TT: Cold as Ice

JANE: Alan, when we were discussing cocktails, when you said “the British don’t do ice,” you reminded me of something that’s always puzzled me.

Would You Like Ice in That?

Would You Like Ice in That?

The British seem to serve a lot of drinks warm that we’d serve either chilled or with ice in them.  What’s this aversion to a nice cold beer?

ALAN: Ah, that old myth… Like all myths, there’s a degree of truth in it, but the whole truth is rather more complex.

Firstly, of course, British room temperature is rather colder than the room temperatures that you are used to, so the beer is not quite as warm as you might expect it to be. But more importantly, the beer that the British drink is very different from the kind of beer that most of the rest of the world drinks.

JANE: If you say so…  What makes British beer so different?

ALAN: It all depends on the strain of yeast that is used to ferment the beer. Essentially there are two major kinds. One sits on the top of the liquid and forms a crust under which the liquid happily ferments. The other sinks to the bottom of the liquid and bubbles away down there until the beer is ready. Top fermenting yeasts tend to produce darker, more full-bodied beers that taste better when served at room temperature. Bottom fermenting yeasts tend to produce lighter beers that taste much better when served chilled. There are exceptions to this general idea, of course, but it’s not a bad rule of thumb.

JANE: Jim tends to like darker beers, precisely because he likes that “full-bodied” element, but I never realized that the type of yeast used was what made for the difference.

So it’s a bit like wine – red wines are best served at room temperature whereas white wines tend to taste better when they’re slightly chilled?

ALAN: That’s a good analogy. And, just like most of the rest of the world, the British are more than happy to agree that at the end of a hot and humid day, there’s nothing quite so refreshing as a nice cold beer. There’s a famous British WWII movie called Ice Cold In Alex. It’s about the fighting in the North African desert. A recurring theme has the protagonists dreaming of returning to base in Alexandria and drinking an ice cold beer or three…

JANE: So what about ice? You said that the British don’t do ice.

ALAN: For most of recorded history, the British have not had access to ice in any great quantity. In the seventeenth century Britain did import a small amount of ice from Scandinavia, and you can still find ice storage houses in some of Britain’s stately homes. It was a hideously expensive luxury and really only available to the upper classes.

I gather that Americans used to harvest ice during the winter (I assume from places like Alaska), and they’d store it in specially designed ice boxes to keep it frozen well into summer. Certainly by the middle of the nineteenth century, both America and Canada were exporting ice to Britain, and for a time it was quite fashionable (though still expensive) to have ice in your drinks. Queen Victoria was apparently very enthusiastic about the idea. But that didn’t stop the curmudgeons from grumbling and writing complaining letters to The Times about this new-fangled fashion that was ruining the wine…

JANE: That’s fascinating.  I can certainly see ice as a luxury good.  Maybe you’re being silly when you mention American ice coming from Alaska but, just in case, I’d better clarify.

Prior to the invention of the freezer, Americans did indeed harvest ice, but there was no need to go all the way to Alaska to do so.  A good, clean fresh water pond or lake was usually the source.  The ice was cut out in large chunks (because these take longer to thaw) and stored in buildings appropriately called ice houses.  The buildings were well-insulated and often at least partially underground.  For added insulation, the ice was often covered in sawdust.

ALAN: No, I wasn’t being silly.  I really didn’t know where Americans got their ice. Your ice houses sounds like they have the same design as the ice storage buildings you still sometimes find in the stately homes of old England.

In England, by the mid-twentieth century, fridges had started to become a household item, though they were quite small and the freezer compartment was very tiny. I remember being amazed when I watched imported American TV programmes – the fridges were huge! And they had shelves in the door! How weird…

Originally, there was only room in the freezer compartment of our domestic fridges for one tray of ice (or two if you were lucky) so the supply of ice in a household was always tiny. I remember once being severely told off by my father when I put two ice cubes in my drink. Clearly I was “wasting” ice…

JANE:  Interesting…  I want to come back to the subject of ice cubes, but first…  Has modern technology changed the temperature at which Brits prefer their drinks?

ALAN: Not really.  Ice is now easy to make and also very cheap.   Nevertheless, the British continue to regard it with suspicion. You might get one ice cube in your gin and tonic. You are unlikely to get two.

JANE: Seriously?  Do New Zealanders feel the same away about ice?  How about Australians?  Given the high temperatures in part of Australia, I’d think they’d like their drinks as cold as they can get them.

ALAN: That’s one part of their British heritage that New Zealanders and Australians have not continued with. They both have a very American attitude to ice, and cold drinks are everywhere.

JANE: That matches what I remember from my long-ago visit to New Zealand.

At what temperature do Brits prefer non-alcoholic drinks?  Here in the U.S., chilled water with ice is such a common preference that, unless water conservation is in effect, restaurants serve it even if it isn’t requested.

A very popular drink is iced tea.  Sodas are so often served with ice that one friend of mine who doesn’t like lots of ice in her soda has to specifically request that the ice be left out, and for her to be given a cup of ice on the side instead.

ALAN: In the UK, the water served in a restaurant will generally be at room temperature, perhaps even tepid. Again though, Australians and New Zealanders follow the American habit, thank goodness. There’s something very satisfying about a glass of ice-cold water…

As far as soft drinks go, they are seldom drunk by adults and iced tea is generally thought to be an abomination. Non-alcoholic drinks tend to be fruit juices (though ginger beer and lemon, lime and bitters are also quite popular) and yes, here they are served cold, often with ice. But not in the UK. Remember, the British don’t do ice…

JANE: I shall indeed remember.  It’s enough to make me want to pack an ice cube tray if I ever go to the UK.

And that reminds me.  I need to share the American evolution of the ice cube with you, but I’ll save that for next time!


8 Responses to “TT: Cold as Ice”

  1. Peter Says:

    I remember being caught out by the differences in UK and North American fridge sizes the other way when my family moved to the UK in the early 80s and discovered our kitchen came equipped with a bar fridge (this has interesting knock-on effects on packaging).

    The Chinese, like the British, don’t do ice. Some of it is doubtless down to pragmatic or meteorological reasons, but there’s also a long-standing belief that hot water is healthier than cold. When you sit down to dinner in a restaurant you will get a glass of warm (higher than room temperature, but not boiling) water, refrigerated soft drinks are quite rare, and even public drinking fountains and taps (public taps with potable water are common) will serve warm water, sometimes with a separate tap for hot (near-boiling).

    • James M. Six Says:

      Yes, when I was in China last year, the water dispensers at the university dispensed hot water and warm water, never cold water, a culture shock for which I was not prepared. The soda machines dispensed soda which was “chilled” to perhaps mid-50s temperature (Fahrenheit), if that. Even FINDING an ice cube tray for my apartment was a challenge.

      Ah, the joys of travel.

      • Jane Lindskold Says:

        What are the temperatures like in these areas? China covers a lot of area.

        That said, I can see why hot water would be consider healthier than cold: heating would kill the microscopic nasties.

      • Peter Says:

        The hot water thing seems to be country-wide, at least as far north as Beijing and as far south as Hong Kong. As I understand it the practice has more to do with folk medicine (hot water is believed to kickstart the digestive system and blood circulation, and mixing cold water with hot food will cause an imbalance of humours.)

        It’s not climate-related – even in 35 degree (~100 F if memory serves) humid weather people are still sucking down glasses of hot water.

  2. Paul Says:

    First time I’ve thought of ice as a luxury item.

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      Even out on the Canadian prairies [there’s a reason the place is called Winterpeg] keeping ice right through the summer was a major challenge before the advent of ammonia-cycle refrigeration. In the UK, by the end of the 18th century you couldn’t count on getting a hard freeze on even small ponds anymore. A century earlier, the Thames would freeze hard enough to hold a fair on, but I don’t think that that condition ever lasted longer than a month or so, which means that there were at most 3 months of the year when ice would keep without special storage. Even if you could harvest large quantities of good ice, keeping it was a serious, and expensive, challenge.

  3. Louis Robinson Says:

    Alan, it was my understanding that British beers and wines were usually served at cellar temperature, which is quite a bit cooler than room temp even over there.

    • Alan Robson Says:

      Technically that’s correct — but most people continue to use the phrase “room temperature”. Certainly the average pint of bitter will be warmer than the average American would expect it to be.


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