Making Beer Cold:  It's Not Rocket Science

            Dave Howard, a good friend and neighbor, has built a successful restaurant business, starting with his first location back in the eighties.  He knows the business, hires good people, trains them well, treats them well with things like full health coverage, profit sharing for managers, 401(k) plans, and he and his wife Anita are really great people to work for.  Naturally, Dave’s first Chicago’s prospered, and he opened several more in measured succession, all of which do very well. 

In the mid-nineties, he opened a seafood restaurant, The Bitter End, around the corner from our neighborhood.  My son Chris, fifteen at the time, applied for a job as food runner.  Food runners deliver any table’s order the moment it comes up, since the server for a particular table might be occupied at another table.  Chris couldn’t drive, so I dropped him off at night and returned to pick him up at closing.  Dave’s place had a comfortable little bar with a nice selection of draft beers and served them in either the standard, straight-sided pint glasses or a curvy, taller twenty-two ounce glass, both chilled. On opening night just after closing, Dave was winding down and offered to buy me a beer, which we enjoyed at his new, granite topped bar.  We both remarked appreciatively how cold the beer was. 

Several weeks later, I waited for Chris to finish up at closing, per my usual routine, in the nicely appointed bar area, watching the flat screen.  Sipping on a large Sweetwater 420, I noted that the beer wasn’t quite cold enough.  I mentioned this to the bartender, and he indicated that he’d straighten it out. The following weekend, I waited at closing time for Chris to finish, ordering my usual.  The beer was still warm.  Mentioning it to the bartender, he said that he had called their beer distributor, who was responsible for repair and maintenance of the system.  He said that the technician couldn’t find anything wrong, but that he’d tell him to check it again.  Next week, same tune.  Getting defensive, he told me that the tech told him everything was in perfect order.  He'd checked all areas of the coolers with his thermostatic probe, and the temperature was constant throughout. 

I couldn’t stand it.  Cold beer is not rocket science.  I called Dave the next day and reflected on the excellent beer we’d enjoyed some weeks prior, noting that the standard had fallen in recent past. I complemented the bartender for his apparent efforts at responsiveness, but we both agreed that he hadn’t gotten the job done.  Dave was appreciative, understanding that I wasn’t complaining, but rather had his interest at heart.  He’s also known me long enough to have confidence in my assessment of all matters concerning beer. 

Next weekend, I ordered my usual Sweetwater 420 as I waited for Chris, and to my pleasant surprise, it was crackling cold.  I called Dave the next day to report our success.   He said, “I know. I turned the cooler down a couple notches.” 

He went on to relay that the bartender was defensive and a more than a little embarrassed that the owner had to get involved, protesting that the distributor’s own guy said he checked it and monitored the cooler’s temperature, and that everything was as it should be.  Here was another case of the guy responsible for customer satisfaction “making the phone call” rather than solving the problem.  Dave offered some quick training, advising him that the customers, not the fridge tech, decide whether it is right or not.  Customers want cold beer, and it was the bartender’s job to give it to them.  Any questions? 

My good friend Mikey and his wife were marrying off their only daughter a couple years ago.  The wedding and reception were held in the gardens at Greystone Mansion, a magnificent venue in Beverly Hills that has been used for location shoots in countless films.  It was a warm September evening, and the open bar had a big rectangular Rubbermaid tub with a nice assortment of bottled beers.  Mikey shares my love of beer, so he got the selection right.  Too bad the catering staff got the rest of it wrong.  The ice in the tub was only about two inches deep, leaving the top half of the beers exposed to ambient, eighty-degree Los Angeles air.   

Let’s think about this.  The bottom half of the beer is thirty-two degrees, the temperature of melting ice.  The top of the beer is eighty degrees, the temperature of its surroundings.  The cold beer, being denser, stays in the bottom of the bottle.  The warm beer, being less dense, stays in the top. There is an isothermic layer between the two temperature differentials that prevents fluid at rest from mixing until disrupted.  Naturally, they mix when you tilt the bottle back for the first swig or pour it into the glass.  The net result, once blended, is a beer at about fifty-five degrees.  Fifty-five degrees is cold enough to kill you if you’re tossed overboard in the North Atlantic.  Fifty-five degrees is warm enough kill a party by ruining an otherwise excellent Sam Adams Boston Lager.  

I went to red alert, grabbing one of the staff guys and explaining that we needed a five gallon pail of ice, STAT.  That done, I took the bartender aside and tried to educate her.  It was obvious that no one else had ever bothered, and unless she planned on retiring from bartending that evening, she really needed to learn how and why beer needs to be cold.  I explained the temperature differential thing, and she hung on my every word with the rapt, if mindless, attention of a dog watching television.  My wife was unsympathetic to my mission, lambasting me quietly through tightly clenched teeth for embarrassing our host and injecting disruption into his gracious affair.  From my perspective, I’d succeeded in a critical rescue mission.  Mikey was a good friend, and I would hope he’d have done the same for me, had the situation been reversed. On the surface, my concern was for the benefit of all his guests, but at a higher, transcendental level, I was driven to right an inexcusable wrong.  I should not have been called upon to do it. The catering company staff should know how to make beer cold.  They got the difficult stuff right; it was the easy part that eluded them, and probably still does.  My guess is that, despite my best efforts, their bartender remains oblivious.  My hope is that she has switched professions.

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making beer cold