A lot has already been said about how the shape of the glass a beer is served in brings out different flavor elements. In rather unscientific tests, beer tasters felt that beer glasses designed around a particular beer brought out a slightly better taste profile.
Glassware has become a huge money spinner for craft breweries as of late, so these findings being pushed as borderline science are not immensely surprising. Making a far bigger impact on a beer’s taste, all completely backed up scientifically, is the precise temperature at which the beer is served.
The only words of “wisdom” the layman can add to the conversation is to say beer should be served cold. That, in itself, means nothing because beer can mean anything from a cask ale to a pilsner and the word cold is just as relative. Is 10 degrees Celsius cold enough? 5 degrees? This is based on the layman’s usually minimal experience of drinking solely lagers, which indeed must be served cold.
How cold? That depends on the type of lager. Coldness to the extreme suppresses taste. Mass produced lagers, containing little hops and lacking in complexity, are best served between 2 and 4 degrees Celsius. Light bodied and low alcohol beverages (under 5% ABV) aren’t packed with enough flavor that chilling temperatures will suppress anything. Consider this category restricted to American adjunct lagers (= the majority of macro brews), malt liquors, and lite beers.
Now you know why there are no experts proclaiming that Coke or Fanta should be served at a very precise temperature. A soda’s dominant flavor comes from sugar, over 9 teaspoons per can on average. The sweetness is what’s diminished if the Coke is served at Arctic cold temps, a good thing for most non-aspiring diabetic drinkers. The colder the better has become the dominant philosophy.
This is another way of understanding why you can get away adding ice cubes to a warm soda or to cheap ciders but less so with warm lagers. The melting ice cubes will water down the sweet drinks like they would any other beverage but all they’re watering down at the core is the taste of the sugar, exactly what would happen if the sugared drink had been iced in the freezer instead. Sodas and cheap ciders also tend to be more highly carbonated. The still water from the decomposing ice cube has much less impact on the overall carbonation.
Your takeaway: add ice only to highly carbonated low alcohol beers with minimal body if you want the beer cold but with its flavor profile more or less intact.
Our taste perception is enhanced as the temperature increases. Cold ice cream will taste sweeter, making it detestably sweet after it melts, and beers will taste more bitter.
Tasting these bitter notes will work to your advantage when drinking a higher quality beer. For better quality beers where some bitterness on the taste buds is preferred, like Munich Helles, wheat beers, Berliner weisses, Kolshes, and dunkels, 2 to 4 degrees C (35-40 F) is too cold for all the flavors to come through. These beers would be best sampled at 4-7 C (40-45 F).
As we rise up the bitterness and/or alcohol scale – alcohol itself imparts its own bitter tastes – the ideal serving temperatures continue to rise. IPA’s, American pale ales, porters, Irish and sweet stouts, and fuller lagers would taste best at 7 to 10 C (45-50 F).
At 10-13 C (50-55 F), you are in the range of what is known as cellar temperatures. Best served at this temperature are sour ales, lambics, English bitters, Baltic porters, Scottish ales, most Belgian ales, and English bitters.
In the warm category at 13-16 C (55-60 F) are the barleywines, Imperial stouts, extra strong Belgian ales, doppelbocks, tripels, and quads, and pretty much all those newfangled craft beers with absurd alcohol contents upwards of 20%. The British, it seems, have been undeservingly mocked for decades for serving warm beer. Some of those beers were actually being served at their ideal temperatures.
Now here is the rub. What is the use of being armed with all this scientific knowledge if most consumers aren’t? Consumers have been conditioned to expect their beers cold, regardless of type. Even those who know stronger ales are supposed to be served warmer might not relish really having a beer served that way. Few of us possess such refined palates anyway to discern the extra flavors and aromas present if a beer is served ten degrees warmer.
Accordingly, few bars will go to the trouble to invest in multiple coolers to accommodate each specific beer type. Kegs which house draft beer are typically kept at 3 degrees C (38 F). The keg could be dispensing stout or an IPA. It requires too much effort to have different kegs kept at different temperatures within the same facility.
Especially as beer warms up the second it’s served to you. True temperature purists will order two beers at once. The stronger beer which is meant to be served warm sits on the bar defrosting for 10 to 15 minutes while the tippler drinks the first.
Ironically, the ones taking beer temperatures the most seriously in public are the macrobrewers who don’t need to. At the Asahi Brewery in Fukuoka, Japan, the three beers served on tap in unlimited quantities during the tour participants’ 15 minute after-tour drinking session all have thermometers attached to the kegs prominently displaying the ‘ideal’ temperature. As all the beers on offer are lagers, it didn’t much matter if the beers are cooled to 2 degrees or 6 degrees. An Asahi tasting room in Busan, South Korea pulls a similar stunt.
Most drinkers just don’t know or care. They’re more interested in thinking they’re drinking a beer at its ideal temperature than actually wanting to have the beer as such. In the end, it doesn’t much matter what the temperature on the display reads, just as long as it’s cold.