We have all been served beer, craft or otherwise, that has been presented poorly.
In the last few years the craft beer scene has given rise to a plethora of drinking establishments serving an ever increasing volume and range of craft beer. This increase is good for the producing breweries as well as the beer consumer as more establishments recognize the demand for better beer and rise to the challenge offered.
Unfortunately growing pains in an expanding market are inevitable as the need often outstrips the supply of expertise and this can lead to experiences for the consumer that are far from pleasant.
With more beer being produced and served to more and more craft beer drinkers, we sometimes see beer served in ways that are far from optimal.
From beer served overly cold (or warm), to beer served over (or under) carbonated, to the cardinal sin of beer being served in less than sanitary ways, we sometimes see fine craft beer not being given the treatment that it deserves.
Some of these sins are easily diagnosed, some are easily fixable, and some are even easy to ignore. Sadly though, there are some that are unforgivable.
Consider the temperature of beer. Serve me a cold beer and I’ll let it sit a bit, which is no real problem for me as I can chat with my companions. While this is less than ideal, it certainly isn’t a significant problem. Some establishments have little opportunity to rectify this problem, and this is somewhat understandable. (if the majority of beer is served from the same storage areas the employees are required to serve beer from this single storage temperature) If the tavern is limited in storage, it is certainly best to serve beer colder than warmer.
Excessively warm beer on draft is a rarity. When I do encounter it, I simply mention it and order something to else as there really is no immediate fix for it, as cooling a keg or even a bottle of beer by adjusting a thermometer on a cooler or refrigerator will take hours. (one rarely considered cause of this is warm glassware fresh from washing) At home though, this is easily fixed with a container of ice water.
Under-carbonated beer is often dull and lifeless, and one that should be sent back as there really is no easy and quick way to fix this in the pub. There are a few reasons that a beer can be under-carbonated, and other than an overzealous pour, fixing them is not likely to occur during service.
Over carbonated beer is very rare as most beer comes carbonated from the brewery with an ideal amount of carbon dioxide already dissolved into the beer. All the drinking establishment has to do is see that this level is maintained for the life of the keg.
The cardinal sin of craft beer serving is contaminated beer, and it is far too common.
The thought of beer served in an unhygienic way leads many folk to the idea of dirty glassware. While this can be the case, it is easily detected and remedied. Moreover with modern dishwashers in restaurants and pubs, glassware is often more sanitary out of the machine than the glassware in most homes.
What is of more concern hygiene-wise is dirty beer lines.
A friend on twitter was at a drinking establishment, and he had a terrible experience with lines that were not clean. While his experience is certainly not unique, he did make it clear that it was rather exceptional.
Before discussing the potential causes and solutions, it is best to discuss how to identify fouled beer lines.
There are two main identifying factors of dirty beer lines. The Brewers Association has put together a good resource for this.
Souring. Beer coming from the lines may taste sour/vinegar-like etc.
Diacetyl. Beer with an excess of diacetyl is described as being buttery tasting, or exhibiting the aroma and flavour of buttered popcorn. (some people are more sensitive to this than others)
Occasionally folks also pick up a metallic taste from some bar taps, but the cause of this is usually from deterioration of inferior materials used in the manufacture of the tap system. (failure to use adequate stainless steel can lead to the corrosion of the metal, hence the taste) Alternately the composition of the beer itself can lead to metallic tastes, but that is beyond the scope of this article.
Now that we have identified possible causes of off flavours derived from beer lines, what is there to be done about poorly cleaned equipment? Unfortunately there is little that can be done by the consumer. Solutions for this are relatively simple, but not done quickly.
The establishment should be urged to clean their beer lines!
The cleaning process is done during off-hours when the pub is closed and it essentially entails draining the lines and flushing a cleaner through them. The equipment is then reassembled and ready for business?
So why is this often not done? Two main reasons come to mind. First of all, it needs to be done when the pub is closed and thus presents a scheduling and convenience issue. As well, the process requires additional cost for the labour and the beer that is wasted when the beer is emptied from the lines. In some establishments where the keg storage area is far removed from the serving area, a significant amount of beer (and potential profit) are thus sent down the drain.
What can be done?
In the end, it all comes down to two simple factors. Education and information. Advise the publican of bad beer when it happens so that it can be fixed, and inform them that you will not purchase an inferior product. As well, one could take this a step further and also inform the brewery in question that there beer is being served in a way that is not acceptable. Many breweries would appreciate the knowledge and would likely see to it that changes are made.
Change can only happen if we demand better and the beer certainly deserves it.