A couple of summers ago my wife and I spent some time at a beautiful agriturismo (le mole sul farfa) in the Sabine Hills north east of Rome. Stefano at the farm was a wonderful host, guide, farmer, and chef but he blotted his copybook whilst driving us to the station for our train back to Rome. As we chatted in the car about this and that the subject of beer came up and immediately he joked about British ‘warm’ beer. This myth has always been something of a ‘red rag to a bull’ for me, so I had to politely correct his misunderstanding and do my bit towards a wider appreciation of British ale drinking tradition and culture. I’m glad to say Stefano and I stayed friends and I’m sure if ever Elisabeth, Stefano’s Belgian wife, mocks English beer over the dinner table he’ll be able to defend our corner for us!
British beer should only be warm if it has not been kept properly, or if it’s an unusually hot day in a pub garden and a drinker hasn’t supped his or her pint quickly enough. More seriously, the argument is really over the definition of what is warm, and that is why it’s such a bad word to use in this context. It’s always annoyed me that we don’t properly challenge the use of the term warm, and sadly, there are even those from our islands that use the word themselves. No-one says that red wine is served warm, yet generally wines are drunk a few degrees above beer’s traditional ideal range. Warm is far too subjective a term; the same can be said for ‘room-temperature’, although given Britain’s weather this is probably a slightly better description to use for our beer. Better still is ‘cellar temperature’. Cellar temperature will, of course, vary a little from pub to pub and season to season, but far less than the average pub bar-room and so works better. To my mind, a cool beer brought from the cellar via a hand-pump to a British room-temperature glass in a British room-temperature pub usually provides the perfect temperature pint for a traditional British drinker.
Readers may not think exploring the use of the word warm in relation to British beers is very controversial. However, I do think it’s a relevant introduction to comment on a worrying current trend. Much as I really do not want to be offered truly warm beer, I dislike even more being presented with a glass with condensation forming on the outside that threatens frost bite to the touch. Unfortunately, I’ve come across a growth in the practice of cooling ale on its way to the pump. Of course it is often necessary to cool barrels when they’re in environments where the ambient temperature could cause the contents to be too warm, in real terms. But there have been times in a several pubs, especially one very close to me, where I have had to wrap my hands around my pint for 5 minutes or more before I could take a sip of the chilled ale. One, progressive, local brewery appears to lean towards cold ale; although some of its pubs seem to serve colder than others. I’m sure the argument is that the new style ales benefit from being drunk cold. Maybe it’s true that many of the beers have moved so far from the traditional British drink that they need similar treatment to lagers. Whatever is behind the trend it’s not something I welcome. There’s a time and a place for a cold lager, but in my local pub I need my local ale at a temperature that allows all the flavours and aromas to come to the fore, and that doesn’t anaesthetise the back of the throat on its way down. British beer should not be warm but, please, let’s keep ale from getting too cold!
And as for putting bottled ales in the fridge……well, let’s not go there (for now).