Beer should be served cold… Or should it?

The traditional rule is that ales should be served at cellar temperature (12-16 degrees C) and lagers should be served at the temperature at which they ferment (6-10 degrees C).

Unlike ales, lagers go through an extra process in their development – the lagering process – where they are stored (Lagerung is the German word for storage) for several weeks at a temperature near freezing to allow ‘impurities’ to drop out.

This is what gives lagers their crisp, refined demeanour. On the liquid bread scale, lagers would be like a crusty Italian white bread and ales would be more like pumpernickel.

These days, your typical beer is frigid – served at a fridge temperature of around 4-6 degrees C. This is particularly devastating for liquid pumpernickel, (i.e., ales). Coldness constricts. The true aroma and flavour of many ales only emerges when the beer warms up.

This is especially true of high-alcohol, complex beers such as barleywines and old ales. Lead Dog from Yukon Brewing Co. is a tasty example of an old ale. Do this beer a favour and let this baby warm up a little before you drink it. It will thank you.

Somehow, humankind managed to exist for thousands of years without refrigeration. Caves were a perfectly acceptable means to preserve food and beer – sort of.

During the early part of the 1800s, an enterprising young man in New York could make a business out of sawing ice out of frozen lakes and selling it to breweries and meatpacking plants. But by the end of that century, refrigeration was king.

With refrigeration came greater control over the brewing process. As German immigrants poured into the United States in the mid-1800s they brought with them their taste for German lagers. It wasn’t long before these lagers started to supplant the ales in popularity.

(By the way, if you think Guinness has always been served as cold as it is now, consider this: St. James’s Gate Brewery, makers of Guinness in Ireland, started up brew operations in 1759. The first refrigerator was installed at St. James’s Gate in 1894. You do the math.)

While I’m on the topic of ‘molecular speedometers’ (geek-speak for thermometers), there is a strange phenomenon that originated in the United States called Steam beer.

It was a low-brow brew invented sometime around the California gold rush in San Francisco (mid-1800s).

A lager yeast was used, but due to the lack of widespread refrigeration, the beer was fermented at higher temperatures, more akin to an ale.

One of the few commercial examples kicking around is Anchor Steam beer. It is difficult to find in Canada but widely available in the U.S. and constitutes a true New World original style of beer.

Anchor Steam smells yeasty and has a slight caramel malty flavour balanced by low to moderate hop bitterness. I’m not saying this is the most delicious beer you will have, but it has its role in the history and evolution of beer, and therefore must be respected.

In contrast, on the low end of the molecular speedometer, you may remember a short-lived proliferation of ice beers in the early 1990s in Canada. (I’m looking at you, Labatt Ice).

Macrobreweries aside, ice beer has a much longer history. The first ice beers were made by the Germans, probably by accident, possibly in the late 1800s.

The fractional distillation process used to create ice beer works by bringing the beer down to below freezing to allow the water to turn to ice. The ice is then removed. This concentrates the alcohol in the beer and at the same time increases the malt and other adjunct flavours.

Then the beer is recarbonated and sold to the thirsty unwashed masses.

The big breweries in their wisdom decided during the 1990s that the cachet of the ‘ice’ name was enough. Apparently, they reintroduced water into the beer to reduce alcohol levels and increase their profits.

And then, as soon as it came, the trend died and the macrobreweries had to find other ways to dupe the average schmo into drinking their beer.