Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Blowing hot or cold: 'warm' beer

Just the other week I went down to my favorite watering hole again, and met Greg Katz there, thoroughly enjoying his beer at the bar. Well, two beers, actually. One for immediate consumption, and another one, a Founder's Curmudgeon, to slowly warm up a bit.

In Belgium, we kind of laugh with the warm British beers. And when I look around here in the US and see all the advertising about cold, colder, coldest beer, it strikes me as funny as well. But the truth is as complex and diverse as the difference between Belgian, British and American ales. Part of me instinctively knew that, but it was Greg who made me realize exactly what I was doing without thinking about it, and why. Before you continue reading the next paragraph, pick yourself a nice lager to start drinking (or a cider, I recently started liking to mix things up a bit with an Angry Orchard Cider), and pour yourself a more robust beer as well, but don't touch it yet. By the time you finish reading this article it will be ready to be savored, and by then you'll know exactly why you were asked to do that. And trust me, it will be a fun experiment!

The 'Gruuthuse' in Brugge, now a museum, back then house
of a family that traded in 'gruut', the spices used in the
brewing process before hops became widespread.
Here is the picture. Not that long ago, as I was a student at the University of Ghent, I loved to escape Ghent during exams in early summer. I'd go to Bruges, a very nicely preserved Flemish medieval town. A little change of scenery to relax the mind, something that pairs remarkably well with a great beer. On such occasions, my beers of choice would either be a Westmalle Tripel - one can never go wrong with that - or a Straffe Hendrik, from Brewery 'De Halve Maan', a very nice Bitter Tripel Ale. So imagine sitting outside on a hot summer day, incredible views of cobble stone streets and medieval buildings straight out of a movie set, and a glass of golden delight in front of you. In Belgium, beers are served cold. A beer like either of those two not as cold as a lager, but still cold. So as I sit there, slowly sipping my beer and enjoying that moment of freedom, there was always that moment where the beer suddenly seemed to explode with flavor. A little while longer, and the beer would either be finished completely, or it would have lost its crisp appeal. Time to order another one, or to make my way back to my books.

Now here is where the magic happens that Greg made me aware of. When you receive your beer, it is cold. It then slowly starts to heat up to room temperature or as warm as your hands are. As that heating up happens, the beer starts to release more of its flavors and aromas, up to a point when that effect is the greatest, and you can experience the full range of sensory experience the brewer has packed in that liquid delight he brewed up for you. The science behind that is fairly simple: as the beer warms up, the chemical compounds that carry the flavors and aromas become a little more volatile, the CO2 in the beer is released quicker (which in turn helps to release those aromas and flavors quicker), etc.

The British Campaign for Real Ale, or CAMRA, even has guidelines for how to serve real ale/cask ales, the traditional British way of understanding ales. An important part is the precisely described range of temperature at which bars are to serve the beer in order to do proper justice to the beer. A link to their site can be found here. For the Belgians among the readers: English beer is not 'warm', not even room temperature, but 'cellar temperature' (12-14 C (54-57 F)). That makes it warmer than the typical beer we'd drink, but still not 'warm'. But their beers usually only go through primary fermentation, and have no secondary (which gives the beer the more robust carbonation). This makes the typical British ale less lively compared to the average Belgian beer, and appears more flat, as it only has the very fine and more nuances carbonation of the primary fermentation.

So there we sat, at the bar of the Stirling Hotel, as Greg made me actually aware of this evolution of flavor within a single glass of beer. The right temperature accentuates certain flavors while masking others, and will let you experience the beer just the way the brewer intended it. When I sat there, slowly enjoying my beer, I was, without thinking about it, allowing it to slowly warm up, right to that point where it released its full flavor. Since Greg pointed that out, it will definitely help to savor beers differently, trying to find that 'sweet spot' where the flavor is the most intense and full. Now is this a life altering new guide on how to drink beer? No, but definitely something you would want to keep in the back of mind, next time you are drinking a nice rich beer. Make sure you do it justice! As with everything pertaining to beer, this is subject to personal preference. There, another excuse to keep drinking, if you ever needed one.

A little general guideline for temperature would be the following, taken from the website:

Very cold (0-4 °C/32-39 °F): Any beer you don’t actually want to taste. Pale Lager, Malt Liquor, Canadian-style Golden Ale and Cream Ale, Low Alcohol, Canadian, American or Scandinavian-style Cider.

Cold (4-7 °C/39-45 °F): Hefeweizen, Kristalweizen, Kölsch, Premium Lager, Pilsner, Classic German Pilsner, Fruit Beer, brewpub-style Golden Ale, European Strong Lager, Berliner Weisse, Belgian White, American Dark Lager, sweetened Fruit Lambics and Gueuzes, Duvel-types

Cool (8-12 °C/45-54 °F): American Pale Ale, Amber Ale, California Common, Dunkelweizen, Sweet Stout, Stout, Dry Stout, Porter, English-style Golden Ale, unsweetened Fruit Lambics and Gueuzes, Faro, Belgian Ale, Bohemian Pilsner, Dunkel, Dortmunder/Helles, Vienna, Schwarzbier, Smoked, Altbier, Tripel, Irish Ale, French or Spanish-style Cider

Cellar (12-14 °C/54-57 °F): Bitter, Premium Bitter, Brown Ale, India Pale Ale, English Pale Ale, English Strong Ale, Old Ale, Saison, Unblended Lambic, Flemish Sour Ale, Bière de Garde, Baltic Porter, Abbey Dubbel, Belgian Strong Ale, Weizen Bock, Bock, Foreign Stout, Zwickel/Keller/Landbier, Scottish Ale, Scotch Ale, American Strong Ale, Mild, English-style Cider

Warm (14-16 °C/57-61 °F): Barley Wine, Abt/Quadrupel, Imperial Stout, Imperial/Double IPA, Doppelbock, Eisbock, Mead

Hot (70 °C/158 °F): Quelque Chose, Liefmans Glühkriek, dark, spiced winter ales like Daleside Morocco Ale.