The worst sip of beer I’ve tasted recently was of Brooklyn Brewery’s Pennant Ale ’55. This will surprise anyone who knows my taste in beer. I’ve lived down the street from Brooklyn Brewery for a decade and am a longtime fan of their beers. And I’m especially fond of Pennant Ale. The nicely balanced pale ale is an underappreciated beer from a much-appreciated brewer, one that shows up too rarely on menus relative to Brooklyn’s ubiquitous lager. But none of what I love about Pennant was in evidence on this day. A sip offered empty disappointment, the only sensation coming from the carbonation.
How did a good beer turn out so bad? Was it old? Nope. Poured carelessly? Not that I could tell. Served in a dirty glass? No. The problem was that the beer was too damn cold.
I’d ordered the beer at a well-meaning restaurant with a respectable beer selection, but the beer was stored too cold and worse, poured into a frosty mug. Sipping it was pointless, disrespectful even. A new, room-temperature glass and stoic patience on my part slowly defeated the chill and renewed the beer. But it’s sad to think that anyone trying a craft beer for the first time at this establishment would experience something no more interesting than a Schlitz and rightly wonder why they were paying a couple bucks extra for it.
There’s practically no beer worth drinking that should be served below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Some styles, like double IPAs and British bitters, are at their best around 55 degrees. But walk into any bar, even one serious about craft beer, and you’re likely to be served beer that’s close to freezing, often in a misguidedly chilled mug.
Where did this practice of deep freezing beer come from? While the cold neuters tasty beers, it masks the flaws of flavorless macrobrews. So it’s no surprise that the corporate brewers who make Budweiser, Miller, and Coors fill their ads with images of frosty mugs, snowy peaks, and bikini-clad babes frolicking improbably in fake snow. Coors Light has invested the most in frigidness, famously deploying the dopey gimmick of erecting mountains on its labels that turn blue when the beer is “cold enough.”
Sensory scientists like Sue Langstaff make a living thinking deeply about how our foods and drinks look, taste, and smell. The longtime beverage industry consultant walked me through the science behind why my Pennant Ale went so wrong: Since key aromatic compounds cannot volatilize at lower temperatures, they won’t release their scent into the headspace gas above the liquid. Put more plainly, the smell the brewer wants you to experience is muzzled; any fruity or floral character is literally on ice.
Beverages lose carbon dioxide as temperature increases, so the cold also heightens the tingling sting of the carbonation. Frigid temperature is therefore ideal for the thin, tasteless lagers flowing out of large breweries. The big brewers know their beer has little to offer in the way of flavor or aroma, so their marketing stresses ice-cold refreshment. If the drink can’t provide taste, at least drinkers can feel something on their tongues when it’s hyper-chilled.
The need to serve different beverages at different temperatures is widely understood when it comes to wine and spirits. Even the densest server wouldn’t plunge a bottle of red in an ice bucket. And even a novice bartender is likely to know that the drinker who orders a single malt scotch or fine brandy on the rocks is throwing his money away.
But that knowledge just isn’t there, among servers and drinkers alike, when it comes to beer. And it’ll likely take some time to overcome the assault of marketing depicting beers stuck in ice chests and poured in rime-rimmed mugs.
But some brewers are working to change perceptions about ideal serving temperatures, so that the flavor and aroma they spend so much time getting into their beer isn’t frozen out at the point of sale. That means serving pilsners, wheat beers, and other lighter styles between 40-45 degrees, a notch warmer for darker styles such as ambers and bocks, and between 50-55 degrees for cask ales and potent beers such as barleywines, and imperial stouts. (Opinions on ideal temperatures differ in the beer world. While it’s not the last word, the serving and pairing chart from the Brewers Association is a good place to start for temperature guidance.)
But changing attitudes—and habits—isn’t going to be easy. Most draft systems are built to operate at 38 degrees. Fiddling with the temperature can affect carbonation and raise the risk of contaminated lines. Bars dedicated to the cause of good beer drinking (like Washington D.C.’s ChurchKey, which I’ve written about previously) can operate different draft lines at different temperatures, but it requires substantial investment in equipment, training, and maintenance. Many establishments depend on outside vendors to maintain their draft systems and those technicians are rarely trained in keeping systems running at significantly higher temperatures. A shift in draft temperatures just isn’t a viable option for many bars and restaurants.
Beyond these issues, businesses that raise the serving temperature of beer run the risk of getting too far ahead of consumer taste. Actions that win points with the beer elite don’t always coincide with profitable business practices.
Brewers get this. To make sure their beers are served correctly, they’re picking their battles, including declaring war on drinking beer out of cold bottles and frosty mugs. The best drinking experience happens when beer is poured into a room temperature glass. Charles Finkel of Seattle’s Pike Brewing Company has had some awkward exchanges with servers bearing icy mugs.*
“They’re so proud of those frosted glasses,” he says wearily. “But then here some guy comes along and says it ruins the flavor of the beer.”
It’s an uphill fight, but as beer’s reputation grows and drinkers’ expectations expand, both establishments and customers are thinking more carefully about what they’re missing when beer is too cold. And for a great beer served right, you don’t need to drop a thermometer in every glass or own a dual-zone fridge. More breweries are including optimal serving temperatures on their websites to guide you. Some are even putting suggested serving temperatures on the labels of their bottles. And when you’re out and about, if a frosty mug approaches your table, ask ever so politely for a different glass. (A wine glass is a good option. The tulip shape will concentrate and retain more of the aroma.) If you feel like advancing a good cause, explain the reason behind your choice. Maybe you’ll help the restaurant realize they should ditch the arctic glassware for future patrons. And if all else fails and your next craft beer is served way too cold, summon the willpower to pause before taking that first sip. The vastly improved drinking experience is worth the wait.
Correction, March 8, 2012: This article originally misstated Charles Finkel’s last name. (Return to corrected sentence.)