Screwed up Beer Week (vol 18) - Throwing A Cold Shoulder When The Heat Is On

Written By: Kevin Patterson on 06/13/2014

A globe trotter walks into a bar... and I'm not talking about the sports entertainment type of globe trotter, (although that would make for an awesome blog post!) But I'm talking about the guy who goes to Europe for a week and all of a sudden, he's an expert on all things across-the-pond and everything that America has now become crap to him.


After surgically scrolling through the "bar bottle" list, he asks me if I had Fuller's ESB warm. "Sure," I said, "we also have them cold if you prefer."


"Nope, I would like a warm one please." So trying hard to make sure that he, like all customers, gets the service and the beer that'll be sure to float his boat, I pop the cap and pour him a warm ESB. In doing so, he felt the need to explain. 


"See, I was in England last week and they drink their beers warm. They just taste better that way." And as I tried to explain the difference between the "cellar" temperature that which the Brits dispense versus actual "room" temperature, all of must have fallen on deaf ears as he unapologetically turns and walks away.


After fifteen minutes or so, my globe trotter approaches me at the bar and of course has a complaint about his beer. "This beer is flat!" 


"Well, of course it is. You're drinking it too warm." Puzzled at my sure-fire response, he doesn't understand. After all, he's convinced that it was room temperature beer that he had enjoyed a week prior. And now he's all in need of an explanation.


To his unknowing palate, the beers that he enjoyed so well in England were much warmer than what he was used to at the "coldest taps in town" down at his friendly neighborhood Applebee's. An in that relative warmth, he simply and ignorantly assumed that those British beers were served at 68 degrees. He couldn't have been more wrong. Even the Brits know that beer that warm would upset the balance that makes their pub ales so great. To understand why this is, is to understand how the sense of taste works.


Beer, or any food or drink for that matter, will begin to numb the palate and mute flavor if served too cold. Of course great arguments can be made that colder things feel more refreshing, but that comes at the sacrifice for full flavor. Perhaps this is not the worst thing in the world if your beer gets most of its flavor from carbonation or wet cereal grain than of flavorful hops or malt, but it is an absolute travesty for British Bitter.


"So at room temperature, wouldn't the beers taste even better than at cellar temperature then?"


"Well, not quite."


Similarly and conversely, food is often served at warmer than room temperature in order to heighten their flavors and aromas; to highlight their savory character and to become more satisfying to our palates and our sense of hunger. But that doesn't work quite the same with alcohol.


With exceptions set aside for absinthe, ouzo, ciders and brandy which can all be enjoyed warmer for better appreciation of taste; real beer has more finesse malt elements and carbonation that make it problematic with the same warm treatment. Cooler beverage has the ability to retain carbonation longer and prevents the bubbles from escaping prematurely. At warmer temperatures, the bubble wisp away quickly and leave the later portions of the session lackluster to say the least. (Have you ever sat on a nitrogenated Guinness too long? Its nitrogen oxide bubble release much more quickly than does carbon dioxide, and the Irish Stout goes flat soon- so you gotta really dedicate yourself to that pint when served!)


With the beer's fast-fleeting carbonation, there's no bubbles-a-poppin' and there's no "lift" of those barley sugars and textures from the tastebuds, so the beer's taste is more saturating than the brewers intend. And now that the new character is largely under-supported by hops, fruit esters or spices in that flat state- the ale tastes less appealing. Alcohol being the bugaboo that it is, even the slightest incline of temperature can cause the alcohol flavor and warmth to become unruly. So not only does the beer feel dull, its balance may be thrown off dramatically.


So just a few hundred years of trial and error has allowed the British Isles to develop the right malt, hop, carbonation and fruit balance that's agreeable to their "cellar" handling of crafted ales. That cellar 55 degree temperature becomes the caveat to pull all these flavors together in perfect harmony. And even though modern refrigeration allows us to do all kinds of clever things with beer, there's no replacement for enjoying a properly served English ESB.


Modern bars and restaurants are recommended to keep the refrigeration at 38 degrees which lands it in the middle of that 32-55 degree range for most beer styles. Keep in mind that if your next tipple will be a heavier, richer ale (Barleywine or Imperial Stout, for example) then ask the bartender to take the beer from the refrigerator about 15 minutes earlier to strike that perfect temperature. Or ask him/her to place a room temperature beer on the chill about 30 minutes prior for the same beer. Lighter beers (like Pilsner) will obviously require either less removal time or greater chill time.


And keep in mind that you have all the control- if you need greater refreshment from you beer, feel free to chill it to lower ranges; however you may not enjoy its flavor to its fullest. And if you in a savory type of mood, you can do the opposite- warm a beer up and enjoy its subtle nuances, but it may lay weightily on the tongue in those final sips.


I often enjoy chilling stronger beers to a temperature that's far less than recommended. Since those ale flavors might be a little too strong for my unseasoned palate, I don't mind the muting of some of those flavors temporarily. But as the beer warms, it begins to release more and more of its tasty secrets; just in time as my palate adjusts to its intensity. Bubbles aside, it seems as if my palate and mind kind of "grow up" with the beer over the course of the session.


And the Brits are not alone- all pre-modern brewers world-wide had to tinker with their recipes to get the balance right. Germany, Czech Republic, Austria and Scotland are just a few popular tastes that extend from such practices and result in time honored taste. So the next time that you jump across the pond, please pay keen attention to the details of their drinking practices for great appreciation and enjoyment when you get back home. And just because you may be staying in a Holiday Express over there doesn't make you an expert of their culture, it might just make you an idiot upon your return!