Sunday, 25 September 2016

Pouring hot and cold

The serving temperature of cask beer is a perennial source of complaint. On the one hand, many people such as Martin Taylor report frequent instances of being served lukewarm beer that has been festering in the pipe and has all the appeal of dishwater. This is something that has also often been highlighted by Tandleman.

But, on the other hand, you also often hear about cask beer being served chilled down to lager temperature, which knocks all the flavour out of it. And. a while back. Cask Marque were widely criticised for apparently not applying any lower temperature threshold to their beer assessments, resulting in plenty of ice-cold pints being given their seal of approval. They no longer do this, if indeed they ever actually did.

So I thought it would be interesting to run a poll on people’s experience of encountering beer than they thought was too warm, or too cold. The results show a wide divergence of opinion, with “a bit too warm” and “a bit too cold” neck-and-neck, although rather more felt that warm pints were much more prevalent than those who found the same with cold ones. Overall, 44% went for “usually too warm”, 18% for “about the same”, and 37% for “usually too cold”.

Maybe this reflects not so much personal preference as different patterns of pubgoing, with those choosing “too warm” more likely to be visiting pubs at slack times when the beer is not turning over, while those plumping for “too cold” drinking more in busy pubs where the beer is gushing forth from a chilled cellar.

The general view of the correct serving temperature for cask beer is somewhere within the range of 10-14°C, with 12-13° being the ideal. This represents a natural cellar temperature and will result in beer that is noticeably cool, but not lager-cold. Too cold, and the beer loses its flavour, and may throw a chill haze; too warm, and it starts to lose its condition and becomes dull and flabby.

I think over the years I’ve developed a good appreciation of what the correct temperature should be, and so can roll my eyes when other CAMRA members complain that beer I think is fine being “too cold”. Often they’re the same people who dismiss beer with decent condition as being “fizzy”. Up to a point it can be argued this is a matter of personal preference, but if you really see flat, room-temperature beer as desirable then frankly you don’t know what you’re talking about.

My personal experience is definitely that I come across a lot more warm pints than cold ones, but I would say more often than not I come into the category of the slack times pub visitor. It must be said, though, that on my recent trip to the South-West, where you might expect warm beer to be commonplace, especially when on gravity dispense, that only one out of ten pubs visited didn’t dish up a pint at a decent temperature – and that was by some way the most expensive of the lot. I also recently visited a pub in the North where obviously I was the first one to order cask beer that session, as a generous amount of pulling-through resulted in a pint that was far too cold and not enjoyable at all.

However, at the end of the day, it’s important to remember than a cold pint can warm up, but a warm one can never cool down, so, while obviously best to get the temperature spot-on, it’s preferable to err slightly on the side of too cool than too warm.

7 comments:

  1. Interesting piece. I think, like you, I drink at slacker time than the norm, and warm beer is due to it not being pulled through. Some beer I had in the City of London last Monday lunchtime could have been sitting in the pipes since the Friday night; the beer in Whitby yesterday at 11am had been thoroughly pulled through by good publicans.

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    1. Not sure it's always just beer standing in the pipes. Tandleman certainly suggests that often it's whole cellars not at the right temperature. And pipe coolers are commonplace nowadays.

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    2. Most cellar dispense systems cool the lines right up to the pump although cask lines should be as far away from the cooling pipes as possible to avoid overcooling, so beer rarely sits in the lines warming up. The problem is usually just poor or poorly set cooling systems.

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  2. I always thought that Cask Marque had a lower limit of 10 decrees C. The ability of the tastebuds to detect and transmit flavour sensations diminishes at cold temperatures and really falls off the cliff below 6 degrees C. This is probably why I need my milk to be teeth-crackingly cold, I don't like milk.

    A good taste experiment is to get a mass-market tinned lager and let it get to 12-14 and then take a swig. Its (to me anyway) vile. That's precisely why its served in single figures.

    Selective pressure in brewing and dispensing cask beer in British pubs over centuries has led to yeast strains that are very happy with primary fermentation in the range 18-24 and secondary/conditioning at pub cellar temperatures. Theres nothing accidental about this, the range is not arbitrary.

    So for cask ale we have a perfect marriage of yeast strains that have been selected to perform well in the physical environments required to brew and condition them, that range being at the optimum for our ability to taste the resulting beer.

    With keg you can push down to 8 degrees with well made beer but any further is detrimental.

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  3. I'm probably in the minority in that I like my beer to be around 7-8C - on that basis I find cask to be almost always too warm. There is probably some scientific explanation behind it, but whether it's physiological or purely psychological, I find that liquid hitting the back of my throat needs to be a certain (low) temperature before it stimulates the 'thirst quenching' reflexes in my brain.

    If I drink beer that is too warm for me, I can gulp and gulp and it will never satisfy and never feel like it has properly quenched my thirst.

    (Obviously I make an exception for 'sipping beers' where quenchitude of thirst isn't the primary objective)

    While I accept that different styles of beer have different optimal serving temperatures, what really grates with me is the argument that 'keg beers are meant to be served at a lower temperature than cask' - as if cask Jaipur and keg Jaipur - beers that notionally the same - have different optimal serving temperatures simply based on the method of dispense or carbonation level rather than any difference in style.

    While my instinctive preference is always for cask over keg, I increasingly find myself choosing the keg option in places where I know the cask will be too warm for me. This is not a choice drinkers should have to make.

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  4. I've been quaffing the only true beer for nigh on 50 years and only in the last 15 or twenty has it started to be served cold. Not lager cold but getting that way. It keeps better I'm told but it does take a smidgeon away from the taste.
    In general I've not been so spoilt for choice in all my drinking life with a new place opening fairly nearby in Petts Wood called "One in the Wood". Loads of beers and very popular with the city train crowd I'm told .
    Lager confined to bottles and only sandwich type food. Lovely jubbly

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    1. That Petts Wood micropub (or whatever)is probably a benchmark for ideal temperature for me, or was when I visited for a couple. Confess I rarely find beer too cool these days, possibly because I stick to Beer Guide places.

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