Craft beer penetration in the USA, and the question of temperatures

Speakeasy beers at Embarcadero Center cinema

Nothing saucy, I’m just amazed and impressed at the ubiquity of real beers and craft beer in the US. It seems to penetrate every corner of booze retailing: I’ve seen it in a stinky, deeply unprepossessing neighbourhood general store in Bed-Stuy, in posh-ish restaurants in Manhattan’s West Village, in a decidedly not posh barbecue joint in smalltown Kansas, and in another general store in the sparsely populated Big Sur, California, which had maybe 100 different beers.

Never mind the Downtown San Francisco cinema we went to yesterday where the bar included 11 craft beers. (Though it fell down on a few more salient cinema practicalities: an obvious, tangible place to buy, you know, tickets, and clear signage to the actual, you know, auditoriums.) We drank local SF ales from Speakeasy brewery. The design is great; the beer was good too; and it was especially pleasant to be able to take it into the auditorium. (Despite then being told by an old biddy that I was “harassing” her, even though I was just sitting quietly minding my own business, supping ale and watching Dallas Buyers Club. I suspect she was riled by my tallness; but hey, I didn’t design the place and I had tried to sit right at the back.)

Embarcadero Center cinema bar menu - 11 craft beers!

Small and wide
I’ve seen small breweries all across the country, from Brooklyn, to Weston, Missouri, to Estes Park in the Rockies, to SF. I knew brewing was a thriving scene in places like SF, but this ubiquity and massive market penetration, this embrace of an artisan foodstuff in the country that sold the world the model of the worst industrialised pseudo-food (in the form of junk food chains, massive supermarkets etc) is enormously gratifyingly. And it puts the UK to shame.

Considering Britain is one of the spiritual homes of brewing we’re seriously lagging behind. The past 10 years have seen a massive resurgence in non-corporate, non-industrial brewing in the UK, with the number of breweries in London alone rising from a shocking two in 2006 to around 50 now, but the situation is still comparably dire. Even the classiest UK cinemas with bars could maybe only muster a few real beers, while our corner shops and general stores rarely have much beyond cans of Fosters and Stella. Or at least they do in the images that keep flashing through my mind’s eye from my memories of living in Blighty until we moved to Rome a few years ago. It might be marginally better now; I’ll find out when we settle back in home around Christmastime.

Board at the Magnolia, Haight

Fridge vs cellar
Having said all that, there’s one thing that the US seems to largely get wrong when it comes to real beer: the serving temperatures. The old joke goes that Brits like flat warm beer, but traditionally it’s not warm: it’s just not refrigerated. The proper temperature for a real beer is cellar temperature: not fridge temperature.

British brewers talk about this, Italian craft brewers talk about this; and in Italy, the craft beer (itself very inspired by US craft beer) in bottles almost always comes with temperature info on the label: it should be drunk at 8-14C (46-57F), depending on type. Cellar temperature. (Room temperature, meanwhile, may be around 20C (68C); that’d be a warm beer.)

Why you may ask? Well, it’s not just about tradition and ye olde temperature of ye olde cellars in ye olde British pubs. It’s about taste. When a beer, or a wine, is the wrong temperature, you don’t experience the taste to the full. When a beer is too cold, its scents will be quashed, so you want get the full preliminary smell, and your tongue’s receptors won’t be fully activated, so you won’t get the full taste experience.

Beers at Magnolia: Proving Ground IPA and Sara's Ruby Mild (right)

Yet all across the US I’ve been served really well made craft beers straight from the fridge, quashing their qualities. The whole “enjoy an ice cold beer” thing the big industrial brewers have promoted for their crappy lagers has taken over the entire spectrum of beer-drinking, it would seem, undermining the qualities of so many brews.

Of course, this is a generalisation. Different types of beers can be served at different temperatures. This piece (from California) on Ratebeer talks about how, generally, lighter beers can and should be served colder, and darker ales (eg Imperial stout) warmer (that is 14-16C, or 57-61F).

If you’re a fan of industrial lagers, meanwhile, knock yourself out with drinking them “ice cold” – it’ll suppress any flavour. In that respect, drinking ice cold lager is more like drinking bland soda pop: it’s refreshing because it’s cold (and I understand this appeal if it’s a really hot day), but it won’t provide any sort of interesting taste experience, it won’t provide a full organoleptic experience, if you want the fancy term.

This issue is one of the reasons I regret not having got onto a brewery tour during this journey across the US (they were booked up months ahead; we arrived at the wrong time; we just weren’t organised enough, etc). I really wanted to discuss it with some brewers. I suspect a lot of them would agree with me, but they can’t control how people store their products, and it’s hard to counter decades of “ice cold” marketing.

Fish and chips and ale at the Magnolia

Our last night, last night
Still, last night, our final night in the US, I at least had a nice chat with a guy in Magnolia on Haight. He was your standard craft beer hipster with a big beard and tattoos, but was informative and told us about how this brewgastropub uses “high end ingredients” (the menu talks about their enthusiasm for English bitter styles and Marris Otter malts) and how they’re “one of the few places that do” have a cellar, for storing their casks at the appropriate temperatures.

None of us knew what “aphotic” meant though, when Fran had an Aphotic Baltic Porter. Reading now, it’s the portion of a lake or ocean without sunlight, which is a great name for this inky black, blackcurranty beer.

We also drank two of Magnolia’s three own brews: Sara’s Ruby Mild, a 3.9% ale in a low carbonation English bitter style, deep red in colour, with a smell “like Bolognaise sauce” (Fran) and a maltiness that was more milky (like Ovaltine) than caramelly; and Proving Ground IPA, a fairly strong (7%), fairly acridly bitter, slightly salty hopped ale.

Like the Spotted Pig, where we went in the West Village in New York, Magnolia is one of those places that does the pub + food combo so much better than many gastropubs I’ve been too in the UK. They even did some great fish and chips. And did beer themed desserts.

Beer-themed desserts at the Magnolia

It was a great end to my beer odyssey across the States. I’m trying not to have any booze at lunchtime, as tonight we’re getting on a 13 hour/two day (date line, innit) flight and want to be feeling as fresh as possible before this dehydrating, discomforting, dehumanising aero-schlep.

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1 Comment

Filed under American beer, Travelling

One response to “Craft beer penetration in the USA, and the question of temperatures

  1. Oh you are almost gone? Bon Voyage. i hope NZ has the beer at the right temp, if not let me know and i will have a word! But it is much much more expensive to drink over there so i should hope it is stored correctly. c

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