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. 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.
Secondly, it’s fair to say all brewers want you to enjoy fresh beer. When beer gets warm, it ages faster. So warming a beer won’t ‘ruin it’ or make it go off, but it does mean it won’t stay fresh for long.
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. All brewers want to give that beer the best chance of being in an optimum state when you open it.
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.
A good beer bar should mean a steady turnover of kegs, which means the beer poured from the tap will be fresh. Bars can be warm places, especially if they are close to a kitchen serving food. By keeping kegs refrigerated, bars are protecting the beer from the heat so it will still be fresh by the time you order your next round.
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, yes you can store your beer at room temperature, but keep track of how long you have stored it for. No beer will stay fresh forever.
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 is to buy a few, store them in a dark, cool place in an upright position and try them over time. Never store beer lying on its side.
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 ale or lager 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. if you’ve got a lovely IPA and like hops – best drink it sooner rather than later.
Barrel aged beers or darker beers like stouts and porters will last longer. You may be able to cellar them for a year or two and still enjoy them.
So, if you like hazy IPA for instance, keep it cold and drink it young – it’s best when fresh.
If you love a robust stout, and it’s well-made, keeping it at room temperature for a few months won’t have an adverse effect on it.
A number of breweries put out what they call bottle-conditioned – or living – beer. This means some yeast is left in the bottle which helps scavenge any remaining oxygen so your beer stays fresher for longer.
This mini-fermentation going on in the bottle also subtly changes the flavour and character of the beer. Once these bottles are in the fridge, or all the oxygen is gone, the yeast goes dormant and the beer stops developing.
If your beer is bottled conditioned there will be some sediment in the bottom – this is harmless but can add a yeasty bite to the beer that’s not to everyone’s taste so with these ones try to end your pour before the sediment falls into the glass.
Some wheat beers are designed to be “roused” so the yeast is disturbed and hangs in suspension – to do this, roll the bottle gently on its side before pouring to make sure the wheat beer is suitably cloudy.
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 hot and thirsty and just want a quenching, cold, fizzy drink.
Beers with little flavour – and this is not a criticism of those beers – better suit being drunk very cold. The colder a beer, the less flavour your palate can detect so a very pale 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!
The colder the beer, the harder it is for some of the aromas to find their way to your nose. It’s the same with wine. A little warmth releases some of the volatile flavour compounds.
Bigger, bolder beers benefit from warming up just a little. Letting a big stout or porter warm up towards 10℃ helps you appreciate those richer, darker malts and their “warm” flavours of chocolate, vanilla and coffee.
You may want to let your bottle or can stand on the kitchen table for 15 minutes before opening and serving to allow the beer to come to temperature. If you can’t wait that long, wrap your hands around the beer glass to introduce a little heat.
Most fridge’s chill food to four or five degrees Celsius. For one bottle of 500ml craft beer, expect to leave it in the fridge for a little over an hour for it to fully cool down. A smaller 330ml bottle will need less time, around 45 minutes to an hour.
Be very careful. If it’s an incredibly hot summer day and you’re desperate to chill your beers down, then you can put them in the freezer for a short period of time only. Set a reminder on your phone, because you do not want to leave them in there and forget.
Do not place beer in a freezer for more than 10 minutes at a time.
You may have heard of people placing vodka or gin in a freezer. Because those spirits have an ABV of roughly 40%, the higher alcohol content will prevent them from freezing.
Beer has a much lower ABV, usually between 4% and 8%. Even if it doesn’t freeze solid it will still expand as it gets colder, splitting cans and cracking glass bottles. We don’t recommend storing beer in your freezer.
Michael Donaldson is one of New Zealand’s most renowned beer writers and was named Beer Writer of the Year by the Brewers Guild of New Zealand for a third time in 2018. He has been the Chair of Judges for the New World Beer & Cider Awards since 2016.
His writing appears in North & South, The New Zealand Herald, Stuff and Drinksbiz. He is also the editor of The Pursuit of Hoppiness magazine published by the Society of Beer Advocates (SOBA). He is the author of New Zealand's definitive beer history Beer Nation - the Art and Heart of Kiwi Beer as well as The Big Book of Home Brew: a Kiwi Guide and The Hopfather, the biography of Emerson's founder Richard Emerson.