UK Question #1 – Why do they serve warm beer?

10 Common questions from Americans about the UK
Over the last 30+ years, being a Brit now living in the USA (and, with effect from April 2010, a US Citizen), I have had to fend off lots of inquiring questions from Americans about why things are the way they are in the UK.
A quick observation before I begin. When comparing cultures, it is rather easy to get into the mindset that “my” culture is right, ergo, “their” culture must be defective and/or wrong. Sometimes this can be easily rationalized as true when looking at “big ticket” issues, and this is especially true when looking at past cultural behaviors and comparing them with behaviors in the same or similar societies today. However, quite often, at least for behaviors of less significance, there is a rational explanation for patterns of behavior in another culture. The behavior may not be entirely logical by the way, but it may be perfectly rational in the societal context in which it occurs.
So, let’s get started…

1. Why do you serve warm beer?
Let’s start with this one. An oldie but goodie.
What visitors refer to as “warm beer” is what is known in brewing parlance as “cask conditioned ale”. Cask conditioned ales are the original type of ales brewed since the start of the Middle Ages. Hops, barley mash and water are brewed in a vat, then allowed to cool and fermented for 6-10 days, then bottled or poured into wooden casks.
This type of beer is still “alive” in a bottle or a cask – it is still maturing slowly. Eventually, after a period of 10-15 days, it will over-mature and become undrinkable. Even a bottled variant has a relatively short shelf life.
For hundreds of years, this was the type of beer sold and consumed in the UK. This type of brewing works because of the moderate summer temperatures in the UK. It would never work (for example) in Texas. The beer would “run away” and over ferment in a day or two in the casks.
Pasteurised beers and lagers became more prevalent in the late 20th century. Those beers have a longer shelf life, since they are dead when bottled or poured into pressurized kegs. They are therefore easier to rack , distribute and store. Breweries transitioned to brewing those types of beers in the 1970’s in the UK, only to be forced to retreat in the 1980’s when consumers revolted and demanded older-style beers. The revival of craft brewing has also caused a return to the production of cask conditioned beers.
Now the answer: cask conditioned beers are served at room temperature for the same reason that most red wines are served at close to room temperature. They taste terrible when chilled. All of the subtle flavors vanish, to be replaced by..well, nothing. Chilled cask ales are insipid. As originally formulated, the entire life cycle of the beer’s fermentation distribution and consumption takes place at or close to room temperature, and the flavor of the resulting product is best appreciated at room temperature. Chilling cask ales flat out does not work.
If you want a cold beer, choose a lager-type pasteurized beer or one of the many cold-served craft beers.


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