It is a humorous stereotype that Americans like their beer extremely cold — almost freezing — so that when they visit the UK, they are shocked at the fat that much pub beer is served at room temperature. There are arguments for and against the proper serving temperature of food, wine, liquor, and beer. Much of it is personal preference. But there are actually reasons behind the theory, and it is surprising to many beer drinkers that some beers are not meant to be chilled.
The idea behind temperatures in Gastronomy is this: the warmer the food or drink, the more its flavors are perceived by the tongue. That is certainly an axiom of taste. See, food and drinks often have broad, rich, deep flavor profiles, and the colder they are served, the less of this flavor profile that is discernible to the palate. This is certainly true of beer. Just as it is impossible to hear all of the nuances of a great song at a low volume, so is it impossible to really experience a great beer if it is served too cold.
Consider, for example, a really good rye IPA (India Pale Ale brewer with rye). A beer representative of this style offers a tremendous, broad flavor profile, with many nuances, especially from the hops. It will have flavors of malted caramel, bitter and spicy rye, and the hops will offer not only bitterness, but also nuances of pine resin, flowers, grapefruit, citrus oil, and lush grass. Serve it close to freezing, and all you will taste is the bitterness: what a waste!
A general rule to follow is this: the lighter the flavor of the beer, the cooler it may be served. Why serve any beer cool to begin with? Well, if you have ever popped open a cold lager on a hot summer afternoon, you know why. It is refreshing! I remember wandering the foothills around Lucca, Italy many years ago. I to a towering height on one mountainous hill, and gazed miles and miles across the beautiful terrain of Tuscany. On the way down, I wound up in a bull’s field, and he proceeded to chase me around as I screamed for my life. I lept a barbed-wire fence, and found a footpath down into a tiny hillside village. I was parched, and the owner of the one bar offered me a cold Italian lager: I think nothing has ever tasted better. So sometimes, cold beer is simply appropriate.
But other times, you want to treat a fine beer like a fine wine. You want to allow the aromatic bouquet to waft into your nostrils, and the luxurious, elegant flavor to coat your taste buds. And in that case, you definitely do not want your beer to be ice-cold. So how do you know how to serve beer? Here is a guide (all temperatures are in Fahrenheit):
1. Lagers. Pilsners, wheat beer, light beers, and other lagers can be served cold, from about 34°-40°. These beers highlight smooth mouthfeel over flavor (which is perfectly fine in a good lager), so their hallmark is their refreshing nature, which is best served cold. Still, never freeze a beer, and if a beer is chilled, then warms up again, it will not be good.
2. Ales. Ales are warm-fermented to begin with, and they tend to produce deeper, more complex flavors than lagers. IPAs, brown ales, amber ales, and stouts should therefore be served warmer, somewhere around 45°-55°. There is also nothing wrong with serving all ales at room temperature.
3. Strong beers. Beers such as barleywines, very strong stouts (like Imperial Stouts), wild ales, saisons, and aged or casked ales should be served at room temperature, i.e. not chilled at all.
It should also be said that it is always appropriate to drink any beer at room temperature. So try drinking different beers at different temperatures, and see how it affects the flavor. It may a revelation in your enjoyment of the brew!