Visit the St. James’s Gate Brewery in Dublin—where Guinness and other beers have been brewed for nearly 250 years—and at the end of the tour you’ll be offered a free pint of the “the black stuff,” which you can order either regular or “extra cold.” Ask for the latter, and you can bet the guy behind the taps will snigger and say under his breath, “Typical American.”
While the craft beer movement of the last decade has certainly elevated America’s beer game, we Yanks are still viewed overseas as Budweiser-swilling rubes who like our flavorless macro lagers witch’s-tit cold.
What’s wrong with enjoying an “ice-cold” beer? If you’re knocking back a Coors Light, PBR, or some other super-light lager, absolutely nothing, says Matt Simpson, a.k.a. The Beer Sommelier.
But when it comes to complex stouts, sours, lambics, or pale ales, colder beer equates to less-flavorful beer. “Heat makes molecules more active,” Simpson explains. “So the warmer your beer, the more aroma and flavor you’re going to get.”
Like adding a handful of ice to a fine single malt Scotch, drinking certain beers super cold is considered sacrilege to some. In general, Simpson says, the “bigger” you go in terms of a beer’s alcohol content, the warmer you want it served.
Something very light and low in alcohol, like Miller Light or Budweiser, is probably going to taste best just above freezing—right around 35 degrees, he says. “They’re so close to water that allowing them to warm up isn’t going to bring out any flavors you’re likely to appreciate,” he says.
For dubbels, tripels, imperials, and other high-alcohol brews, Simpson says 55 degrees—also known as “cellar temperature”—is a lot of people’s ideal. But you can overdo it. “You never want to drink beer at room temperature,” he says. “That’s a myth.”
Pale ales, porters, pilsners and other ’tweener beers should be served somewhere around 40 to 45 degrees, Simpson says.
How do you hit those temperature targets? For 55 degrees, Simpson suggests pulling your high-ABV beers out of the refrigerator 15 to 20 minutes before you drink them. The same amount of time spent in a fridge will take a room-temp beer down to 55 degrees. Adjust accordingly for your lighter or lower-ABV brews, he says.
Savvy beer drinkers are probably saying, “Hold on a minute, Guinness is a paltry 4% alcohol by volume, so shouldn’t I drink it extra cold?” Consider Guinness one of the exceptions that proves the rule, just as Budweiser Black Crown (6% ABV) is probably going to taste pretty awful if it’s not served ice cold.
Bonus: Did you pull out a few too many pale ales? Don’t worry about sticking them back in the fridge—even if they spent all night on your countertop. “Beer isn’t nearly as sensitive to temperature as most people think,” Simpson says. Likewise, if you buy a case of beer cold, you can let it warm up in your basement or pantry without worrying about it going bad. “That kind of modest temperature swing isn’t going to hurt it much,” he says.