Home > Beer Talk > Serving Beer – The Question of Temperature

Serving Beer – The Question of Temperature

“I’m looking for the type of mugs [of beer] that are so cold that your hand gets numb…so cold that it doesn’t matter how cheap the beer is…so cold that bits of ice float in your beer”Forum comment
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In my thirty-odd years of drinking, one of the things I’ve discovered is that there’s more to brewing beer than science – there’s art too and even (dare I say this?) magic. Not just to the production, but to the enjoyment. It was on a tour of one of the pubs in Norwich that I learned about how beer is cellared, and that different brews are frequently best enjoyed at different tempartures.

It’s a thorny topic, this business of serving temperature – nowadays the seeming majority of beer drinkers are conditioned by the media to expect their beer to be ice-cold. The quotation above demonstrates something of this, but it’s been driven by the advertising of just one type of beer – a fairly recent addition to the beer pantheon, lager.

So strong has the lager influence been, especially on the American psyche, that natives of that land visiting Great Britain would return complaining of the warm, flat beer served in those isles. But there is a reason, and it lies in the deeps of the ancient pub cellar, and its temperature.

So what is “cellar temperature”, and why should I care?

This is another of those really odd questions, like “what is room temperature?”, to which there are some who might answer “the temperature of a room”. I have met many Americans who sincerely believe that English pubs serve their beer at room temperature. They are wrong, and I usually take great delight in pointing out just how wrong. In fact, cellar temperature is much lower than room temperature (typically held to be 70°F/20°C ). Whilst in the past British pub cellars used to vary quite considerably, they tended to be around 45-55°F (7-13°C). These days, cellars can be climate-controlled, and on occasion, individual barrels can be kept at an ideal temperature for that particular beer. CAMRA’s web site states that real, live casked ales are generally best served between 54-57°F (12-14°C), considerably below the “room temperature” that many Americans believe.

Old Man Ale - to be served at 58F

Old Man Ale - to be served at 58°F

But what is the “ideal” serving temperature, and why should we care? Well, there are components in all beers that are volatile; they evaporate, being freed from the liquid. These are the components that we enjoy most – they add considerably to the enjoyment of the beer, both in the nose and the flavour. After all, the tastes detected by the tongue are few – salt, sweet, bitter, sour. The olfactory senses in the nasal cavity can detect minute quantities of thousands of different chemicals, and it is the combination that results in the overall flavour.

The problem is that the colder the liquid, the harder it is for these chemicals to come out of solution into the air, where they are detected by the sensory cells in the nose. Too cold, they stay in solution, and are swallowed before they evaporate. It follows that the warmer the beer, the more flavour it will release, the colder it is, the less flavour. So cold beer=less taste.

The more complex beers brewed and served in the UK and Europe demand to be stored and served at temperatures above freezing, by design. The new breeds of non-lager American beers also demand the same. By all means serve your lagers and cheap beers at close to freezing, and enjoy the light refreshment that they offer. Beware though, that you observe and respect a beer’s nature before you hoist it out of the fridge and serve it.

Now of course, I’m obliged to come up with some actual figures, and inevitably, there’s going to be some dispute about ’em, but many brewers and writers tend to agree that the darker and stronger the brew, the more they will benefit from slightly higher serving temps. There’s obviously some latitude, and personal preference may alter these figures, and I stress that this is just one suggestion, pulled from RealBeer.com. Feel free to disagree on the exact numbers:

Wheat beers and pale lagers at fridge temperature, 45-50°F (7-10°C)
Pale ales, English bitter, amber ales or dark lagers at 50-55°F (10-13°C)
Belgian ales, barley wines and similar strong beers at around 55°F (13°C)
Porters, stouts and other dark ales at 55-60° F (13-15°C)
Some of the stronger Belgian beers should be served close to room temperature

Now given that the average refrigerator temperature is around 45°F (7°C), you see that there’s quite a difference, especially for the stronger beers. The answer is to take some of these brews out of the fridge a while before you serve them, and for goodness’ sake, don’t pour them into a chilled glass!

Obviously no-one except the truly fanatical is going to measure the bottle temperature before opening it, but allowing the bottle to warm up for fifteen or twenty minutes won’t kill you. In fact, the anticipation will doubtless make it taste even better. After all, they do say that hunger makes the best sauce.

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  1. Rik Smith
    16 September, 2009 at 10:45

    I understand, support, and agree with the whole temperature thing. I’m pondering the “straight pint glass” as opposed to a curved pint glass requirement. I guess I’ll just have to meet you sometime at the Black Bull Inn, Coniston, Cumbria, to sample some Coniston Old Man. In the meantime, I’ll sample my favorite brown in straight and curved glasses (at 58 F, of course).

    • 16 September, 2009 at 11:09

      I’ll take you up on that offer, although it may not be the Black Bull. Maybe somewhere closer to home, and you get to pick your own glass, ‘cos I’m generous that way.

  2. drkottaway
    17 September, 2009 at 06:44

    Following along. Don’t think my palate is very educated, but I like the article about temperature. Interesting.

    • 17 September, 2009 at 09:51

      Thanks for the feedback, Doctor! Don’t worry about the palate, we’ll educate you soon.

  3. Ted
    17 September, 2009 at 19:38

    “Obviously no-one except the truly fanatical is going to measure the bottle temperature before opening it…”

    Bollocks.

    I didn’t buy an infrared thermometer just for shits & grins, y’know! And if anything, I would use it to check after opening – to make sure I’m getting the most out of that bottle that the brewer tried to put in it.

    And I’d really like to syndicate your posts here on Blotto (http://www.boozecouncil.org). Let me know.

  1. 16 September, 2009 at 10:45

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