Like merging into traffic, pouring beer only seems to come up after it’s done badly. And with the role of microbreweries in America growing, more craft beers are being drunk out of glassware rather than the can or bottle than ever before. That’s put the pour in drinkers’ hands rather than bartenders’. And if pouring is part and parcel of the beer drinking process — as the craft beer community has roundly declared — many of us are novices, depending on some vague guidance learned years ago from a college buddy. What we’re really doing when we pour is relying on gut and feel, living in fear of the bubbly white blowup or an impotent head.
Lest we get to cute about it, our foredrinkers got by just fine knocking ’em back directly from the can. But the facts remain: drinkers have gained an attentiveness to the colors, smells, tastes and mouthfeels of beer to rival a sommelier’s with a Bordeaux or a foodie’s with his ethically sourced fois gras; and craft beer makers are entirely serious in their call for drinkers to enjoy their tortured-over drinks from the proper receptacle. A heightened sense of a beer’s dignity within the glass has expanded to include the way it gets there.
Heady Topper, rated the best beer in the world today by review site Beer Advocate, says it right there on its silvery sides: “Drink From the Can!” We asked Zach MacK what he thought about skipping the glassware.
“Well, that’s in time and place. If I am standing at a concert in the middle of a field, and my only option is to have a beer out of a bottle, then I am going to drink the beer out of the bottle. But it’s only a mortal sin if it doesn’t taste right to you… Heady Topper — I don’t understand why they have it set up that way. I think they want you to drink it as fast as you can. But I love that beer. So they can tell me whatever they want.” – Zach Mack
But ultimately, the best reason to resist equating proper pouring technique to snobbery is that it’s vital to making a beer look, taste and smell the way its brewers intended.
“I personally think that you’re not getting the full experience when you don’t pour it out”, said Zach Mack, cofounder of Alphabet City Beer Co. in Manhattan and a certified cicerone (roughly the beer equivalent of a sommelier). He reasons that by not pouring or pouring incorrectly, you’re limiting a beer’s potential. “You’re not releasing a lot of the carbonation. You won’t get all the aromas out of the skinny neck of a bottle or a can.”
Much of this relates to that drinker’s enigma, the proper “head“. Made up of proteins and other matter (including yeast and hop residue) that are carried to the top of the beer by carbonation, the head holds much of the beer’s aromas and flavors. Its “retention” (how long it sticks around) and “lacing” (the residue it leaves along the inside of the glass) also serve as indicators of a beer’s quality and style. “Throwing up enough head on the beer is an important part of drinking”, Mack said. “A lot of people think it’s a bartender’s way of ripping you off, but that inch of head on top of a beer is actually a huge part of the process.”
Resist equating proper pouring technique to snobbery: it’s vital to the way a beer looks, tastes and smells.
Along with controlling the presence of yeast — some beers, like German hefeweizens, depend on its even distribution for flavor, while in some, like bottle-conditioned beers, it should be isolated and left in the bottle when served — getting the right head makes up the main end goal of what Mack calls “The Perfect Pour”, taught to him in the cicerone program and practiced widely in the beer community.
In three steps, The Perfect Pour boils down using clean glassware, proper temperatures, angles, and a little bit of timing. It works for most beer styles in any kind of glassware, though there are a few exceptions for unique styles like wheat, bottle-conditioned and nitrogen-bottled beers. Just as beautiful as the flowing, boiling liquid you pour is the fact that after practicing it once or twice, you’ll never be cursed by a bad pour again. It’s a matter of simplicity, not elegance. “As long as you’re using clean glasses and utilizing the angles that are appropriate”, Mack said, “there’s no majorly wrong way to do it.”
As Mack pointed out, the most controversial part of his version of the perfect pour is the glassware he uses. “Some people are trending these days more towards specific style-appropriate glasses, so a specific style of glass for a stout and for an IPA similar to what they’ve done with some of the wines”, he said. “I think that for everyday drinking, that’s a little overkill. I have nothing against people who want to do that, but I think as long as you have a clean glass and are pouring it into something that hasn’t been frozen in your freezer, you’re not ruffling any feathers with controversy.”
But some drinkers don’t agree. Beer Advocate dedicates an entire section of its website to matching glassware to beer style, arguing — with a touch of flourish — that “as soon as the beer hits the glass, its color, aroma and taste is altered, your eye candy receptors tune in, and your anticipation is tweaked. Hidden nuances become more pronounced, colors shimmer, and the enjoyment of the beer simply becomes a better, more complete, experience.” Perhaps more convincingly, they point out that different shapes and sizes of glass affect a beer’s head development and retention, a part of the beer that Mack agrees is vital to taste and enjoyment. So who’s right? It seems that for now, the best way is to break out a six-pack with your buddies and debate amongst yourselves.
1 Rinse your glass. The most vital moment happens before you pop the cap. Mack says he doesn’t care what type of glass he’s using for any particular beer (contrary to what some craft drinkers say), only that it’s clean. If it’s been through the dishwasher or sitting in your cabinet, a glass will be filled with oils, dust, detergent and lingering odors, all of which soil a beer’s taste and damage the pour. Rinsing thoroughly with cold water expunges these undesirables and cools the glass. Don’t dry it out — the thin coating of water helps the beer cascade smoothly down the glass. (An easy way to tell a clean glass from a dirty one once a beer’s been poured: a thick sheet of bubbles along the glass marks spots where oils and dust weren’t properly removed.) Finally, Mack says, never use a mug or glass that’s been in the freezer. “All of the ice crystals on the inside of it will cause your beer to kick up an intense amount of head, and it will kill all of the aroma and carbonation in your beer”, he said.
2 Open the beer, tilt your glass at a 45 degree angle, and pour beer down the side of the glass. The flow should be vigorous and hit the glass’s side at a point about halfway down. Fill to this point.
3 At halfway full, turn the glass upright and pour straight down the middle. This agitates the liquid to kick up the ever-important head. Timing enters the picture at this stage; depending on the type of beer, you can alter when you tilt the glass upright to get the ideal amount of head, between 1 and 1.5 inches for most beers. If you’ve done it right, Mack said, any normal-sized glass should fit any 12-ounce beer and its head, without overflowing.
Wheat beers (German hefeweizens, weizenbiers and weissbiers, American wheat beers and Belgian witbiers) are rich in protein, which is why their heads are so volatile (remember, much of the head is made up of proteins). When you pour, expect a pillowier head and if necessary adjust your timing for tipping straight up to later in the pour. You can also use a larger glass that can accommodate the extra head.
The German hefeweizen, which translates to “wheat yeast”, comes with another pouring complication: its yeast lends a major aspect of its flavor and needs to be evenly distributed throughout the beer. To do this, place the can or bottle on its side and roll gently back and forth several times before you pour it.
Bottle conditioning is a matter of carbonation. While most beers gain fizziness through “forced carbonation”, when CO2 is injected into the bottle or can, bottle-conditioned beers rely on yeast for their CO2. Just before bottling, yeast is “re-started” using sugar or extra yeast; over time in the bottle, this produces natural CO2 and changes ABV and flavor. The aim of pouring this type of beer is to leave out the extra yeast. To do this, store the beer upright and don’t jostle it before it’s served. While pouring, keep an eye on the yeast sediment at the bottom. When the yeast gets to the neck, stop pouring. Etiquette says you should leave the bottle with the dregs of the yeast with the drinker. “The yeast itself is full of vitamins and totally good for you”, Mack said. “But it will totally alter the taste of the beer.” Some like drinking it, some don’t.
Simply enough, nitrogen beers are imbued with a nitrogen-rich (rather than carbon dioxide-rich) mixture of gases during the forced carbonation. The result is a heavy, creamier mouthfeel and a hell of a show when poured. Throw the 45-degree angle of the glass out the window. “You need these to be poured as hard as you can to create the right kind of head”, Mack said. Leave the glass flat on the table and tip the bottle entirely upside down as you pour, dumping out its contents quickly and keeping its top close to the surface in the glass. Then watch the show, a disappearing explosion of bubbles that seems to eat itself all the way up to the thick head. Then wait. “Once the bubbles have stopped cascading, the beer is ready to drink”, Mack said. “But be patient — the beer’s not going to be the same until that’s actually finished.”