Temperature is Important…

CRAFT BEER CORNER: Beer Is Better At Correct Temperature

There’s nothing better than a refreshing, frosty cold beer. Well actually, there is: Beer served at the correct temperature.

Yet, because of the marketing efforts of big industrial brewers, who have advertising budgets that often exceed the cost of brewing the beer they’re selling, most America beer drinkers are under the impression that a colder beer is a better tasting, more refreshing experience. One only needs to look at last week’s Coors Light and Bud Light Super Bowl ads, where a temperature gauge on the Coors Light label proves it’s far cooler (literally colder) than Ice Cube (the actor/rapper) or Bud Light’s assertion that it is “so cool,” it’s “colder than cold,” to know that industrial brewers want you to drink their beer cold.

To quote Chuck D of Public Enemy: Don’t believe the hype. The big brewers want you to drink their beer at temperatures near freezing so that you don’t actually taste how bad the beer is.

As the beer industry consolidated in the post-World War II years, big brewers brewed less flavorful beer in an attempt to please the palates of more Americans.

First to go were the hops; in some cases brewers dropped the bitterness of their beers more than 20 international bittering units (IBUs) to a barely perceptible average bitterness of 12 IBUs (Today many light lagers are even blander, averaging around 8 IBUs).  Next to go was malt. Brewers, to keep costs down and profits high, began substituting expensive malt with corn syrup and rice. Both rice and corn are cheap and ferment out nearly completely, contributing alcohol but offering little to the flavor or body to the beer. The resulting beer was a dry, light-bodied lager with very little real flavor.

To hide off flavors or flaws in the brewing process or to mask the lack of flavor in these beers, manufacturers started advertising campaigns that encouraged consumers to drink beer ice cold, shifting from a rhetoric of enjoyment and taste to one of refreshment and thirst quenching.

Studies show that food and drink served at colder temperatures decrease the perception of flavor. According to a study in the journal Nature (Dec. 2005) our taste buds have microscopic channels that are responsible for taste perception at varying temperatures. The colder the food or drink, the less the stimulus these channels send to the brain, resulting in the perception of a lack of flavor.  The warmer the food or drink the stronger the stimulus, resulting in a more enhanced perception of flavor.

As the researchers put it, “The clearest example for sweet taste is ice cream. As we all know, ice cream does not taste sweet when it is frozen but only when we melt it in the mouth. On the other hand, melted ice cream is very hard to drink because it is extremely sweet.”

The same is true with beer. Chill a beer to near freezing and it becomes a refreshing cold beverage, rather than a flavorful one.

Whereas with craft beer — the antithesis of American light lagers — one expects the flavors of hops and malt that over chilling would dull. In fact, most bars and restaurants’ draft systems tend to store and pour beer at too low a temperature, about 38 degrees Fahrenheit. As the cold beer hits the room temp glass (never accept a craft beer poured into a frozen mug) the beer’s temperature will rise 2 to 3 degrees, which is good, but it still doesn’t reach the optimal temperature that most brewers intend their beer to be enjoyed, which is 45 degrees. To get the most flavor out of your beer when drinking at a bar or restaurant, it’s best to let beer sit a couple of minutes before drinking.

While 45F is optimal for nearly all styles of craft beer, there are a few that should be served at cellar temps, or just slightly higher (around 53 degrees). These include cask-conditioned real ale, anything labeled imperial or double, high alcohol beers like barley wines, dark Belgian dubbels, triples and quads, and most whisky/bourbon barrel-aged beers. These temps may seem unconventional and a bit high to many drinkers, but at this temperature the beer retains a bit of the refreshment we expect, but also the nuanced flavors. Most of these beers are alcohol-rich sipping beers traditionally drank as winter warmers (think brandy or cognac), when one really doesn’t want cold beverage.


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