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.