees. Pull on your slippers and take a good sip.
Your thirst breaks, your fingers limber up.
Warm beer might not be the perfect snowblower beer, but you won't be complaining when the shivers recede beneath a pleasant haze.