Is Beer Better when It's Not Ice Cold?

Cold beer. Hot wings. Loud TV. These are the foundations of American red-bloodedness. Right? Only, the first of these might be a little misguided. Those enticing beer commercials flashing money shots of frosty mugs and bottles glistening with condensation as they're yanked in slow-mo out of ice-filled coolers, splashing refreshing mist and Americana onto the bikini-clad hotties frolicking all around? They're hiding something sinister: bad beer.

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Big, corporate breweries -- the Buds, Millers and Coorses of the world -- have long emphasized the requisite iciness at which their beers should be served, going so far as to now peddle temperature-controlled bottles that tell you when your beer is cold enough. The problem with such gimmicks is that too-cold temperatures actually dull the taste of beer. At least, it's a problem if you happen to be drinking a finely crafted microbrew. If you are, indeed, knocking back an ice-cold Coors, the deep freeze will serve to mask its lack of flavor and keep the tingly carbonation intact, further distracting your taste buds.

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Sensory scientist Sue Langstaff, who researches how we interpret and process the taste of food and drink, recently told Slate that the reason glacial cold covers up a beer's flavors is that "key aromatic compounds cannot volatilize at lower temperatures." In other words, aromas, which are a fundamental part of flavor, cannot be released when they are too cold. That is why red wine is served at room temperature. Serve it too cold, and all the swirling in the world won't release its aromas and, therefore, its flavors. It's also why, like fine wine, craft beer should be nosed before you take your first sip. Of course, try it with a macrobrew and you'll find that Bud has little in the way of a bouquet.

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After spending several years in England, I became accustomed to room-temperature beer. The unfizzy cask ales that are the pride of English pubs are served this way, as they have been for ages. These complex, fragrant beers are now not only found in the U.S., but are actually being made here. Due to the care required in handling cask ales, however, they are still a rarity. Most draft beer systems are set up to pour beer at 38 degrees F. Cask ales, which are unpasteurized and unfiltered, are dispensed from a firkin: a wood, plastic or metal keg that instead of using pressure to keep beer carbonated, allows live yeasts in the beer to give off their gentle, natural effervescence. To keep the yeasts from going dormant, as well as to do justice to the complexities in the beer, cask ales are best enjoyed at 55 degrees. Other types of beer can be served slightly colder.

"[Serving beer icy cold] is a marketing thing," says Ted Kenny, founder of Top Hops, a craft beer shop-slash-tasting room in New York. "Marketers have convinced people that the colder the beer, the more
refreshing. However, any brewer will say you should never freeze a mug; you can chill it, but never freeze. You want to taste the beer and you can only do that at higher temperatures… Like a red wine, beer needs to open up."

Kenny recommends that draft beers be served between 39 and 43 degrees F. Warmer than that, and the beer can get too foamy; colder, and the carbonation won't open up to release the aromas. For more full-bodied bottled beer, 46-48 degrees F will do, while bottled lagers and pilsners can be served at 45 degrees F. As a general rule, the heavier the beer - chocolate stouts and barleywines, say - the higher the temperature should be. So, what do you do with a black IPA? Use your judgment and, if it's so cold that you can't smell anything, just exercise some restraint and wait a few minutes for it warm up. You can always cup the glass with your hands to transmit some of your own body heat.

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I've conducted the experiment before with aromatic white wines: tasted them far too cold, then let them warm up a bit for the floral and fruit essences to be properly released. But I'd never done it with beer. So, recently, I found myself cramming a can of Sixpoint's Sweet Action, a cream ale and easily one of my favorite beers on the planet, into the freezer for 20 minutes. For good measure, I poured it into a frosty beer glass that had also been frozen. The results?

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Well, after losing a pinch of lip skin that stuck to the glass, you can probably guess what happened: the frigid beer had no smell, no "sweet action" to speak of. In the mouth, it was just cold, had little flavor compared to what I knew it to taste like. Plus, it gave me a bit of an ice-cream headache. OK, so maybe I overdid it on the freezing. I also didn't take the beer's temperature, so don't ask how cold it got. But when it warmed up significantly, leaving a ring-shaped puddle on my table, it seemed to return to its true self. The aromas and flavors I recognized and love - sweet malts, bright hops, a hint of citrus - blossomed. Not exactly a scientific breakthrough, but a point proven, more or less: save the sub-zero temperatures for your snow cone. When it comes to beer, ice cold ain't so hot.

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