Picture the scene: A bunch of co-workers from Saugatuck Brewing go out for a night in their town about 40 miles southwest of Grand Rapids, Michigan. They’re decently stoked about the selection of beer at the bars they patronize, but there’s one thing that ruins it at every stop: bartenders are pouring their drinks into frozen glassware.
They decide not to complain directly so as not to offend their bar accounts—even when a bourbon-barrel-aged stout arrives in an icy pint glass—but later, the brewery’s marketing coordinator doesn’t conceal the fact that brewery employees consider the practice their biggest pet peeve.
“Everyone kind of cringes when beer gets poured into a frozen glass,” Megan Pruim said about 18 months after the incident.
But freezable glasses show up all the time at bars, and a search for “freezable beer glasses” on Amazon turns up 97 results. A closer look reveals that Heineken used to license a freezable glass to a company called Amsterdam Glass that claims its products cool beer to between 31 and 36 degrees and keep it cold for 30 minutes. In an email, Amsterdam’s marketing guy brags that an ice ring sometimes forms on the surface of the liquid.
Well, hold on a second. Haven’t discerning drinkers been denouncing ice-cold beer for years, arguing that the only real reason to send a beer into a deep chill is to mask the flavor, or lack thereof? And doesn’t the American Homebrewers Association (AHA) designate only one beer to be served at lower than 38 degrees? (We’ll save you the time of looking it up: It’s an “American Mainstream Light Lager” at a cool 33-40 degrees.)
So who’s right?
“I can think of no scenario in which any beer should be subjected to a frozen glass,” says John Bryce, technical outreach director of the Master Brewers Association of the Americas (MBAA).
Whether it’s the MBAA, the AHA, the Brewers Association or the marketing coordinator for a mid-sized brewery in Michigan, the answer is a resounding no go on frozen glassware. First of all, opponents usually argue that an icy glass is not generally considered beer-clean, considering that ice particles not only adhere to what’s supposed to be a perfectly smooth glass but also often contain frozen bits of sanitizer that might smell and taste like chlorine or iodine.
Second, when beer freezes, the proteins can precipitate out of the beer solution and form flakes known as “skins” in the beer that leave behind a changed mouthfeel. Third, carbon dioxide can separate from the frozen liquid and reduce the perception of aroma and the fizz. Fourth, frozen beer does numb the palate.
It all combines into an effect that doesn’t hurt the drinker but changes the character of the beer.
As Mark Sammartino, MBAA’s technical director who spent 20 years as an Anheuser-Busch brewmaster, says, “The beer is no longer as presented by the brewmaster. … I will never have a frozen glass in my house, and I will always turn it down in the market place. If a retailer only has frozen glassware, I am not staying.”
So why do bars still do it? As Amazon’s offerings would attest, there’s clearly a consumer market that’s been sold on the fantasy that cold beer plus serving vessels equals a better experience.
At Fiddlehead Brewing just south of Burlington, Vermont, you can sample and buy swag in the tasting room, but if you want to drink a full beer, you have to step through a door into an independently owned pizza shop where the proprietor sells fresh bottles yet stores his glasses in the cooler.
Fiddlehead’s owner, Matt Cohen, says he’s tried to sway his neighbor away from the practice but has decided not to argue, even though he does field the occasional question about it.
“The owner of the pizza shop loves frozen glasses for some reason,” Cohen says. “There are certain fights that aren’t worth fighting.”
On the dispense equipment side, “Micro Matic is not a fan of glass frosters, even though we do sell them,” says Mike Godwin, spokesman for Micro Matic, which supplies equipment to breweries. And as for a Micro Matic product that attaches—very visibly—to a commercial draft system and pulls beer through an exterior ice-frosted tower, Godwin emails, “Ice (or frozen) beer towers do not change the temperature of the beer; they are intended as a marketing ploy.”
Godwin emailed later to soften his comments and reiterate that Micro Matic recommends rinsing out ice residue with a glass rinser. “Glass frosters give you that frosty glass look, but can add unwanted ice in your beer,” he writes.
And as for those ice towers, “They only provide the eye-appeal of ice cold beer.”
Despite this opposition, there remains one reason to put your beer on ice: to bring it quickly up to proper serving temperature after storage. But stay away from that freezer. According to Sammartino, the ideal way to drop a beer’s temp is to drop the bottle or can into a bowl full of ice and water and chill.
Tara Nurin is a Society of Professional Journalists award-winning reporter who co-hosts a weekly beer TV show and writes for publications like USA Today.