I like to think of brewers as parents and beer as their children—the hardest part of parenthood being when they have to let them go. They wave goodbye to their bottles and kegs as they’re shipped to bars and shops with the assumption that whomever ends up with them will take good care. Beer, after all, is a perishable product, susceptible to temperature, light, and age—and thus, there’s lots of room for things to go wrong.
As a beer drinker and bar patron, you have the right to drink beer the way the brewer intended it to be served. Nicole Mandala, a Certified Cicerone, former manager at Bukowski Tavern in Boston, and current sales rep and all-around brewery helper at Mystic Brewery, shows us what to look out for when something’s off—and what we can do about it.
“Beer is an interactive substance. You put it into a vessel and it’s going to behave a certain way, and carbonation in beer is a really good way to tell a lot of things about it,” says Mandala.
Clumps or lines of bubbles that cling to the side of the glass are the easiest indicator of dirty glassware. Keep an eye on the head of the beer as well for a “false head,” which can indicate dirty glassware, or an improper pour.
“If it’s a beer that you know is supposed to pour with a good head on it—you’ve had it at other places and the beer had good head retention—and you get it at a bar and it all of a sudden goes away immediately, then the glass is dirty.”
The best bars have a thorough glass cleaning method. The old-school, preferred style, Mandala explains is a three-sink method where each glass is handled individually, but it can be time consuming. The next best is to have a dedicated dishwasher for glasses, since they use a different detergent than plates.
So, should you send it back?
“If it really is affecting the flavor, if you can’t enjoy the beer, I think that’s a pretty good rule. You should absolutely be able to not drink it if you’re not going to enjoy it.”
FROM KEG TO PINT
It breaks my heart to think of a great beer coming through a dirty tap line, infected with the Lactobacillus or Pediococcus bacteria. While enjoyable in a Lambic or purposefully sour beer, found in other beers, they can produce a range of unwanted tastes and aromas including buttered popcorn or a tangy sourness.
Bars should clean their draft lines at least once every two weeks, and should be active in cleaning every part of the system, like the faucets on the tap towers where bacteria can build up. Also, a bar might clean its system regularly, but the lines may be old and need the help of acid line cleaners to dissolve mineral buildup known as beer stone.
“Old lines can sometimes be mistaken for dirty lines. You can clean your lines on a regular basis but those lines have been there for five, seven, ten years, and there’s gonna be build-up in them, even if you clean them,” says Mandala.
The next step involves a bit of drinking detective work.
“If something doesn’t taste right, at that point, it’s a matter of figuring out whether it’s something at fault with the bar and the way that it’s being served or if it’s something bad with the beer to begin with at the time of packaging,” says Mandala. Seek out patterns—try other beers served at the bar, or compare to other visits there.
It takes a vigilant village to watch over the quality of beer: drinkers can identify when something’s off, and tactfully say something to the bartender, the bar staff should be educated in draft system maintenance and how to serve the beer properly, breweries and distributors are expected to check in on how their beer is pouring.
“For [Mystic Brewery] as a new brewery, we’re not going to sell our beer to anybody so that they can serve it however they want because too much is riding on it. We’re still very new—we want first impressions to be good ones,” says Mandala.
But as much as we should be cautious about beer served improperly, we should celebrate the bars that do it right, for there’s nothing better than a proper pint, served fresh and happy.
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to proper beer service, draft system maintenance, and ways beer can go bad. Check out Cicerone.org for more tips. I especially like their “Beer Drinker’s Bill of Rights,” posted below:
Beer drinkers have the right to be served:
- Beer that tastes the way the brewer intended it to taste.
- Fresh beer free of papery, waxy, sherry and other oxidized flavors.
- Beer that has not exceeded its “best-by” date code.
- Skunk-free beer.
- Beer in a clean glass.
- Beer that is properly carbonated.
- With a glass that doesn’t smell like sanitizer.
- With a glass large enough for the advertised serving size PLUS an inch or more of foam head.
Originally posted on Cicerone.org