Spoiler alert: "As cold as possible" isn't the right answer.
What's the ideal serving temperature for beer? Though the question is simple, the answer is surprisingly complex. For years, many of the biggest beer brands simply said “cold” — or to put it another way, as cold as possible. Coors Light went so far as to release color changing cans, lest you find yourself drinking their beer too warm. But though “cold,” or at least significantly colder than room temperature, isn’t the wrong answer, as cold as possible isn’t the right answer either.
Much like wine, different beer styles actually have different recommended serving temperatures. If you head to a respected beer source like CraftBeer.com, you'll find that American stouts should be served at 50 to 55 degrees, whereas you can drink American pale ales a bit cooler, from 45 to 55 degrees, and American lagers – which get us closer to that Coors Light – taste best at a chilly 40 to 45. Even better, some beers will suggest a serving temperature right on the can or bottle.
However, let’s be honest: Most of these recommended temperatures are a moot point. At home, unless you have a dedicated beer fridge, your beer probably chills next to your milk and cheese – whatever temperature they happen to be. Even at bars, temperature gets overlooked. Yes, some of the more high-end beer establishments now have sophisticated draft systems that can chill each brew individually (Brooklyn’s Torst immediately comes to mind), but most bars simply serve their beers at...whatever temperature they serve their beers at.
So what is that temperature? And how much does it vary from bar to bar? Well, this week Syracuse.com’s Charlie Miller undertook an interesting “investigation,” as he called it: He went to 30 different bars in the college town — likely a pretty good approximation of your average small American city — and measured the temperature of a draft and a bottled or canned beer at every establishment to get a sense of how a wide swath of bars chill their brews.
The results are worth a look because they show just how far-ranging beer serving temps can be. For the record, Miller reached out to Anheuser-Busch, who recommended Bud Light be served at 37 degrees (as with Coors Light, cheaper beers tend to taste better cold), and Sam Adams, who suggested drinking their brews between 38 and 42 degrees. In the end, he found a bottled beer as cold as 33.4 degrees (a Miller Lite, specifically), a canned PBR that was actually below freezing at 31.1 degrees, and a chilly 33.4 degree draft beer. Ironically enough, that last one was a Sam Adams Summer Ale in a frosted pint glass, meaning that based on the brewery’s own recommendations, it was being served way too cold.
On the other end of the spectrum, Miller found a balmy 57.7 degree bottle of St. Pauli Girl at a German-style beer garden and a pint of Utica Club served at a barely-chilled 51.3 degrees.
Miller — who is admittedly not a beer expert — predicates his whole article on the idea of finding the coldest beer in Syracuse to combat the summer heat. Though there’s nothing wrong with that concept, it again reinforces the myth that beer should be served as cold as possible. And Miller’s own findings would seem to demonstrate that this way of thinking is still wildly prevalent among bar owners, too.
Eight bars served Miller a beer that was colder than even the extremely low 37 degrees recommended for drinking a Bud Light. This isn’t to say you can’t enjoy an ice cold beer simply because it’s ice cold — we all mow our lawns every now and then — but it does suggest that beer temperature is something both drinkers and bars could probably spend more time considering. In the end, recommended temperatures are there to help maximize your enjoyment of beer. So think about it this way: If you’re drinking a brew at the wrong temperature, you're playing yourself.