It’s a great question. Some beers just seem naturally better straight out of the fridge, and others you wouldn’t ever think of chilling. So how do you know what to do?
A lot of this comes down to personal preference, and cultural distinctions. For example, you might have heard Americans insist all beer must be ice-cold (a bit of a stereotype, really), and in contrast, us Brits are happy with a room-temperature pint. But it does depend on the drink.
A quick refresher on the difference between lager and ale: lager is a beer that’s aged at low temperatures (cold-fermented), and has a certain type of yeast (bottom-fermenting).
Ale is beer that’s brewed at warmer temperatures, known as warm fermentation, and is made with top-fermenting yeast.
Lager is typically crisp and refreshing with milder flavours and lower alcohol content, meaning cold temperatures don’t have much to affect negatively in terms of flavour.
Ales are usually richer, deeper and more complex, with significantly hoppier, fruity tastes. They range from punchy IPAs to brown ales, pale ales, golden ales, and so on.
The tongue is said to perceive fewer flavours when drinks are cold. It’s therefore seen as a bit of an insult to drink a chilled ale; you’re losing some of the rich complexity of the brew that way.
Lagers work very well straight from the fridge, especially on a warm summer’s afternoon, and their ideal serving temperature is 1 – 4° C, so basically, from the fridge. This counts for all types – pilsners, sessions, pales, ambers and so on. In fact, lager’s rise to fame in this country was helped by the introduction of draughts that pumped beer up from a chilled cellar – perfect conditions for lager.
Ale is generally better served at warmer temperatures; from 7 to 12° C is a good range, and room temperature is acceptable too, although on a hot day it’s not always ideal.
That said, a fridge-cooled can of IPA is a common sight in bars around the country, and it’s a totally normal thing to have. Sometimes the strong flavours are tempered nicely by cooler temperatures.
Other beers you might see at room temperature might be the stronger ones like imperial stouts, cask ales and barleywines that need their flavours preserved by not cooling them too much.
Bear in mind that these are general guidelines; there are no rules, and you’re free to try things at whatever temperature works for you.
Oh, and not that you’d ever consider it, but you should never freeze beer. It’ll simply turn it flat and kill the flavours. (That advice also goes for frosty pint glasses that have been frozen, too.) There’s also the risk of a beer explosion in your freezer, which will cause all kinds of trouble.
If you’re really in need of a quick cooling solution (we’ve all been there) chuck some cans in a bucket of ice and cold water, and sprinkle some salt on top. That’ll lower the melting point of the ice, helping it draw heat out of the beers and into the water. Bosh!