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.)