Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Some Thoughts on Tasting Room Beer Service

One of the unfortunate effects of the dominance and commoditization of macro lager (big-name light-coloured beer like Bud, Kokanee, Canadian, Heineken, etc.) has been a proliferation of bad serving practices.  If you're serving less-flavourful and very cold beer with almost no head formation (i.e. macro lager), dumping it into any old glass isn't the end of the world.  But if you want to make sure more flavourful beers aren't harmed or even ruined, you need to serve them properly.  And that takes some knowledge and skill.

I can't provide a whole primer on proper beer service here.  Though everyone - especially beer servers - should read and understand this very helpful tip sheet from the American Brewers Association draught quality website about serving beer.  Excellent stuff.  If you are a publican with a draught system, you should consult the full Draught Quality Manual.

But I do have a couple of thoughts on brewery tasting room practices.  For example, here's a nice little tasting room.  What could be better?

Glassware Cleaning

Let's look a little closer at the bar area.  On the left is a three-tub sink for glass cleaning and sanitation. (See the section on glass cleaning in the Draught Quality Manual at  

The three tubs are cleaner (soap) for washing, water for rinsing, followed by sanitizer for, well, sanitizing.  Sanitizers are not rinsed - the glasses should be allowed to air dry for ultimate cleanliness.  There are many types of sanitizer, but the cheapest/most common are chlorine-based (e.g. bleach).  Chlorine smells and tastes quite strong, so unless your mix is very dilute, you risk having unpleasant chlorine aromas and flavours make their way into your beer.

In this case, the chlorine sanitizer mix was pretty strong.  Beyond potential glassware issues, look at the placement of the sinks - right under the noses of patrons sitting at the bar.  What is their beer going to smell like?  Yes, chlorine.  Plus, there was a lot of sanitizer dripping onto the glass drip trays, also right beside the bar, providing more surface area for the chlorine to evaporate and enter the beer drinkers nostrils.  Also, it appeared that the bar might have been regularly wiped down with overly-strong chlorine sanitizer, also adding to the chlorine fumes.  Further, the glasses were pulled off the drying rack and filled before they were dry.  Even with a quick cold-water spray to remove residual sanitizer from the inside, the outside of the glass was still wet with sanitizer, which ran down the glasses and pooled on the bar, right under the beer drinkers' noses.  End result?  Unless you ran to the other side off the room, your beer smelled (and tasted) at least somewhat of chlorine.

Lesson?  Spend money on better, non-chlorine sanitizers.  Place your glass cleaning station at the back of the bar, away from drinkers' noses.  Follow through on proper glass cleaning practices.  Don't overdose on the sanitizer additions.  To make your life easier, get an automatic glass washer and maintain it properly.


This tasting room sold growlers of draught beer to go.  The growlers were clear glass, not the usual brown glass.

At first glance, this would seem to be a terrible practice, as beer in clear or green glass bottles is very quickly and easily skunked when exposed to ultraviolet light.  (UV light reacts with hop chemicals, creating mercaptans - skunk aromas and flavours.  Brown or opaque bottles block blue/UV light - clear and green bottles don't.)

But on second thought, I'm OK with it.  You need to keep your growler cold and drink it within a few days, at most a couple of weeks.  So you're going to take it right to your car and wrap it in a blanket in the trunk, or put it in a cooler - both dark.  Then you're going to keep it in a dark fridge until you drink it.  So there's really not much opportunity for the beer to skunk.

However, it doesn't matter what colour your growler is if your beer is already flat or oxidized (stale).  Let's see a growler being filled at this tasting room.

The goals in filling a growler are to avoid foaming/splashing the beer much (you lose carbonation and it oxidizes the beer), and to push out all the air/oxygen you can (again, avoiding oxidation).  In this kind of setup, you attach a tube to the draught faucet that goes all the way to the bottom of the growler.  That way you fill from the bottom of the growler, minimizing foaming and splashing.

This tube didn't appear to quite reach the bottom, so there was some foam being produced.  But more importantly, in a mistaken attempt to fill the growler slowly (and minimize foam production), the server only cracked the faucet open 1/2 way.  This is a big no-no, as it causes turbulence in the beer stream and a lot of foam, as you can see in the above photo.  The problem she was trying to avoid she was, in fact, making worse.

While the above growler is way too foamy, you want a bit of foam to rise at the end of the fill and overflow just a bit.  This is "capping on foam," which is a good way of making sure that carbon dioxide bubbles (foam) push out all the air in the growler (air contains oxygen), avoiding oxidation.  In the above fill, the server had a huge amount of foam overflow before the growler was actually full of liquid beer; in addition to the problems listed above, this is a waste of beer that will add up over time and cut into the brewery's profits.

Unfortunately, pints and especially taster glasses were being filled the same way - with a 1/2 open faucet at the end in an attempt to pour more "gently" and avoid foam, but which just created a lot of foam.  To pour extremely full glasses of beer, the server was pouring off most of this head several times per glass - both wasting beer AND only providing a thin wisp of head (so the beers lacked aroma).  Finally, to avoid producing "too much" head at the last minute (due to beer falling "too far" from the faucet to the glass), the server also dunked the faucet spout into the beer as it topped off - an unsanitary no-no that drives me nuts.  Read the primer on beer service at the links above!

Lesson?  Get a tube that goes from your faucets to the very bottom of growlers. Open the tap all the way, always.  Create a bit of foam at the very end of the pour so that the growler just overflows, and cap on foam.  Make sure the beer is properly carbonated.  Make sure the beer and glassware are at the proper (cool, not freezing) temperatures.

If you want to see the ultimate in growler-filling technology, get a fill at the Parallel 49 tasting room in East Vancouver.  They have a very high-tech growler filler, complete with lights and a blast shield. :-)  Growlers are first purged with carbon dioxide, then counter-pressure filled (pressure inside the bottle is equalized with keg pressure, resulting in no foam).  I've heard fills of properly-cleaned growlers on this system can be good for weeks if kept refrigerated, with no serious degradation in beer quality.

So, pouring beer isn't as simple as one would think, is it?  If your beer isn't served properly, say something to the server or the manager.  If they don't make it right, you should "vote with your wallet."  In BC, craft beer is too expensive to tolerate substandard serving practices.

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