Serving Temperatures, and Colorimetric What?

Ask the Beer Geek by | May 2008 | Issue #16

I know BeerAdvocate has the “serve at” temperature recommendations online, but I was curious about some more specifics:

1. What happens to the taste of different types of beer at different temperatures? Does cold beer universally bring out different flavor characteristics than warm beer, or does it vary by beer type?

2. Does it hurt a quality beer to throw it in the freezer for a bit, to cool it rapidly?

3. Does beer change in taste if it starts out chilled, but ends up getting warmer as you drink it? Why?

I’ve got a St. Bernardus Abt 12 that I’m excited to drink, and I read a review that says the beer’s wonderful if served “at the right temperature,” but it’s just average if too warm. Thanks in advance. —Steve Ewing

Great questions, Steve. As you’ve already picked up, serving temperatures are very important in the enjoyment of beer, but before I get ahead of myself, I’ll address each one separately.

1. To keep things simple, generally speaking, cold masks flavors and warmth brings flavors out.

2. In my personal experience, throwing any beer into the freezer to rapidly cool it down will not impact the beer. You just don’t want to freeze the beer, because then it’ll be ruined and only good to cook with. However, the best way to cool the beer is over a solid period of time, especially if the beer is bottle-conditioned, so that the yeast and sediment can properly settle and compact.

3. Yes, as a beer warms, the aroma, flavors and even mouthfeel (texture) will change. Why does this happen? Our sense of taste is directly related to our sense of smell. Volatiles, which as far as tasting goes, are vapors that rise off the back of the palate and up our nasal cavity after swallowing beer. Colder temperatures inhibit the beer’s ability to release these volatiles, but as the beer warms, they’re released, hence the overall character of the beer changes.

I always recommend serving beer on the cooler side, simply because you can always allow a beer to warm if it’s too cold, but you can’t cool an already poured beer if it’s too warm. It’s also interesting to experience the beer as it warms and opens up. Personally, I learn a lot about a beer using this method.

Now what really bugs the hell out of me is when some nerd complains that their beer is too cold at the bar and makes a big stink about it. Boo-freagin’-hoo! Stop your damn crying and warm it with your hands. Enjoy the experience. Plus, you’ve got to realize that many bars serve their beers colder on tap as beer tends to foam less when cold. But anyway, where were we?

As for the right temperature for St. Bernardus Abt 12, don’t allow it to warm too much as it’ll get boozy on you, which will mask a lot of the nuances. You’ll find that somewhere around 50–55˚F will be just fine, but ultimately this is a personal preference thing with no real right or wrong. How can you tell when the temperature is ideal? Without being one of these über-beer geeks—no, beer nerds—who run around with pocket thermometers, after awhile you’ll be able to gauge it by touch and sense memory with your hands and palate. Experiment and do what works for you.

On estimating alcohol by the colorimetric method, our results showed 11g percent alcohol. How do we know the ABV if the room temperature is above ambient (say 30–35˚C)? —Dr. Sunita Singh

I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about, doctor, but from your question I notice items that might help. First, I’ll have to assume you’re using the same method for each of the estimations—you don’t state otherwise. Second, you fail to mention the temperature used in your first method—I can only assume that you’d need this to compare or adjust results. Regardless, isn’t colorimetric detection of alcohol used in conjunction with dyes and primarily applied to hydrocarbon fuels, like gasoline? Aren’t doctors supposed to be smart or something? I’m just a beer geek, who goes by whatever the brewer slaps on the label.