As an Englishman living out in Arizona, I often find when talking beer with the locals, a question or remark will come up about the English liking their beer warm. For in America all beer is served at fridge temperature. Sometimes I have picked up a can at my local gas station and found it too cold to even handle for more than a few seconds. Of course, if you’re going to drink Bud Light, it really does make sense to serve it at damn near freezing temperature to disguise the fact that there’s nothing to taste. That is because the colder the drink, the harder it is to taste it. Remember the first time as a kid you had warm soda/pop and it tasted awful? That’s because it really does taste awful, you just normally hide the fact by burying it in ice.
Ale brewing in England goes right back into the fuzzy mists of time, long before the invention of the refrigerator or even the first attempts at artificial refrigeration in the 1700s. England is not know for its tropical heat and the English developed a simple technique for keeping their beer cool, storing it in the cellar. Cask Marquee, England’s leading organization promoting traditional cask ale and its traditional serving methods, expects the beer to be served between 50f (10c) to 57.2f (14c) when they audit a pub to see if it can receive their official seal of approval.
57f might sound warm at first, if you compare it to air temperature but its a different story for liquids. The National Center For Water Safety classifies 60 to 50f as “Very Dangerous/Immediately Life-threatening”. So, if a mad scientist miniaturized you and dropped you in a nice pint of English best bitter, you really would be done for, although I can think of worse ways to go. The point is, it really cannot be that warm if it can kill you, can it? The beer is not served warm, it is just cool not ice cold.
Aside from the lethal properties of traditional English beer temperature, science also shows that extreme temperatures alter our perception of taste. The first sip of beer from the fridge might feel the most refreshing but the last sip has the most flavor. When I lived in England, in a house built onto the side of a steep hill, I could keep all my beer at the perfect drinking temperature by putting them at the back of the cupboard on the wall that faced nothing but cold earth. Now, if I want to taste what the brewer tasted then when it comes to English beer, I let it sit out of the refrigerator for 10-20 minutes before drinking it.
Now you will notice I drop the word “traditional” before saying “English beer” in this article repeatedly. That is because in recent years, there has been a huge interest in new American-style craft beer in the whole of the UK, starting off first of all with Scottish brewers Brewdog breaking the mould back in 2007. They have gone from strength to strength (with plenty of controversy along the way) and have been joined by such stalwarts as Magic Rock, Thornbridge, Northern Monk, Vocation and many more. The modern British ale will often be found ice cold in the fridge. Newer bars will have powerfully hoppy American-style IPAs served cold from a keg for a much greater price.
Although, as you can tell, my love for traditional English ale is undiminished, it is not something I drink very often here. True traditional English ale is served freshly in the cask with no stabilizers or preservatives. While there is a bar not too far from my house that always has an English ale on tap, I never touch it because the temperature will be wrong, it must have been pumped full of chemicals to survive the journey here and it is always by one of the big, mass-producers, churned out on a vast production line without craft, love or care. There is Samuel Smiths who bottled condition their ales for exports but that is a whole other story right there.
When I next get to England, I will be diving head-first into the traditional ales as well as my favorite cutting-edge craft brewers, but until then I think I will mostly stick to my local, cold craft ales.