Cold or warm? Find out what temperature beer should be stored and served at.
If you put an Aussie and real ale-loving Englishman together and ask them the best temperature at which to serve beer, you’ll get a range from almost frozen to room temperature, assuming your room is not an igloo. Neither is wrong and neither is exactly right and a compromise will leave you in the middle of a road to nowhere, because the real answer as to what temperature you should drink beer is actually…it depends.
But before we roll out our barrels and stubby-holders it’s worth looking at a beer’s journey from pub to glass. Let’s put aside for a moment cask-conditioned English ales and look at most commercial beers that end up in your hand.
Most beer before it is put into kegs, bottles or cans is chilled down to around 4 degrees celsius. There’s a number of reasons for this – first, it’s easier to get carbon dioxide into a cool beer than a warm beer. You can try this for yourself at home if you have a Sodastream – compare the difference between gassing warm water and chilled water.
Also, most pubs and bars have a tap system set up to operate at 4°C, so having the beer arrive at that temperature makes it easier for everyone.
Finally, one of beer’s enemies is warmth – but don’t get the wrong idea here. Warmth doesn’t damage beer or cause it to go off. Beer is a remarkably stable product and whether it’s stored in your fridge or in a cupboard it is not going to make a real difference to its flavour in the short term.
However, over a long period of time, a beer stored at room temperature will deteriorate at a slightly faster rate than a beer stored in a fridge. And by deteriorate we are usually talking oxidation, caused by the oxygen trapped in the beer slowly changing the chemical composition to create a cardboard-like, musty aroma and dulling the flavour, but this process, depending on how well the beer is made, can take many months.
So brewers give their beer the best start in life by keeping it chilled. The best breweries try to maintain a “cold chain” which means the beer stays chilled during shipping and until it reaches its destination. The last thing a brewer wants is for his precious cargo to be sitting in an overheated container in the blazing sun and warming up to 30 degrees. Again this won’t wreck the beer but it will speed up the ageing process and given a brewer doesn’t know how long it’s going to take for you, the consumer, to get your hands on a specific bottle or can, he or she wants to give that beer the best chance of being in an optimum state when it’s opened.
When you buy your beer there’s every chance you’ll take it from the fridge in the New World store and take it home to your own fridge. But there’s no harm in buying a beer that’s sitting on a shelf and equally there’s no big problem if you take a chilled beer home and store it in a cupboard. Science tells us that a cycle of chilling, warming and re-chilling is not going to ruin the beer – but, as noted earlier, it will fractionally speed up any deterioration if this is played out over a period of months.
Many breweries in New Zealand also take the extra step of pasteurizing their beer. While all breweries have a massive commitment to sanitation there’s always a chance a microbe could find its way into the otherwise sterile beer. Cold transportation is one step to ensure any unwanted trespassers do no damage, but pasteurization ensures that if the beer does warm up, the microbes won’t.
The exception to all this chilling and pasteurizing is what we call bottle-conditioned beer – where the brewer has left some yeast in the bottle which makes the beer a living product. The yeast, at room temperature, continues to work its magic and subtly changes the character of the beer for the better. Once these bottles are in the fridge the yeast goes dormant and the beer stops developing.
Most beer we wrap our lips around is designed to be drunk as fresh as possible. Beers built around aromatic hops are definitely better fresh, though a little bit of “conditioning” can mellow out the aggressive notes of some very bitter beers.
As a rule, a nice hoppy beer is best consumed within six months of production, but can equally be just as delicious in another six months’ time, but don’t store your hoppy beers thinking they’ll be better off in two or three years.
All beers can age to some extent – it’s just that some do it better than others and some really do benefit from a bit of time. Ageing diminishes bitterness and increases sweetness, introducing, toffee, raisin and apple characters. The trick is to drink an aged beer before it tips too far into musty cardboard.
Higher alcohol and darker malts, preferably in combination, will age gracefully and develop deliciously in your cellar. A barley wine, old ale or imperial stout – or beers aged in barrels – will mellow, sweetening towards a port or sherry profile.
The only way to know whether a beer is better now or in a year or five is to buy a few, store them in a dark, cool place in an upright position (never on the side) and try them over time.
But if you’ve got a lovely IPA and like hops – best drink it this year rather than next.
Regardless of what temperature the beer has been at, most of us stick it in the fridge before we drink it.
The big question is how cold should it be?
Given most of us don’t have temperature controlled fridges, we usually take what the ice box gives us, which is something around 4 – 5°C. This is a great temperature if it’s the middle of summer and you’re stinking hot and thirsty and just want a quenching, cold, fizzy drink.
Beers with little flavour – and this is not a criticism of said beers – better suit being drunk very cold. The colder a beer, the less flavour your palate can detect so it goes without saying that a very pale, bland lager is not going to lose anything if consumed icy cold. After all, if it’s designed to be easy-drinking, so go ahead and have a cold one.
Other beers are designed to showcase aromas and layers of flavour and you get to appreciate more of these nuances if you have the beer a little warmer.
Again, if we’re talking about a beer from your 4°C fridge there will be some trial and error in getting a bottle or can to the right temperature for serving. The best way to experiment is to have two identical bottles, remove one and let it stand for 20 minutes before taking out the other and comparing the two tastes.
One leading cicerone (that’s a beer expert to you and me) even suggests a quick blast in the microwave for 10 seconds is not a bad thing for your IPA!
As a general rule here are some temperature guidelines…
0 – 4°C: A beer you just want cold and you’re not too worried about how it tastes – suited to well-known American lagers and other beers marketed with images of ice and snow.
5 – 7°C: Most lagers, pilsners, wheat beers, pale ales, porters and dry stouts will be just perfect if poured into a room temperature glass. The glass itself will warm the beer close to the right temperature (on that note, some pubs and clubs love having ice cold glasses in a fridge for you, which is fine after a round of golf on a hot day but otherwise no). And by the time you’re halfway through you can be guaranteed it has reached its optimum temperature.
8 - 12°C: Bigger bolder offerings such as double IPA, Baltic porter, Imperial stout, as well as traditional English bitters. Let them stand for 20 minutes or so on the bench. Or conversely, if they are coming from your basement or cellar, 45-60 minutes in the fridge will do them justice remembering beers warm up faster than they cool down.
12 - 15°C: Barley wine, English strong ale. These can be happily drunk straight from your cellar or chilled just fractionally.