We’re a culture of hot chocolate and iced tea. We like to order our Venti Vanilla Skim Lattes extra extra hot and keep our canned and bottled beverages arctically cold—and ideally dripping with photo-ready condensation.
So yeah, we don’t often think about subtle variations in temperature as having a big impact on a drink. But as soon as you get even a little bit deeper into the world of beer (or wine), you’ll realize that mercury levels (in the thermometer, that is) actually matter.
Why? Because very cold temperatures will have an impact on carbonation, reduce aromatic volatility, and numb your taste buds. The easiest way to get a sense for this is to think about something really basic, say, a Budweiser or Coors, beers that are often depicted as best served ice cold (both companies have innovated “cold activated” bottles, with thermochromic ink that changes color to indicate, and celebrate, crazy low serving temps). Chances are you’ve consumed a Coors or two ice cold, but have you ever had one closer to 50 or 60 F? Chances are you haven’t, and that’s because the relatively low flavor complexity of such beers doesn’t do well at warmer temperatures, where flavors are more on display. Instead, with that “cold as the Rockies” concept, flavors are masked, and something like Coors is more drinkable.
Shifting gears to the wider flavor spectrum of beers and craft beers out there, we find that flavors are actually in abundance and the goal of serving temperature is to enhance, rather than mask. But it isn’t just a matter of arctic vs room temp. As with glassware, it’s about what is right for what style of beer.
A basic rule of thumb is higher alcohol, higher complexity beers should be served at higher temperatures, while lower alcohol and/or lower complexity beers are better at lower temperatures (stopping well short of frigidity). Color also is a roughly useful indicator of serving temp, with lighter colored beers doing better at lower temps, and darker beers doing better at warmer temps.
Of course, when we say warm, we’re not really talking about “room temperature.” No one drinks beer that warm, not even the Brits, who instead more often drink beer at cellar temperature, around 55 F. The range for beer drinking is basically between 40F and 60F. To keep it simple, here’s a basic spectrum of appropriate temperatures for some of your favorite beers. (Bear in mind, personal preference always trumps recommendations.)
- 40 and below: best reserved for mass-marketed, “lite,” and otherwise one-dimensional refreshment beers
- 40 to 45: lagers, German Pilsners, wheat beers, Kolsch, lighter fruit beers, American dark lagers, lighter in profile but with more available complexity
- 45 to 50: American pale ales, IPAs, porters, stouts, Bohemian pilsner, English golden ale, Belgian ale, Spanish and French cider, unsweetened lambics and gueuzes
- 50 to 55: Bocks, English beers (bitters and milds), Scottish ales, Brown ale, saison, Abbey dubbel
- 55 to 60: stronger beers like Imperials, dopplebocks, barleywines