Total Pageviews

Friday, January 6, 2012

To the Lab! - 53 Degrees or Bust!

Iced mugs may be awesome, but only for 
American macro lager 1

OK, just to be upfront, this will not be a piece on the relationship to beer to the setting of the US-Canadian border, though I am sure a fair amount of beer was consumed prior to, during and after the negotiations.

One term that we regular relate to beer is its temperature – it has got to be cold. An ice-cold beer on a hot day is definitely refreshing. I remember floating down the American River in college with a keg of Budweiser lashed between our three rafts and remaining just the perfect temperature all afternoon, despite the warm August weather. Several macro breweries, notably of late Coors, have made a lot over the temperature indicators on their packaging so you know when it is cold enough to drink. Colder, they would have you believe, is always better.

Now this can be taken to an extreme. I remember being at my mother-in-law’s house in Sweden and we left a few beers outside overnight. A frozen beer is not a pretty sight, especially after it has cracked the bottle and popped its own top. We shouldn’t abuse the alcohol. At the same time, I don’t serve beer with ice – that would water it down as the ice melted. So we don’t want to freeze our beer[1].

If beer has been brewed for 8,000 years and we have only had reliable artificial refrigeration since 1756, then an ice-cold beer served in the 30s (single digits for you devotees of Anders Celsius) is a relatively new phenomenon.[2] Cold is key for three reasons, though there are probably more.

The first is that it helps to keep the beer preserved over longer periods of time.
This enables both longer local storage and the ability to transport it over longer distances. The second is to enhance flavor and drinkability in warm weather. In warmer areas, the lack of refrigeration required other techniques, such as actual chemical preservatives, such as formaldehyde, being added to the brew. This skews the taste.  Third, is that lager style beers, the most popular in the world, are better cold.

But for the most part, anything above freezing should be good, right? In a discussion in the pubs one evening, I heard it told that one particular establishment was unsuitable because it served its beer, notably Guinness, too cold. It was the first time I had heard such a thing – how could a beer be served too cold?

Canoe beers[3] were served cold to mask their lack of flavor and body, but headier and older brews needed to be served quite a bit warmer? A little more conversation revealed that the preferred temperature was 53 degrees Fahrenheit or about 12 Celsius. So what is so special about 53 degrees, I asked, and no one really knew.

Once upon a time after beer was brewed and put into barrels, it, like many other ancient beverages, was stored underground. At a depth of about 10 feet (about 3.3 m) beneath the surface, the temperature of the Earth is a roughly constant – you guessed it – 53 degrees Fahrenheit. This enabled beer to be served “cold” through the summer and prevented it from freezing during the winter. Beers with an older heritage had evolved over time to be served at the warmer temperature. The colder temperatures tend to mask the more complex tastes in heartier brew types. As a beer warms up, particularly in these styles the complexities start to reveal themselves. This is a good thing.

So the next time you wander into a new pub and you want to take the measure of the place, order up a Guinness and check to see if it’s the right temperature. It should be 53 degrees or it’s a bust.

[1] There is an exception to this, Eisbock, which undergoes freeze distilling to ramp up the alcohol content in the beer. Please, please do not confuse this with the iced beer fad from the mid 90s.
[2] Though roots of this stem from the establishment of the Reinheitsgebot in 1516, but that is a discussion for another time
[3] Canoe beers refer to brews that are similar to making love in a canoe – very close
to water.

No comments:

Post a Comment