Monday, March 12, 2012

What beer serving method is best?

On Tap - 52%
On Cask - 28%
In a Bottle - 19%

I think the answer to what is the best serving method for beer is so much more complex than my simple poll allowed. Expectations differ by the type of beer, where I am drinking, and the brewery. I think each method has times when it is the best and the worst.

When the right beer is served on cask, and it’s done correctly, there are few better drinks. However, too often in America casks are served by bars that don’t treat them correctly. My primary complaint is that casks are served too warm; there is a big difference between cellar, and room temperature. Other problems include murky, oxidized, or otherwise off tasting beers being served on hand pump and gravity pour. Not many breweries have large cask programs, so many bars around here are desperate for beers to put on cask. The result is that many have styles on that don’t benefit from the serving method; I once had a weizenbock on cask at a local bar, bad choice. Imported beer on cask are always a risk; English milds and bitters rarely travel well. The only time I order a cask is if it is a local moderate alcohol beer or at a bar that takes their casks seriously.

Draft beer tends to be the most consistent since it is usually stored cold and sold relatively quickly. However, they have their share of problems as well. Many bars only have a single serving temperature, which tends to be too cold for most beers. I really respect a bar that can keep their draft list tight and well chosen rather than having 50, 75, or even 100 taps. The more handles you have the more likely it is that some of the kegs will sit around for too long. Off-flavors from poorly cleaned lines are a big problem, although it seems like, at least here in DC, beer bars are taking the quality of their draft beer more seriously. When buying a draft, I usually go for IPAs and other beers that are best fresh. I also am a big fan of small samples, a chance to try an interesting beer without investing in the now universal bomber.

The thing I really like about bottles is that many breweries indicate on them when the beer was packaged (I hate best buy dates, seriously a year for Pilsner Urquell?). However, many brewers' bottles still do not have this basic piece of information. Bottles have a tendency to sit around too long, especially at places with extensive selections. A deep bottle list makes much more sense for liquors, which can sit indefinitely. Like drafts, I would like to see a well chosen and frequently moved beer list, especially of things that need to be served fresh. No problem having a big backlog of stouts, strong Belgian beers, sours and others that have a long shelf-life, but don’t carry 15 IPAs in bottles on top of a deep draft list.

This is all to say that what I choose to buy and drink is highly situational. In most cases I avoid bottles when I am out because I can generally buy the same beer at a store for less than half the price (and take a look at the bottling date before I buy). There are also some breweries that just do not have their bottling where it needs to be. A beer is fine on draft, while bottles are infected or have carbonation issues.

For my homebrew, I try to keep the beers in my kegerator restricted to only those that are best consumed quickly and in quantity. I bottle anything that will not be harmed by months or years of aging. The rare occasions I put beer on cask it is for parties when I know we’ll be able to work through the large quantity of beer in a reasonable amount of time.


Alistair Reece said...

don't forget that Pilsner Urquell sold here is pasteurised, which is such a tragic shame as it mangles the beer entirely.

Jim Lemire said...

Unless a restaurant/bar is known for their beer selection, I find bottles are the safest bet. Too many times have I ordered a draft beer that ended up being undrinkable due to dirty lines. Over the years I have become more sensitive to this as well. I often go against my gut and order draft, but pretty much every time I'm kicking myself and saying "I knew better than to order this".

If a draft menu contains Bud, Bud Light, Coors, Coors Light, and Miller, your best bet is to get a bottle (if they have any craft bottles) or stick with water. Most places, you can tell right away. But I've been tricked a few times - beware the mass amrcket restaurant jumping on the craft beer "bandwagon"!

Anonymous said...

I tend to stick to seasonal beers if I'm drinking out the bottle. Draft beer I stay with the same policy. I can't drink local b/c my local puts out very boring beer.
When it comes to my beer - depends on the style - belgians must be fermented in the bottle, everything else is in the cornie keg.

HornyDevil said...

Personally, I package all my homebrew in bottles and have no want to move to kegging. However, that's a subject for another day. I'm of the opinion that low(er) gravity session ales (and unfiltered lagers) are the best selections for the cask. Those beers shouldn't spend a lot of time being dispensed as they don't last very long and change very quickly even if taken care of correctly. Some higher alcohol beers, like imperial stouts or barleywines, do well on cask as well, as they are not terribly dependant on carbonation. Draught is a great method of serving almost any beer, but excels quite a bit with hop forward beers. In actuality, I think that hoppy beers should never see the inside of a bottle. Obviously that's not feasible, but between fragility, short shelf life, and lack of bottled on dates, the bottle just isn't a very good package for those beers. Bottles are great for any beer that's going to mature over time whether on lees or not. Obviously big, sour, and funky do well in the bottle. That's why most of my homebrew gets bottled.

Anonymous said...

You also neglected cans in your poll. In MA, I can get Cisco's Whale Tail Pale Ale in both cans, bombers, and 12 oz bottles. I did a taste comparison, and the cans had the best taste. Could be different batches, but the taste was marked.


Anonymous said...

Warm cask beer drives me crazy. Yum, 70 degree pale ale.

The Limon Leader said...

When I saw the title I started yelling at the computer!

This was a good read! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Unknown said...

i have the "luxury" of working at a beer retail store, so i usually buy from where i work. i'll buy ipa's if i know they just came in, and i have a really quick turnover on hoppy beers so most of the stuff i get is as fresh as it's going to get from a distributor.

my biggest pet peeve is terrible cask ale. i usually refuse to order a cask beer unless i know when it's been tapped. i've also had some beers which really aren't good on cask before.

i really feel like bars should put cask ale at a price which is going to move quicker rather than trying to make a similar margin on it in comparison to draft beer. that's just my opinion though.

Unknown said...

I stumbled upon this brewery the other day while checking out what else is near me in Corvallis, OR. It is called the "Brewer's Union Local 180" in Oakridge, OR. I read through their site and they seem to be doing casks more that right, thought you might be interested. I am a bit disappointed though, since I have traveled through Oakridge about 3 times and just now found out about this place. Oh well, next time.

Unknown said...

Whoops, forgot to post the link:

Anonymous said...

To branch off a bit, I'd like to see where people stand on what's the best bottling method for aging beers (12oz, corking, 750mL champagne bottles, etc). I've been bottling a lot of my sours in 750mL champagne bottles, but with an over the counter capper, it never seems to be as tight a seal as I'd like. How do you all bottle?