The invigorating sensation of taking the first sip of a cold beer is incomparable. However, what impact does temperature have on beer beyond its chilling and relaxing effect? Contrary to popular belief, serving beer at extremely cold temperatures is not always ideal.
The simple answer is this: if beer is served too cold, you won’t be able to fully taste its flavors. On the other hand, if it’s served too warm, it may not be enjoyable to drink!
When beer is too cold, typically around 32–35°F, it becomes difficult for the drinker to perceive the full range of flavors and aromas. At lower temperatures, carbon dioxide becomes more soluble, which you may have experienced if you accidentally froze and then thawed a beer, only to find it lacking fizz.
Cold liquid can hold more CO2 in solution than warm liquid. So, when we serve beer too cold, both the bubbles and the aroma molecules remain trapped, dulling our overall flavor experience. Conversely, if we serve beer too warm, the bubbles and aromas escape before we can fully enjoy them.
Temperature not only affects the ability of flavor compounds to reach our taste buds and olfactory centers, but it also impacts our physical ability to perceive flavors.
When to Serve Beers at Warmer Temperatures
We are most sensitive to taste when the temperature in our mouth is between 71–98°F. Therefore, an ice-cold beer might lower the temperature on your tongue to a point where you can’t fully experience its taste.
While warm beer is generally uncomfortable to drink, there are cases where serving it slightly warmer than straight out of the refrigerator is advantageous. Cask beer, found primarily in the United Kingdom, is served at “cellar temperature,” which is slightly cooler than room temperature, typically around 50–55°F. Beers with more complex flavor profiles, such as imperial, barrel-aged, or flavored stouts, are also better enjoyed at slightly higher temperatures to fully appreciate their flavors.
Some beers can be served between 50–55°F, or even up to 60°F.
A high-alcohol stout or barleywine benefits from slightly higher serving temperatures to allow the drinker to experience the full spectrum of flavors derived from various malts, hops, and fermentation processes.
Alcohol levels can provide clues about optimal serving temperatures. Lower alcohol content suggests colder serving temperatures, while higher alcohol content suggests warmer serving temperatures.
Paler beers generally perform better at cooler temperatures. In general, the more complex the flavor, the warmer the serving temperature should be. For example, a pale lager is better suited to lower serving temperatures compared to a strong, rich stout.
When to Serve Beers on the Cooler Side
As a general rule, ales are served a few degrees warmer than lagers. This is because ale yeast produces more fruity and spicy aromas compared to lager yeast, resulting in a “cleaner” flavor profile for lagers.
Cooler temperatures also help reduce hop bitterness and enhance the thirst-quenching properties of beer. Pale lagers, for instance, are best served between 38–45°F, while darker lagers like bock or schwarzbier can be served a few degrees warmer, around 41–48°F.
Pale ales and IPAs are typically served in the range of 45–50°F. Although still refreshing, the broader range of flavors in these beers benefits from a slightly warmer temperature. Lower-strength stouts and various sour beers, such as quick kettle sours, Berliner weisse, and mixed fermentation beers like lambic or gueuze, also do well within this temperature range.
While beer service and optimal serving temperatures are somewhat precise sciences, personal preference ultimately plays a crucial role.
Ordering a beer and allowing it to gradually warm up a few degrees between the first and last sips can be an interesting tasting exercise. Pay attention to the flavors you perceive, or any changes in complexity as the beer warms up. Alternatively, try sampling a beer at different temperatures by removing it from the refrigerator 10, 20, or even 30 minutes before opening.