The Big Chill
- how cold should beer get?

Introduction
I want to discuss a development which I find both irritating and disturbing; the continuing reduction in the temperature at which beer is served.

This trend can be seen the world over and is getting worse, except for those countries, like Australia, where it has already reached its illogical extreme and can go no further. I suppose if water didn't have the annoying property of freezing at 0º C, we would eventually see beer coming out of the pumps at -5º C .

Too cold? Isn't beer supposed to be cold, I hear you ask. Well, er, no, not really. Though to a generation brought up on freezing cold drinks it may well seem that to be refreshing any liquid needs to be served up with ice crystals ready to form, the reality for beer is rather different. Both history and the physics of taste point in a much different direction.
A little history
Until the development of artificial refrigeration at the end of the last century (by the German Linde circa 1800) there were only really two ways to reduce the temperature of beer:
  • letting it cool naturally in a cellar, or
  • using natural ice, cut from a river or lake.
With either of these methods, it's very difficult you need either a very deep cellar or a very large amount of ice - to get beer down below 5º C, except in the Winter.

Initially, artificial refrigeration was needed to make the brewing of beer possible in the warm summer months. Higher temperatures and the coincidental risk of infection had limited the brewing season to September to May in most of Europe. In Bavaria Beer intended for consumption during the Summer was stored in deep, rock cellars, where it remained stable until it was needed. This practice was, accidentally, the origin of bottom-fermented beer. During the long storage period, or lagering, the yeast dropped to the bottom of the vessels and continued working, but at a very low level. Through natural evolution, the yeast strains used eventually came to like lower temperatures and to sink to the bottom of the wort rather than floating on the top. The long secondary fermentation gave the beer more stability, clarity and a rounder flavour.

As brewers in other parts of Europe began to adopt these techniques in the middle of the 19th century, they had a big problem; where could they get enough ice to keep the beer cool enough during fermentation? At first, this method was only practical in areas with the correct geological makeup - natural rock cellars - and supplies of natural ice in the Winter.

Bottom-fermenting beer
When artificial refrigeration became possible, all of this changed and it heralded a period of rapid expansion for bottom-fermenting beers at the expense of older top-fermenting varieties. And part of this new technique was a lower serving temperature.

For the traditional Bavarian bottom-fermenting breweries this had been inevitable. The beer was kept it cold cellars to preserve it through the warm months and only taken out immediately before it was due to be used. To make this simpler, breweries built ĎSommerkellersí - where the beer was consumed and the precursor of the modern beer garden - above the cellar where the beer was being stored. Thus the beer was served at around the temperature of these lagering cellars - probably 5º - 10º C.

When lager moved away from its original home, the lower serving temperature went with it, artificial ice being used to keep the casks at the desired temperature in the pub cellar.

Top-fermenting beer
Top-fermenting beer, because of the different way it is produced, has great problems with such low temperatures. It usually refuses to clear if stored below 12º C, due to the proteins it contains.

Brewers of top-fermented beer were faced with a dilemma. They could produce a cold beer or a clear beer but not one that was both. In most of the world, ale was simply unable to compete with lager, as consumers got used to drinking cool, clear beer, But note that this was still cool rather than cold beer. The temperature in the glass was still probably rarely below 7º or 8º C.

North and South
In the temperate parts of northern Europe, where there isn't so much hot weather, cool beer was, perhaps, not so important. We see top-fermenting continuing to dominate into this century, and even after the Second World War, in countries such as Britain, Ireland, Belgium, Northern France and parts of Northern Germany.

In the rest of the world, top fermentation virtually disappeared. Where it did remain, it's interesting to see that the serving temperature dropped, even if this was at the expense of clarity.

In Bavaria, hefeweizen, a very yeasty wheat beer, is the main leftover of pre-lager brewing methods. In Australia, the only brewery to remain top-fermenting was Coopers, with it's amazingly inappropriately-named Sparkling Ale, a beer intentionally served cloudy. The only top-fermenting style which managed to struggle on in most of the rest of the world was porter or stout, which was opaque anyway and whose taste was much more suited to a higher temperature. (Maybe someone should point this out to Guinness - especially now they have "Guinness Extra Cold".)

In southern Europe, which anyway had, little indigenous beer culture, lager beers and their cooler serving temperature had soon completely displaced ales. As in much of the world, soon no-one knew that beer could be anything other than pale yellow and cold.
The real trouble starts
So far so good. The world started the century with a new dominant style: clear, pale, rounded in flavour and served cool. These beers were probably for the most part still pretty tasty and served at only a cool cellar temperature.

But the public's new taste in beer had been very much to the advantage of larger brewers. Their smaller competitors lacked the capital needed to invest in the new brewing and cooling equipment which lager required. Artificial refrigeration was first developed in the 1870ís. Itís no coincidence that the total number of breweries in Germany peaked at around 19,000 in the 1880ís and then went into a decline which has continued until the present day. There was a rapid concentration of the industry throughout Europe and the USA as the scale of brewing increased.

In short, more beer was brewed, but by far fewer companies. Beer had been transformed from a craft product, made on equipment little more sophisticated than that found in a kitchen, to an industrial commodity manufactured in sophisticated factories.

The real problems began when brewers began to realise that as they served their beers colder and colder they could also make them blander and blander without their customers complaining or even appearing to notice. As blander also means cheaper, this was good news for those trying to maximise their profits.

Increasing homogenisation had another effect; the difficulty in differentiating between rivals products by their flavour left the consumer open to the influence of other factors, such as advertising. This happened first in the USA, where nationally-distributed lager brands began to appear at the turn of the century. Refrigeration allowed the beer to be transported longer distances and it also meant that the product had less chance of offending anyone. Beer was marketed as a cool refresher rather than as a drink to savour.

By the 50's, American beer was pale, thin, almost tasteless and freezing cold. The parallel development of the soft drinks industry, spurred on by some of the same technological advances, strengthened the public perception that drinks had to be ice-cold to be refreshing.

This trend first ran its course in the USA, then Australia and in the last decades has started everywhere in the world, even in such heartlands of beer tradition as Germany. It's something which should greatly concern anyone with an interest in appreciating the flavour of what they drink.
How cold is cold enough?
Beer should be drunk at the correct temperature, I'm sure that everyone would agree with that. But what is the correct temperature? This is where opinions start to diverge.

Personal taste, physics, culture and the consumerís own expectations. No-one can produce a unchallengeable list, accurate to one degree, right for everyone, everywhere. A subjective experience such as drinking pleasure will always be influenced by personal taste.

You could say that there are two conflicting concepts prevalent amongst drinkers. One sees beer as a refreshing drink, enhanced by being presented as cold as possible. The other regards beer as a serious taste experience, where giving all the flavours the chance to make themselves noticed is of paramount importance. Imagine this as the difference between what you might expect from a diet coke (fresh from the fridge in a waxed paper cup full of ice) and a grand cru Bordeaux.

Now, no-one would expect to be served a vintage Burgundy nicely chilled, but many bars do leave the poor trappists freezing their cassocks off in the fridge. Why is this? What are the differences and similarities between the two drinks? Do the same rules apply to both? Is wine inherently different, superior even, and deserve more careful handling? In a word, no. Itís just another example of the low regard in which beer is held and the ignorance about the how it should be treated. Even the non-wine drinker knows that you donít chill reds. Sadly, even those with a great love of beer often have no idea of the optimum temperature to bring out a great aleís subtleties.
What effect does too low a temperature have on beer?
Well, for one thing, it makes it more difficult to digest. The stomach copes best with solids or liquids at around body temperature and the further away from this your consumptions stray, the more difficulty it has processing them.

For taste, chilling is a pure disaster. Below 5º C there is scarcely any aroma and the nose is left with very little to enjoy. The tongue is frozen into numbness, further narrowing the sensations experienced. Various volatile components present in the beer are not released in the mouth and disappear unnoticed down the throat. Put simply, the flavour profile is much narrower and some tastes disappear completely.

Not all flavours are affected the same way, so the net result of chilling can also be to change the balance of a beer. Hop bitterness survives relatively well, whereas many complex fruit flavours disappear without trace. Spices are robust enough to still be noticed, while subtle malt tastes evaporate.

As the more alert of you may already have noticed, this leaves pale lagers less damaged than rich, malty ales. No coincidence, given that lagers were always brewed and served cooler than ales. Inevitably, lager styles will have been adapted to perform best at lower temperatures. Top-fermenting styles evolved in a warmer environment and this is where they thrive.

What is the correct temperature for a beer?
Well, it depends on how you determine what makes beer good. For some, most important is that it be cold and refreshing. In this case, an inoffensive, international-style pils at 4º or 5º C is just your man. Not a great taste experience, but doing the job you want it to. Thirsty, and after a few tasty pints to wash the dust out of your mouth, you canít go wrong with a top-quality Czech lager at 6º - 8º C. If, on the other hand, youíre looking for maximum flavour, itís hard to get a quality Belgian ale too warm without heating it on a gas ring. Around 15º C is the minimum. If you want it colder than that, youíre drinking the wrong beer.

Take a look at some beer labels and youíll see that most breweries recommend temperatures between 4º and 12º C, with lagers in the 4º - 6º C range and ales 6º C and above. In recent years, they have been slowly creeping downwards. For example, 5 years ago Duvel specified 12º - 14º C, now itís 6º - 10º C. Even the most complex Belgian ales rarely suggest more than 12º C.

But how cold is a beer when you order it a pub? Outside of a specialist bar, youíll be lucky to get a bottle at the temperature on the label, which is itself probably too low for all the nuances to be fully appreciated. Ask for a draught beer, and it will be colder still. The pumps have a good chance of all being at the icy setting used for the pils. Ask the staff why itís so cold and the most likely response is Ďthatís the way people like itĒ. More accurate would perhaps be: thatís the way the landlord likes it. Bad as well as good flavours are more easily detected with a warmer temperature, so chilling can help cover up any faults.
How cold do you like your beer?

There are great variations between different regions of the world, but the places where beer is customarily served at the correct temperature are few. In most of the world cold and beer to together like bacon and eggs, Thomas and Hardy, crime and punishment.

The Czech republic and Bavaria do a good job with lager and, perhaps being more secure about its quality, donít mind you finding out what it tastes like. In Britain, tradition and certain technical considerations mean that cask-conditioned beer is usually treated properly. Hence the widely-held view that British beer is Ďwarmí and strange. Itís neither, being below room-temperature with the natural coolness of a shallow cellar. Belgian cafes will often have trappists on an ordinary shelf behind the bar and champagne-bottled specialities down in the cellar.

Elsewhere, the results are likely to be disappointing. The occasions where you hold a glass that isnít slowly numbing your fingers like a flask of liquid oxygen, should be savoured.

In countries where mass-produced, mainstream lager was for many years the definition of beer (the USA, Holland, Scandinavia, Austria), very little is understood about the appropriate temperature at which to serve. The publicans as well as the public have had their ideas coloured by the assumptions that a beer monoculture engendered. Itís hard to relinquish something which you have always seen as an intrinsic characteristic of beer; beer is cold. Even where interest in beer has been reborn and diversity restored, chilling has lingered on. When all other former preconceptions have been discarded, many beer-freaks still cling to the notion of cold beer. A new homebrew pub will carefully research traditional styles, painstakingly recreate them using the best-quality ingredients, then tap them at below 5º C.

Where lager is still king and beer awareness is down with the footwear (Asia, Australasia, southern Europe), you can only expect aching, frozen teeth. Any conversation about lack of warmth will be met with blank incomprehension and a degree of sympathy for the poor, deranged foreigner who brought the subject up. Itís no great disaster when the only beers available are ones you probably donít want to taste, if you love beer, as is the case throughout most of these areas. Frustration starts when the odd flower is sticking out of the manure.

Australia is home to some wonderful ales, brewed by Coopers in Adelaide, but I never found a pub there that knew what to do with them. Presented almost frozen, like Fosters or Carlton, it was cruelly misrepresented. I still donít know what Sparkling Ale really tastes like on draught. Even after 20 minutes standing on the bar (I always bought one beer ahead), it was still trapped under the ice and looking desperately for a hole. From the exquisite qualities of the bottled version, I can only surmise that it would stun elephants at 50 paces from the tap, if entrusted to someone with the vaguest understanding of how to treat a beer of this type.

Itís hard to imagine any noticeable happening in the near future. If anything, itís likely to get worse as a generation brought up on ice-cold soft drinks matures and starts frequenting pubs. A great deal of effort is being put into developing equipment to allow British cask beer to be served cooler. Soon the last oasis of temperate beer could freeze over. Will I be the only person to care?
Trouble at home

Pubs aren't the only places where our tastebuds are being frozen. In the home, too, itís getting chillier. Everyone wants a lovely ice-cold beer from the fridge, donít they?

Sadly, thatís all too true. I can excuse drinkers for having to endure the excessive cooling employed in pubs. They have no control over how high the landlord sets his chiller, except for leaving their glass to warm up before consuming it. At home, where there is a real choice, the overwhelming preference is to bung it in the fridge.

It isnít so bad for lagers, but for quality ales itís often a total disaster. Bottle-conditioned beers will never clear when stored below a certain temperature and it will have to be poured with the yeast in suspension. Worse still, it will drastically slow or even stop completely the secondary fermentation, preventing the beer from maturing properly. Then thereís all the shaking around from the motor and the kids rummaging around for food, plus the temperature changes from the opening and closing of the door. Add it all up and itís hard to imagine a much worse place in the house to keep beer, apart from maybe directly in front of the gas fire.

Modern house design doesnít help much. Few houses have cellars or even cool larder any more. Central heating has the whole house at 20 C (or more) and it may well be that inside the fridge is the only cooler spot. But itís still the wrong place to put your beer. A cool cellar would be perfect, but in its absence a closed cupboard well away from direct sunlight is better than having it nestling between the milk and the yoghurt.

When storing beer, there are a few important points to bear in mind, if you want to enjoy it in optimum condition.

Try to keep the temperature as constant as possible. Variations are likely to do irreparable damage. A constant 20º C or even 25º C is better than frequent changes of a few degrees. This is especially true of bottles containing yeast, which will have its action disrupted. It can be useful to store at a higher temperature to deliberately mature the beer more quickly.

Keep it in the dark. Light can cause all sorts of unpleasant chemical reactions in beer, especially if the brewer has been silly enough to use a clear glass bottle. The traditional brown glass wasnít an accident. It was chosen because it gave the most protection.

Avoid unnecessary disturbance. Beer likes to be left in peace and can react unpleasantly to rough handling. The yeast is doing an important job, perhaps even years after leaving the brewery, and you wonít help it by shaking the bottle around.
To conclude

Iíve tried in this article to explain my own ideas about beer temperature and the reasons for storing and serving far warmer than is now usual. I donít expect a great deal of agreement from the great majority of my fellow drinkers and even less change in pub practices. I can only hope that it may promote a little discussion of the topic.

I have found the general indifference with which greeted my attempts to convince others of the superiority of beer at cellar temperature most saddening. I hope that there at least a few other eccentrics out there who share my views. If I can get a few others to at least analyse their preference for beer ice cream, Iíll be happy. I donít want or expect everyone to agree with me, only to think a little and come to a reasoned conclusion.

Maybe you'll be intrigued enough to compare the taste of your favourite drop at different temperatures. It could broaden your mind and open a whole supermarket of variety. What have you got to lose?

Remember beer is to be enjoyed and getting the maximum from the experience should be everyoneís goal.





Links



Warm Beer An article about a company which is starting to market 'warm beer' . It seems that there is a demand for it after all.


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This page was last updated 26.07.04

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