Recently, while in Newport, a friend took me to a bar known for their extensive and admirable beer selection. My friend ordered a Nøgne Ø Imperial Stout, a tar-like Norwegian brew, while I ordered a Dogfish Head World Wide Stout that clocked in at 19% ABV -- a fine beer to take the edge off a night that saw the mercury peaking at just under 10 degrees. Although I hadn't tried the beer before, I generally knew what to expect: a generous, thick concoction, redolent of alcohol, tasting of dark plums, chocolate, or perhaps caramel or coffee -- normal stout flavors, yet it being a Dogfish Head creation, it would be a bit, erm, off-centered.
The drink arrived, and I raised it to my lips, breathing in waft of alcohol borne from an excessively chestnut-hued head, but I instantly knew that there was a problem, and that my enjoyment of the beverage would be somewhat tempered.
The beer was cold.
"A cold beer, you say? What's wrong with that?" Nothing, provided the beer in question is of the lighter style: a pilsner, perhaps, maybe a cool kolsch, or an icy IPA to quench the summer's heat. But dark beers, such as brown ales, stouts, porters, or old ales are at their best when served at room temperature. Higher alcohol beers, such as doppel bocks and barley wines, also benefit from the warmer temperature.
"But wait!" some will cry, "Isn't that what they do in England? Where they drink their beers warm?" Now that the Anglophobes have had their say, let's examine what's actually going on here -- it's not such a radical notion or idea. After all, I'm not suggesting you drink your beer at blood temperature. Hell, I'm certainly not the first person to say this -- this is no 'Pentagon Papers of Beer.' Michael Jackson, the Great Beer Critic himself, included ideal serving temperatures in his Great Beer Guide -- lo and behold, the average temperature for a stout is 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
Some of you are shaking your heads. Some of you might not like this advice, perhaps disgusted that I'd even allow myself to make the suggestion. Of course, those of you in the know will simply hook your hands behind your head, lean back in your chair, and say, "Yes, yes. This is how it should be done, and this is how I've been doing it for a while."
Why, though, should a darker beer be served at a warmer temperature? There is a reason, after all -- I'm not just jerking your chain. The answer is flavor, the backbone, body, and soul of any good beer. It's well recognized with all other forms of alcoholic beverages that cold diminishes flavor. While with dark beers, cold is the enemy, with other forms of liquor it's a savior -- have you ever tried to drink room temperature vodka?
Wine is the best example, a beverage that, like beer, comes in different shades. White wine, or perhaps a rose, is markedly improved by being served cold: the chill slightly weakens and tempers the wine's floral esters, dulls the sweetness of some whites to the point of balance, or emphasizes the dryness of others, leading to a more complicated and enjoyable beverage. Red wine, on the other hand, is to be kept at room temperature (actually, slightly below room temp -- but that's another post). The reasoning is the same, but backwards: with reds we want to allow the aromas and tastes to flourish. We want a robust, silky, full-bodied beverage -- and a cold red wine will not provide.
The same rule applies to dark beers.
Here's the trouble -- no one seems to live by this maxim. Bars and restaurants follow the 'beer must be ice cold' (the Coors rule) with an obstinacy that they show to nothing else. They keep red wine at room temp - why not certain beers? Even when I lived in Philly, a beer city if there ever was one, and was a regular at The Irish Pol, a neighboorhoodly and amicable bar with forty assorted and oft-changed beers on tap, my brown ales were consistently chilled -- they refrigerated all the lines, they'd say, and Ed or Darin, the bartenders, would console me (and mock me) while bringing me two beers -- one to drink presently, the other to warm up, so that I might savor it more fully. I think back to countless chilly nights, where all I wished for was a beer of Stygian complexion at a temperature a few degrees warmer than the bitter air outside -- only to be frustrated, time and time again.
Why did this sorry state of affairs come about? Well, I'll conjecture that the rise of pilsner as a popular style in America is one part of the answer, while mass production of it is the other. Pilsner is a light, crisp beer that truly is best served at a lower temperature so that we might best appreciate the proper harmony between the floral, lightly bitter hops and the wheat that lends the beer its glorious color. But, as pilsners became mass-produced the quality inevitably fell. The best way to disguise what little taste was left was to ensure that beers were served as cold as possible (remember: cold = less flavor). Coors and advertisers then exacerbated the trend, as they latched onto the notion that colder was better (which, in fairness, it was, with the watery swill that the 'Big Three' were purveying). They're still doing it, with the ridiculous mountains that turn blue -- as though anyone with hands and the ability to perceive temperature really needs an icon to tell them that an aluminum can is cold.
Ultimately, there's not much to be done. You can ask for a room temperature beer, but you're likely to be rebuffed and receive strange looks (plus, you'll have to recite this entire fiat to your bartender or server as an explanation). You can order two beers, and allow one to come up to temperature, which not the worst solution, as darker beers are generally thicker and lose their carbonation more slowly than lighter ones -- plus, you'll have two beers. The best solution, though, is to take matters into your own hands. Store your pilsners and such in the refrigerator, and savor them cold. But leave those stouts and porters, brown ales and barley wines out. You won't regret it.