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As good as an ice-cold beer on a hot summer's day

ONE of the best summer treats is an ice-cold beer. You know the feeling - the scorching sun beating down on you, the sweat dripping profusely from your brow.

You spot a cool, shady bar and order a pint of the coldest lager on tap. Pure bliss is mere seconds away as you wrap your laughing gear around the glass in anticipation and in that instant, you expect a crashing wave of unadulterated liquid refreshment to come flooding into your mouth ... except it's warm.

The trouble most punters find in local beer is that it is often not cold enough. Sure, while most accept cultural preferences and are used to soft drinks being sold only slightly chilled in convenience stores, getting a lukewarm beer, half of which is foam, at the prices these joints charge, just doesn't quite cut it.

Getting beer served at the right temperature is of utmost importance. According to beer guru Gary Heyne of the Boxing Cat Brewery, beer is best served at 1 degree Celsius. "When it goes 1 degree above serving point, carbon dioxide jumps out of solution so you're pouring foam," he says.

Another problem with warm beer is that yeast continues to work at temperatures above 3 degrees Celsius and the beers continue to ferment, giving that headache people associate with hangovers as they continue to imbibe the beverage.

The reason most beer is not served cold enough is because of the limitations of dispensing systems. Most places employ an under-the-counter keg system, where carbon dioxide is pumped into a keg left at room temperature (around 22 degrees to 30 degrees Celsius) of beer, forcing it out into lines that get cooled in a water-based refrigeration unit at zero degrees.

The unit is equipped with a motor to prevent freezing, and then the beer gets served from the tap at supposedly 3 degrees Celsius, but in reality the temperature varies between 6 and 8 degrees Celsius.

Elegant solution

In this set-up, the fridge motor creates a noticeable amount of noise, while the kegs under the bar take up valuable space that can be used for other refrigeration. Beer left in the lines warms up and foams up when it mixes with colder beer in the glass, and wastage is also a problem, which means money is wasted. This is especially of concern given the cost of premium imported beers, such as Guinness, which costs more than 1,000 yuan (US$146) a keg.

Irishman Stephen Sands specializes in a more elegant solution. Formerly working for Fosters and consulting for IMI Cornelius, the world's leading supplier of beverage-dispensing and cooling equipment, the former O'Malley's and Park Tavern general manager is an expert in installing and maintaining cool rooms (also known as cold rooms).

These are temperature-controlled rooms where beers and carbon dioxide are regulated, crashed through a pool of glycol (which freezes at a lower temperature than water and thus chills the beer more efficiently), then pumped through large tubes known as pythons where glycol lines are wrapped around the beer lines. This chills the beer all the way to the countertop taps, which are also filled with glycol and maintain optimum temperature from the moment the beer leaves the kegs till it gets served in the glass.

Another plus of the system is, besides the beer being kept cooler, the temperature of the carbon dioxide is also constant, which means the pressure does not need to be adjusted according to the temperature difference over the four seasons.

One fan of the system is Big Bamboo boss Bryce Jenner. The Canadian installed the system in his Nanyang Road outlet following a hectic 2006 FIFA World Cup, and then built cold rooms in his next two outlets in Pudong's Jinqiao and Hongqiao area.

"I'm catering to a Western audience, and Westerners like to have our beer cold. The colder the better," Jenner says.

Another thing is efficiency, and that's a big thing. "(Other systems) take a lot of room behind the bar, and it's messy - when the place has 700 people in there and you're going through a keg in 10 minutes, you have to carry a warm keg from the backroom through the crowd and it's ridiculous. When you have a keg room, it's kept cold and you don't have to carry any product through the bar," Jenner adds.

Why then don't new bars all rush to install the more advanced system? The first reason is space. Cool rooms take up space that many places would rather fit more paying customers into. The Boxing Cat, for example, employs a cool room in its Minhang District outlet, but goes with a more space-efficient refrigeration solution in its downtown store.

Another barrier is cost. A typical Cornelius set-up costs about 150,000 yuan, compared with about 10,000 yuan for an under-the-counter system. This is further compounded by beer companies often installing the latter for free in exchange for exclusivity. As any start-up will tell you, getting something for nothing is often ideal.

Jenner, however, believes his system, which cost between 150,000 and 180,000 yuan depending on venue, to be a worthy investment.

"I wanted to offer a better product, and I thought it was worth it. I didn't do it just for economic reasons but (also) for function. It looks good. When people come here, I'm sure one of the things they notice when they get their beer is 'Wow, this place isn't cheap.' (A Carlsberg, for example, costs 40 yuan). We're certainly not cheap, but look at our washrooms, our TVs, our pool table ... the old system just looked a little bit worn and cheap."


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