Turn on any sink and clean potable water pours out in such abundance that we think nothing of letting it run right down the drain for minutes on end.
Despite its apparent hardiness, beer has a vulnerable side.
Reach in the fridge—or visit nearly any commercial building—and you find milk, juice, water and soda all tasting just the way their producers intended.
As consumers, we Americans (and our many peers in the developed world) have got it pretty good when it comes to the quality and consistency of what we consume. This occurs not just because it is good business, but because many of these products have the potential to cause serious harm through food poisoning or disease transmission. As a result, government regulations and oversight play a major role in determining the packaging and handling of products like water and milk.
Beer is different. And draft beer even more different. It has long been accepted that beer—even bad beer—won’t kill you or make you seriously ill. The unique process and ingredients of brewing delivers a liquid that has been well sanitized and loaded with mild natural preservatives in the form of hops and alcohol. Because of this, the vast body of regulation concerned with beer focuses on government tax revenues and public access to alcohol. Very little regulation at any level of government deals with the safe handling and serving of beer.
Yet despite its apparent hardiness, beer has a vulnerable side. Like milk, bread and hundreds of other grocery items, beer flavor can be greatly changed even while it remains safe to drink. That’s pretty huge when you think about it. Most people consider flavor a key benefit of beer, yet given the susceptibility to taint, beer may be the dietary staple most likely to suffer from off-flavors when consumed.
This article traces draft beer’s journey from the fresh, safe confines of a brewery fermenter to the consumer’s glass in a bar or restaurant. Come along for the ride and see how the beer trade keeps a good pale ale from being transformed into a buttery-sour, hazy goblet of grossness.
From Your Seat…
at the bar, you see the very end of the process: the bartender picks up a glass, opens the tap and fills your beer. If all works well, you receive an attractive, tasty pint.
What should a freshly poured pint of beer look like? For starters it should be topped with foam. And below the head, the glass should be filled entirely with liquid beer. No bubbles should stick to side of the glass below the head. The head should persist as you drink and it should leave lines of collapsed foam on the side of the glass as it empties, forming what we call “lace.”
Many attributes of a well-poured beer depend on draft system maintenance and operation. But to pour great draft beer a bar must begin with a “beer-clean” glass. When cleaned properly, a glass has no soil left adhering to the surface—and no oils left behind from the cleaning process. To achieve this, bars must isolate beer glasses from food dishes and milk glasses and wash them with special low-sud detergents. A cold-water rinse before filling helps too. A beer-clean glass provides the perfect vessel for beer and facilitates head formation and retention while eliminating the potential for unsightly glass-clinging bubbles. Beer drunk from a beer-clean glass will leave the telltale lace of a well-poured beer.
Now, about those bubbles.
In order to form, tiny pinpoints of CO2 must meet, coalesce and combine into a sphere big enough to be seen. When this happens naturally in the beer, bubbles rise quickly to the top of the glass to form the foam or head. But bubbles can also form around fixed meeting points called “nucleation sites.” Clean glass is so smooth it offers no nucleation sites—no place for bubbles to form and stick. Bubbles can only adhere to glass if food, dried beer or other contaminants are left behind after cleaning. Thus bubbles on your glass in the liquid beer flag a poorly cleaned glass. Point them out to your server as soon as you see them and explain that you’d really like your beer in a clean glass.
As for the foam at the top of the beer, it can be a contentious issue between pubs and patrons. Brewers call for up to an inch of foam atop their beers, but consumers—knowing that foam is mostly air—often want that minimized. In Europe, you find beer served in lined glasses. A line, labeled with a liquid volume such as “0.5 Liter,” appears an inch or so below the top of the glass. When presented, your glass should contain liquid beer to that line. The space above that (and often above the top of the glass as well) should be filled with foam.
Behind the Faucet
Draft systems range from simple to complex. But regardless of structure or design, every draft system should deliver cold, carbonated beer. When a server opens the tap or draft faucet, beer should come out as a completely liquid steam that pours at a rate of about 2 ounces per second. In short, pouring a glass of draft beer should be no more difficult or time consuming than pouring beer from a bottle.
New draft systems typically achieve this ideal. But without proper maintenance, the carefully tuned beauty of properly poured draft slips away. In its place, we all too often find out-of-control draft systems that give consumers poor quality beer while also reducing retailer profits.
Draft problems run a range from mild to malodorous based on the consequences faced by both consumer and retailer. Let’s start with the least offensive maladies and work our way up to the truly awful.