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Last month I went on a bit of a tear about ALWAYS using a glass when drinking beer. Initially I was fully self-satisfied at offering an educational rant. But after it ran, my smugness withered. The reason? I started to realize that telling people to use a glass without informing them HOW to use that glass was like getting someone to ride a bike without giving them a helmet. Things can go horribly bad awfully quick (like how I tossed in another public service announcement there?).
I am not, of course, saying people need to be taught how to USE a glass – most of us figure that out by 18 months old. What I mean is that I feel the need to discuss how to properly pour beer to maximize flavour and aroma and minimize annoying over-foam. And while I am at it, I might as well suggest a few tips on serving draught beer – so you can evaluate the quality of your local bartender.
Let’s start with a couple of principles. The goal is to minimize unnecessary agitation in the beer (which accelerates the oxidation process), but to have enough to release subtle aromatics and to create just the right amount of head. Yes, some head is a goal here. A couple of finger widths of foam (a little more for some styles) both adds to the attractiveness of the beer and assists aroma, creating a gathering place for molecules before they free themselves into the air. Too much head on your beer is not only irritating, it releases too much carbon dioxide too soon (making the beer seem flatter than it should be) and forces you to wait to drink your beer, causing those lovely aromatics to escape.
This means that the Tom Cruise lift-your-arm-to-create-a-cascading-stream-of-liquid technique is out. So is pouring it as quickly as you can. Those are just bad form. But pouring too slowly is problematic too. It creates insufficient release, leaving the beer duller and less attractive than it should be.
The basic technique is straightforward. Start with your glass at an approximately 45-degree angle (don’t get anal, here – anything close is good enough). Hold the bottle near the opening and aim to pour in a moderate stream to somewhere around the middle of the side of the glass. After you are about two-thirds done, straighten the glass to upright and finish pouring, keeping your moderate pace. This last bit will encourage enough head, but not too much.
However, this technique works for most styles and situations, but not all. So, a few points on modifying for special circumstances. Highly carbonated beer, such as weizens and tripels, and hoppier beer (IPAs and beyond) will produce larger than average foam, and more easily. Thus they necessitate a slower and more careful pour. Slow down your pace and delay the glass straightening.
Also, the warmer a beer is, the more challenging the pour becomes. At warmer temperatures carbon dioxide releases more easily, meaning head can form too quickly. So pay attention to the temperature of your beer. I should also mention that a clean glass helps immensely. Dirty glasses have small particles of organic matter that act as nucleation points for CO2 release.
A final point on bottle pouring is that if you have bottle re-fermented beer (such as Belgian ales) or a homebrewed beer, and you don’t want to include the sediment in your glass (that is a personal preference, mostly), then the trick is to pour it in one go (or, if splitting it, gently lift the bottle just enough to stop the pour to minimize disturbing the sediment), and leave the last couple centimetres of beer behind.
As for kegged beer, the basic procedure is the same, but it is even more sensitive to temperature, carbonation and hopping rate, because the beer is being forced through a narrow tube with carbon dioxide. Start the glass at an angle, hitting the side. Near the end, straighten the glass to produce a couple fingers-worth of head – no more. This is one of the big mistakes in pubs; they either create too much foam or not enough.
Be sure not to dip the tap nozzle into the beer, as that both affects head formation and seems kind of icky. Also, open the tap handle fully. Partially opening it only makes the foaming worse as it restricts the aperture for the liquid’s release. That said, even with the best technique, kegged beer can get foamy on you. Such is the nature of the beast. The best bartenders learn how to sense the beer’s reaction and alter their technique to match.
Bottle or keg, the key is practice. I admit I don’t think much about my technique anymore. It is all about responding to the beer, instinctively knowing when to slow down, speed up, straighten or tilt. And that, my friends, only comes with pouring many, many beer.