By Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter
In my experience, Alaskans are usually pretty sensitive to temperature. By that I don’t mean that we let the temperature decide what we can and can’t do — people who routinely go outdoors when it’s well below zero are obviously not deterred by how cold it is. However, we do want to know how cold (or warm) it is, so we can dress accordingly.
A bad clothing choice in the Lower 48 means you’ll be uncomfortable. In Alaska, it may mean hypothermia and death.
Temperature is very important to brewers as well, especially brewers of the cold-fermented beers known as lagers. Ale yeasts like to work at relatively warm temperatures, at or just below 70 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s not hard to achieve in most climates, except perhaps at the height of summer.
But lager yeasts are very different. To be brewed properly, such beers must be fermented at temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Once primary fermentation is completed, it then needs to be stored (lager in German, hence the name) at near-freezing temperatures for several weeks to allow this slow-working yeast to finish its task.
When done properly, the result is the clear, crisp, clean-tasting lager beers with which we are familiar.
Prior to the development of artificial refrigeration in the late 19th century, you can see how this requirement for cold temperatures could present quite a problem. Breweries were built with huge underground cellars and massive icehouses.
Ice would be sawn from frozen lakes during the winter in huge blocks and then stored in the icehouses, covered in sawdust as an insulator. During the warmer months, blocks would be removed as needed and transported to the underground cellars. There they would be allowed to slowly melt, keeping the cellars (and the beers stored therein) at the required temperatures through the heat of summer.
Given how costly and cumbersome this process was, it’s easy to see why American breweries, such as Anheuser-Busch, were pioneers in using artificial refrigeration on an industrial scale. In fact, Anheuser-Busch was using refrigerated boxcars to ship beer well before anyone thought of using them to ship meat.
By the start of the 20th century, temperature control was no longer a serious issue for the commercial brewer, and the ease of obtaining the required cold temperatures, regardless of the local climate, helped lagers capture the 90 percent-plus of the world beer market that they still enjoy to this day.
As consumers of beer, rather than brewers, our main concern is not the temperature the beer experiences at the brewery.
Rather, we need to think about what temperature it sees on its travels from the brewery to wherever we are buying it, and, most importantly, the temperature at which it is being served.
When beer is being shipped, heat is the enemy. The warmer a package of beer (keg, can or bottle) is kept, the more rapidly the beer within it will degrade.
Drastic temperature swings will also greatly accelerate the staling of the beer. It’s something to think about when buying a European import that got to us inside a huge metal container that sat for two weeks on the dock in New Orleans in July. Ideally, beer should be kept at a constant, cold temperature from the brewery to your glass.
So what temperature should that beer in your glass be? Well, I can tell you this: It should not be freezing! Yes, beer — at least good beer — should never be served that cold. Freezing or near-freezing temperatures numb your taste buds and significantly inhibit your ability to actually taste what you are drinking.
Lagers should typically be served around 40 degrees (the average American home refrigerator temperature is 35 degrees), while most ales should be served around 50 to 55 degrees. The good news is that if you are ever served a beer that’s too cold, just wait a few minutes and let it warm up.
You’ll be amazed at how much more flavor will present itself.
While we’re on the subject of serving temperatures, let’s talk for a moment about frosted or frozen glasses. My advice is: Just say no!
I dislike frozen glasses for two reasons. First, frozen glasses will make the beer too cold, as discussed above. Second, and more importantly, unless the glass was extensively rinsed and then air-dried before going in the freezer, it’s likely that that lovely frost you see contains some delicious dishwasher water. Yum, just what I want to add to my craft beer!
My advice is to ask your server to take that frozen mug back and bring you a clean, room-temperature glass. If they say they don’t have any, tell them you’ll settle for a nice red wine glass.
You’re paying good money to enjoy good craft beer, so make sure you can actually taste that for which you are paying.
Until next month, cheers!
Bill Howell is a home brewer, teaches a beer appreciation class at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus and was named the 2010 Beerdrinker of the Year by Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver.