If you have ever omitted to chill your beer, then shoved four cans in the freezer only to forget about the last one and watch it perish; if you have ever been to a festival and ordered white wine, forgetting that festivals never cool it properly, and had to neck something that tasted like a day-old Lemsip; if you have ever wondered why mojitos in a can are so damn tasty that even members of the shadow cabinet drink them, physics has the answer. Specifically, two Warsaw-based physicists, Álvaro Díez and Tibor Pal, who have devised a chilled drinks calculator. You provide basic information – what the drink is, what container it is in, how much of it there is, where it was before you started chilling it, whether it is going in the fridge or the freezer, what temperature you want to drink it at – and the calculator will tell you how long that will take, to within a minute’s accuracy.
The first thing you should know is that it takes longer than you think. A half-litre of water in a plastic bottle will take 77 minutes, and that is only to get from 30C (86F) down to 6C (43F) (in water terms, “refreshing”). The second thing you should know is that drinks operate at a delicate balance. If white wine and rosé aren’t cold enough, the alcohol starts to dominate, which it is meant to do in a red wine, but is harsh in a white. For most whites, 9-13C (48-55F) is optimal; any colder, and you will start to lose the flavour altogether and taste only coldness. For white wines with very high sugar – dessert wines, basically, and white port – the band is narrower: 10-12C (50-54F).
What kind of person obsesses about all this? Díez, 27, is doing a masters on the mathematical computer modelling of physical phenomena. His passion is to apply physics to anything that crosses his path; in his room (I haven’t seen this, only heard it described), everything is stacked in boxes that are exactly the size of the thing they contain. Pal, meanwhile, is transfixed by hydration and has calculated that, for maximum quench, you need to drink your water at 16C (61F), which is surprisingly warm.
Mostly speaking, says Díez, “if you want to really enjoy the taste, you have to have most things lukewarm or slightly below room temperature. That’s just chemistry. Otherwise you don’t get all the flavours into your mouth.” Don’t forget that when drinks people say “room temperature”, particularly old-fashioned drinks people, they are talking about rooms as they were in Victorian times, 16-18C (61-64F), not the 21C (70F) most of us would currently think of.
The more emphatic the taste of a thing, the warmer you should drink it; so red wine and brandy are best at 15-18C (59-64F). If I can add a limit to this wisdom from a layperson’s perspective, my dad used to buy red wine that was incredibly bad, then add boiling water to warm it up, which would make it taste less of itself. There is such a thing as too hot, unless your wine is rubbish to start with.
Champagne, as I am sure you know, should be colder than other white wines, but not that much colder: 8-10C (46-50F). Basically the only drink that should be as cold as you think is lager, which is best at 6-8C (43-46F). But that is because, “most of the time, people aren’t drinking them for their amazing taste – they just want something refreshing that isn’t water,” Díez remarks with authority. I am almost fully persuaded that it is a waste of throat (as they say in the trade) to drink lager for thirst-quenching purposes. You should drink water until you are no longer thirsty, then alcohol. The researchers themselves have started to look at shots of spirits in a new light: “Two degrees is the optimal temperature for a shot of gin or vodka. You’re not going to taste anything, drinking like that.”
Otherwise, their main surprise finding was how much difference the container made: drinks in glass take more than twice as long to chill as those in cans. Does that mean we should be moving to distribute all drinks in metal, for the environment and whatnot? No, dummy. “Metal is considered a thermal conductor, so you would use it when you want two surfaces to be the same temperature. Glass is considered an insulator; you use it in thermoses. So, obviously, it takes longer to chill, but it insulates the drink very well, so it’s much better if you’re moving drinks from one place to another.”
Beyond that, your freezer is not really designed to cool things down. It is designed to keep things cool. If you put two bottles of wine in there, its temperature will go up faster than that of the bottles will go down. Possibly the most important take-home is that if you have anything you know you want to drink cold, store it in a cool place to begin with, so it has less far to travel.
The researchers drink red wine for preference now, because it is quite hard to get that wrong. And if the main problem with water is that it doesn’t taste of enough, there are better answers to that – slices of lemon, sprigs of mint – than just drinking lager. It feels as if lager’s days might be numbered.