Strange as it may seem, one of the drivers behind my selection of beers this Christmas, or at least the order in which the beers were drunk, has been available fridge space. This may seem a little strange, especially where ales are concerned, as surely top-fermented beers are not supposed to be served cold? Perhaps not, but as those vintage Foster's ads famously said, "Well, you wouldn't want a warm beer would you?".
The temperature at which English ale was traditionally served was a long standing source of both amusement and frustration to visitors to these shores. With most of the world used to lager-style beers, traditionally served at significantly lower temperatures than the "cellar temperatures" normal in these islands, it is perhaps easy to understand why tourists would be tempted to complain.
Times change of course, and as Brits began to travel more, and developed a taste for "bottom-fermented beers", they too acquired a taste for cooler beers and started to demand them when they returned home.
We're all familiar with the rise of lager in the British Isles, from a beer enjoyed by a tiny minority during the early 1960's, to the most popular style of beer a couple of decades later. The rise in lager's popularity was said to have been helped by a series of particularly hot summers, when a cold beer would have been especially welcome, and lager, of course, is always served chilled.
It was probably around this time that a feature known as the "cold shelf" first appeared behind the bars of many UK pubs. This was a refrigerated shelf used to keep bottles cool. Such shelves were commonplace for a while, but were eventually superseded by the chill cabinets and glass-fronted coolers which are such a feature of pubs today.
The growing popularity of chilled bottled beers was mirrored by the use of chillers for the dispense of keg-type beers, and of course lagers. Cask-beer (real ale ) on the other hand, had none of this and devotees had to make do with a pint served at "cellar temperature". This was fine during the cooler months of the year, but during the summer a warm and, by association, insipid pint was often the order of the day.
A number of solutions to this problem were found, starting with chiller units for pub cellars. These were heat-exchangers, similar to air-conditioning units, which control the temperature, and often the humidity in the cellar. Cellar cooling was a great step forward and resulted in a huge improvement in the keeping qualities of cask beer. The resultant lower temperature at which the beer was served, was also welcomed by many customers; but not all.
There were rumblings from within CAMRA that "real ale" was being served at too cool a temperature. The low temperatures were masking the subtle flavours associated with cask beer, resulting in a pint which was bland and tasteless. This may have been true to a point, but was probably due to licensees being over-zealous with the cellar thermostat, rather than inherent problems with the system itself.
Over-chilled cask ale was a problem long before cellar-cooling was ever heard of, and I can remember the “joys” of drinking beer in the middle of several particularly harsh winters. The pints served in some pubs were nearly as cold as the ice and snow outside, and certainly rattled ones teeth! One Tonbridge pub of my acquaintance, famously took to giving customer’s pints a quick 30 second zap in the microwave, in order to restore the beer to a more palatable temperature.
These days, many pubs serve beer which is chilled at the point of dispense, and providing the temperature is properly regulated, this is to be welcomed. Another positive development is the use of beer lines with a narrow bore, as it means there is less beer sitting in the lines between sessions, and less chance of this beer becoming warm. The introduction of beer-engines with a quarter of a pint pull, again lowers the chance of customers being served a warm pint.
The main consequence of all this is customers have gradually become use to a cooler pint, and I am no exception. Years ago I wouldn't have dreamt of sticking a bottle of ale in the fridge for any length of time, whereas nowadays I much prefer my bitters and pale ales to be chilled, in the same manner as a lager. I even prefer darker beers, such as porters and stouts to be served cool; but it is important here to distinguish between cool and chilled (cold).
There are various guidelines and recommendations to the best temperatures for the dispense of different styles of beer. The ones I have reproduced below are from the US, so they may appear a little on the cool side:
Mass market lagers 2–4°C; Czech and German Pilsners, Bavarian Helles, wheat beers, Kölsch. 4–7°C; IPAs, American pale ales, porters, and most stouts 7–10°C; Belgian ales, sour ales, Bocks, English bitters and milds 10–13°C.
In order to experience all the aromas and tastes that the brewer has carefully crafted into the beer, cask ale does need to be dispensed at the correct temperature. If the beer is too warm unpleasant and unplanned aromas will be given off, too cold and the clean, fresh, vibrant tastes will be lost.
Cask Marque and most brewers, recommend between 11 – 13°C, with the former organisation working to a range of 10-14°C, when carrying out its inspections; thereby allowing a little leeway.
Even lagers should not be served too cold, and despite the appeal of an ice cold beer, lager should actually be served at a warmer temperature than you might imagine.
Pilsner Urquell, for example, recommend serving their classic “original” Pilsner at 7 - 8°C, and I have seen this temperature displayed on a monitor, in the enormous beer-hall, beneath the brewery, in Pilsen.
There may be a reason then for mass market lagers being served at just 2–4°C, and that reason is to disguise their lack of taste. So were the Foster's ads correct, or were they just trying to put across the macho Australian image typically associated with the beer?
Intriguingly the answer is both yes and no; as whilst no-one in their right mind would want a warm beer, one which is cold enough to set your teeth on edge is equally undesirable. As we have seen, the temperature at which beer is served is very much style dependent and whilst good pubs and bars know this, and use it to their customer’s advantage, there are plenty who unfortunately do not.
If this is the case, perhaps more of us should carry a digital thermometer around with us; as one well-known beer blogger is reported as doing!!