Friday, August 19, 2005
'Ice Cold Beer' Worst Phrase in English Language
IN HEAT like this, there's nothing better than an ice cold beer - a crisp, tonsil-chilling, sweat-erasing lager served in a frosty mug.
There's nothing better unless, of course, you actually prefer to taste your beer. Excessive cold deadens the taste buds and masks much of a good beer's flavor.
And therein lies the great dichotomy of our favorite adult beverage: Do we drink it for refreshment or flavor?
According to Martin Schuster, president of the Draught Beer Guild, the optimal temperature for most industrial lagers is 38 degrees. "The main reason is, for most lagers, that's the best temperature range for releasing the most bouquet and flavor... But when you get into serving ales, the temperature range should slide up from there" toward 50 degrees.
"The problem is," Schuster said, "when you get into the 42-degree range for Bud, Miller, Coors and a lot of other lagers, the beer doesn't present itself as well."
Meanwhile, the flavor of ale - especially hoppy varieties balanced with subtle malts and fermented with ester-producing yeasts - is suppressed at cooler temps.
If you don't believe it, try knocking down the remains of a 16-ounce can of Milwaukee's Best that's been sitting around for more than a half-hour. The bouquet is rather like the bottom of your hamper.
Likewise, the flavor of a hearty beer, like Victory Storm King Imperial Stout, is virtually absent under 40 degrees. Let it sit in a glass for even as long as an hour, though, and it explodes with a huge range of roasted, fruity flavors and aromas.
Bruce Bryant, a senior research associate at University City's Monell Chemical Senses Center, said there's some basic chemistry at work here.
When the temperature goes down," Bryant said, "the flavor is actually decreased because the chemical compounds that give beer its flavor are less volatile at low temperatures... It really makes for a less-flavorful beer."
At warmer temps, he said, these volatile compounds evaporate and enter the nose through the back of the mouth. That's where most flavor is detected.
Since a bar would need separate cooling systems to serve ales and lagers at their proper temperatures, guess who loses this battle. Ale-lovers just have to ask for unfrosted glasses and wait for their beers to warm up.
Some skeptics believe the colder temps allow brewers to use cheaper, less flavorful ingredients and adjuncts like rice and corn.
Perhaps, but more importantly the chilling effect is plainly designed to mask bitter flavors that many drinkers - especially younger ones weaned on Coke - just don't enjoy.
At 32 degrees, Bryant said, beer is cold enough to temporarily shut down the nerves in your tongue, where you'd normally detect bitterness. "It's essentially anesthetizing your mouth," Bryant said.
Those who actually savor the complex flavor of a well-made ale may cry heresy. But as Schuster noted, "American beer drinkers are conditioned to colder beer, and that seems to be more important to most customers than how those beers should taste."