In the old days, not the long-gone old days, but the recent old days, when craft brewing was new, I made an interesting discovery. I noticed that when I visited Seattle and sampled Oregon craft beers on draft, they didn’t seem to taste as good. I concluded that they did not travel well, hence the taste difference.
Later that year, I wandered up to British Columbia and visited the Granville Island Brewing Co. in Vancouver. I knew the brewmaster there at that time and was given a good tour of the premises, along with a sampling of its brews. It had been a good morning. That afternoon, I was tasting various Canadian brews at a local beer emporium when I noticed that the Granville Island beers on tap tasted odd. Since I had savored those same brews at the brewery that morning, I was stunned at how bad they tasted. Then I remembered that particular taste was due to dirty draft lines. In this case it was exceptionally noticeable.
I originally identified this particular taste in Everett, WA, where I grew up. I was drinking with an older friend, a former brewery employee, when he noticed that same phenomenon with a beer we were drinking. He identified this taste parameter to me so I could distinguish it. Later I found out that Everett was notorious in this regard in 1951 and Seattle not much better. I thought nothing more about the matter until that day in Canada when I remembered the very recognizable taste of dirty draft-beer lines.
As it happened, two Granville Island marketing people were seated near me. I stepped over and asked them to try their brewery’s beer and tell me what they thought. They knew something was wrong immediately, but not the reason until I explained it to them. The telltale taste that cruddy draft lines leave in beer is readily recognizable once you have been attuned to it. On my way back down to Portland, I stopped in Seattle and sampled the Oregon brews just to be sure, and there it was, dirty-line syndrome, as I call it. The Seattle brews had the same taste, but I had never tasted them any other way and had thought that was how they were supposed to taste. At that time Portland had a law that the tavern keeper had to clean his lines at least every two weeks, which is why I had never encountered that taste in my home city.
I can’t name the exact culprit in this scenario, but I know it when I taste it, and you would, too, if it were pointed out. I’ve not found anyone in the industry who can dignify that ester with a scientific designation. In any case, the moral here is double: Bar owners should clean their taps regularly and religiously (once a week is not too often), and brewers should sample their brews in as many venues as possible to ensure consistency of taste.
If your favorite beer tastes poor, this could be the reason. If you are new in a pub or if you detect a troubling ester in a familiar beer, check the same beer at another pub, then talk to the manager, but don’t expect much thanks. The last time I identified that taste and told the manager, he was unable to relate to the danger. I’ve not returned to that place. Apparently Portland no longer enforces that line-cleaning ordinance, or it has been repealed as I’ve been told, but all of my favorite haunts seem to be taking good care of their lines.
We have at least one tavern here now that has 100 taps. 100! That’s far more than most pubs can manage. None of the servers could tell me when the beers had gone on draft or when they should be taken off. Of course, none of them could identify problems. In any case, we can conclude that 100 is more than any one establishment can handle.
Our world-famous Horse Brass British-style tavern has about 50 taps. The beer is always great, the staff knowledgeable and the customers happy. The management knows better than to offer beer on 100 taps.
There are other things one should know about the local tavern. Get to know the owner-manager; it never hurts to be friendly and sometimes it can get you free beer, too. A friendly barkeep would appreciate your concern about his operation, no matter what the problem. Just as in the search for a friendly beer retailer, one needs to cherish a good pub keeper, and for similar reasons. Beer is beer, and it doesn’t travel well. The larger the selection, the more opportunity for system failure. A good selection is not necessarily a large selection. Your bartender should be willing and able to tell you how long a particular keg has been on, and the ABV as well. If it has been on longer than a week, maybe you should make another selection. Ask for a small sample to be sure. As multiple-tap bars become more widespread across the country, the opportunities for problems expand. The more taps there are, the more likely the beer will have been on too long, but more taps also offer you a better opportunity to find a fresh beer to enjoy. Most craft beers are unpasteurized, hence they are fresher tasting but more perishable. Be fussy. Your friendly bar manager should be happy to advise you on his best possibilities and offer samples of his beers. A knowledgeable bar staff is your best defense against bad beer. When you find such a place, cherish the owner, his manager and staff. Reward them with your patronage and friendship. Tip them generously.
More and more establishments are installing British-style cask conditioning facilities, and this can lead to problems for you as well as the bar owner. He or she should train workers to manage such natural fresh-conditioned beers. They should be receptive to constructive criticism from patrons.
The price of beer and the size of the serving are also important. I have found pubs that, I suspect, use the 14-ounce glass as a pint measure. This is inexcusable. If you suspect your local is pulling that on you, go with a friend (don’t do this alone) and bring a measuring glass to determine the real measure. If you find something like that, you should raise hell in a fairly loud manner, so other customers will be aware, too. Of course, not all bar owners will receive such criticism graciously, and the two of you should be prepared to evacuate those premises on short notice. Prosit!
Fred Eckhardt lives in Portland, OR, and at 85 years young still vividly remembers the old days of craft beer, while gladly raising hell at improper pint pours.