Ah, those simpler times, not so long ago, before I knew that some beers were neither ales nor lagers, or that some bad tastes in beer had names and chemical formulas, or that freshly harvested hops could be used in very special beers, or that some marketing drones think of dried things as fresh.
In those simpler times — even before I knew that some “pints” were less than 16 ounces — one of the most common things for a beer lover like me to geek out about was beer served too cold. It was a reasonable thing to complain about: the IPAs and other strong ales we drink a lot of in the Pacific Northwest are more flavorful if you drink them at temperatures in the 50s, a far cry from the “pour me a cold one” culture that bars and restaurants move in.
A few years ago, it seemed like our geeky complaints had paid off. Good beer bars were serving draft beer at proper temperatures — or at least it was near enough that a couple of minutes of cupping a beer in your hands could get it into the right range. Cask-conditioned beers were served pleasantly cool at most places that knew what a cask was. But it seems like things are headed in the other direction now: temperatures are falling, and bars that should know better are serving colder and colder beers. It really struck me during this past fresh hop season, when the aromas and fresh flavors we’re looking for at that time were hidden under a blanket of cold.
What is happening? Are there so many other factors to worry about that bars have been distracted from caring for such an important aspect of the beer experience? Or is the importance of properly storing beer cold causing people to lose sight of the proper serving temperature? Whatever it is, I think it is time to revisit this question, and make sure we’re getting the best flavors we can.
A less understandable situation is the continued prevalence of the frosted pint glass. For this there is simply no excuse. When servers at a bar with 20 or 40 good beers on tap instinctively reach into the freezer whenever someone orders a pint of IPA, someone has fallen badly down on the job. The server should know better, but more importantly the management should make sure there aren’t even any chilled glasses to reach for. As I alluded to above, the impetus for this rant was a recent outing I took where a fresh-hop ale that I ordered was served in a glass with honest-to-God icicles on it. So not only was it going to take me 20 minutes or so to have beer at a temperature where I could enjoy the subtle fresh-hop flavors and aromas, but all that condensation on the glass was also diluting the beer. Who would want that?
If I’m sitting at the bar and alert enough to notice that my bartender is reaching into a refrigerator for a pint glass, I’ll interrupt them and say, “Do you have a room temperature glass?”. More often than not I get a blank look in return, and I have to explain “one that hasn’t been in the freezer”. The expression on the server’s face changes slowly from complete non-comprehension to mere befuddlement — this guy is turning down a frosty mug? — but at least I won’t get my tongue frozen to the glass on my first sip. Unless of course it’s a place where every beer is served in a pint glass, and every pint glass is stored in a cooler, in which case I’m out of luck. Thankfully that usually only happens in little restaurants which happen to have a few good taps but aren’t particularly focused on beer. Still, it shouldn’t happen anywhere.
Bar owners, here is your homework assignment: check your equipment to see if you’re serving beer too cold, and educate your servers about temperature ranges for various beer styles. Whatever you do, make sure good beer is not served in a chilled glass unless a customer requests that. Bar patrons: go forth and complain about frozen glassware and chilled beer. Don’t be afraid to say “My Beer Is Too Cold!”.
For the last several years Bill Night has been writing a Portland-centric beer blog called It’s Pub Night, named after the ritual weekly phone call or email rounding up friends for a night out: “Hey, it’s pub night!”. Despite his advanced age, he is lending a hand to the New School with a monthly rant called “Piss and Vinegar”. The name of the column comes from the British colloquial phrase “taking the piss” — making fun — and the sour character of Bill’s rants. He continues to maintain It’s Pub Night, and he invites you to take a look at some of the fun things over there, like the Beer Review Generator, the Portland Beer Price Index, and the Six-Pack Equivalent Calculator.