Originally published in the August 2016 issue of The Bollard
On a recent business trip, I ordered a locally brewed double IPA from the short but well-rounded list of bottles available at a fine-dining restaurant. Then I saw the waitress approach our table carrying an oversized tray with the IPA and — to my horror — an empty, frozen glass.
Across a busy table of work colleagues I tried, in vain, to gesture for the server to stop — to prevent the exquisite and complex taste and aroma of the beer from entering into an unholy communion with the frosted vessel. While I helplessly watched, she poured the beer directly into the glass, which was so cold that the edges of the beer’s head turned to spiky ice crystals. I grimaced.
I’m accused, occasionally, of taking beer too seriously. I generally strive to be inclusive, understanding and welcoming when evangelizing on behalf of my favorite beverage. But there are few things that bother me more than when a bar or restaurant takes something that left the brewery in its best form possible and irrevocably changes it for the worse. My top complaint is when an establishment neglects to keep its tap lines clean, resulting in a contaminated, “dirty” beer. Frozen glassware is a sin of a different nature, one born not of neglect but, rather, a fundamental misunderstanding of craft beer.
In a way, this misconception is rooted in beer’s history. Post-Prohibition there was (and still is) a strong market for light-bodied lagers or pilsners made even thinner by the use of corn or rice as adjunct ingredients. Budweiser, Coors, and the products made by their corporate competitors became our definition of what “beer” tastes like. This type of beer (the American Adjunct Lager) still makes up over 70 percent of all the beer sold in the U.S. — a reminder that for all the craft-beer industry’s growth, the diversity in styles still has a long way to go.
Given the public’s acclimation to mild, low-flavored lagers, beer companies had to do something to differentiate their products in the marketplace, but most didn’t do that by promoting their beers’ unique taste or quality ingredients. Instead, they launched the Coldness Wars. The standard became: the colder the beer, the better. Enter gimmicks like labels that change color according to temperature and tap handles with digital thermometers displaying readings down to 31 degrees.
Our taste buds are influenced as much by flavors as by the temperature of the beer delivering them. And with each degree that temperature falls, the less flavor we are able to detect. Most beers are one of two types, ale or lager, determined by their yeast. The yeast strains all behave a bit differently, and their byproducts and processes contribute to the complex spectrum of beer flavors.
Lager yeasts ferment at slightly lower temperatures than ales’ do, and tend to produce beers that taste very “clean” — that is, they allow other ingredients to shine through, rather than dominating the flavor on their own. Serving lagers at cold temperatures can complement their crispness, because the cold strips some of the “lager” flavor away and, in some cases, can even hide the beer’s flaws — a win/win for marketers of inferior products. But lagers are intended to be served at about 40 degrees. Beyond that, all you’re doing is erasing taste. At 31 degrees — the serving temperature bragged about by some big beer companies — you’re basically drinking malt-flavored ice water.
Ale yeasts, which are fermented at warmer temperatures, can produce flavors beyond what the other ingredients can offer. The natural compounds produced as ale yeast gobbles up sugars to produce alcohol are responsible for the wide spectrum of aromas and flavors expressed in styles that are popular in the craft-beer market: IPAs, Belgian-style ales, etc. Ales cast off a wonderful bouquet of esters as byproducts of fermentation, and these esters only escape the glass and reach your nose when the beer is slightly warmer, around 47 degrees. Trap them in with cold and you have only the palest of expression of what the beer truly could be.
Brewers craft their creations and send them off into the world hoping they’ll be treated with the same love and care they put into making them. So let’s respect beer by letting its flavors out, which means serving it at a temperature above the freezing point.