Few drinking experiences plumb the depths of disappointment like flat, warm beer. Yes, even in England – and especially in the summertime. Would the ending of Ice Cold in Alex have been quite so poignant if Johnny Mills’s beer had been tepid and lifeless? Beer’s greatest enemies are heat, light and oily residues, all of which can kill the moment, but few issues are as emotive as ‘the head’.
The foam on your beer is produced by proteins in malted barley, and contains a concentration of hop oils bound up in the bubbles. These oils help to stabilise the head and enable it to cling to the sides of the glass, producing the coveted ‘lacing’ effect as the beer goes down. A sip from the head provides a revealing snapshot of the hop oils and bitterness in your beer.
You will notice that the head on a cask-conditioned beer comprises very large bubbles (carbon dioxide foam), while the head on a nitrokeg beer has tiny, much finer bubbles (nitrogen foam). This enables you to perform the impressive feat of telling a cask-conditioned beer from a nitrokeg beer by appearance alone.
Some argue that a resplendent head keeps the beer beneath both fresh and fizzy, which makes you wonder how long it takes them to finish a pint. Others suggest that a foaming head performs no function at all – that it is merely a question of aesthetics. The jury’s still out on this one, but you can argue that it’s a textural thing; it’s just so much nicer drinking beer through bubbles.
Assuming you do value your head, here’s how to keep yours while others around you might be losing theirs. Any form of oily residue will break up the foam on your beer, so glasses should be squeaky clean with no traces of foam busting detergent. Avoid peanuts, crisps and other fatty snacks, as even traces of oil on your lips can dissipate the head. Should a rogue peanut fall into your pint, you can kiss your head goodbye, and trying to fish it out with your (oily) fingers will only make matters worse. And go easy on the lipstick.
With regards to size, the head shouldn’t be much more than half an inch thick, so take it back if you feel short-changed. While the continentals serve up some beers with heads so thick and foaming that a chocolate flake wouldn’t look out of place, most of the head is usually above the rim of the glass, so it shouldn’t be a cause for complaint.
The next time you’re observing the world through the bottom of a pint glass, look out for criss-cross patterns or branded messages on the inner base. These markings are pitted with tiny holes (nucleated) to increase the formation of bubbles, thus retaining the head. Without these small pits, it is estimated that a regular pint glass would keep its head for no more than three or four minutes.
Which leads us to the wonderful world of widgets. Resembling a very small ping-pong ball with a tiny hole in it, a widget creates a smooth nitrogen foam when a can of beer is opened, imitating the head on draught beer. The can is filled under pressure with nitrogen so that some of the gas fills the widget through the hole. When the can is opened the pressure is released and the gas escapes through the hole, creating a stream of bubbles in the beer. The original widget was patented by Guinness in 1969.
If you’re drinking bottled beer, the desired half-inch head hinges on how you pour it. For best results, pour beer as you would champagne, lemonade or any other carbonated drink. Hold the glass at an angle of 45 degrees and pour your beer, slowly and steadily, onto a spot roughly halfway up the side of the glass. As the beer hits this sweet spot, slowly tilt your glass into the upright position. So far, so simple.
The more interesting question when pouring bottle conditioned beers is whether you want to drink the yeast sediment or not. Of course, a bit of yeast never hurt anyone; it actually contains vitamins that are good for your skin, hair, nails and liver. Having said this, some yeast sediments are scrummier than others. The yeasts in some Belgian beers are so pleasantly fruity that they are poured with gay abandon into the glass. In fact, there’s a saying in Belgium that the top two-thirds of the bottle are for the head and heart, and the bottom third, with all the yeasty bits, is for the stomach.
If you don’t want any sediment in your beer, gently roll the beer bottle on the bar-top before pouring. Explain to any interested observers that this pre-pouring ritual helps to bind the yeast sediment together, making it easier to leave it behind in the bottle.
Should you want lots of yeast sediment in your glass, you will need to perform the classic wheat-beer pour, also known as The Hefeweizen Maneuver (hefeweizen being German for cloudy wheat beer). Most wheat beers, as you know, are meant to be drunk cloudy, with their yeast swirling about in the glass. Start pouring as you would any other beer but when about three-quarters of the beer has been poured – and you are sure that you have an appreciative audience – stop pouring, wipe your brow, and gently swirl the bottle to ‘catch’ any stubborn yeast clinging to the bottom of the bottle. Do not over-swirl as you will end up with a bottle of foam. Your beer will become noticeably cloudier, and yeastier, when you pour in this final quarter. If nobody has noticed your performance, lift your glass to the light to admire your handiwork.
Nobody understands the importance of glass design and function quite like the Belgians, who seem to have a bespoke glass for each and every beer. Many Belgian beer glasses are tulip-, chalice- or goblet-shaped, like chunky, oversized wine glasses. When held by the stem, the beer within stays cooler for longer, unwarmed by hands, and bigger versions are ideal for retaining a large, creamy head.
But perhaps most importantly, a wine-glass shape is best suited for the appreciation of aroma, allowing for much theatrical swirling between inhalations and exclamations.
Form and function combine. Similarly, the tall, tapered shape of traditional Pilsner glasses borrows heavily from the champagne flute, allowing us to admire the fine streams of bubbles as they rise up the glass. Tall, vase-like wheat-beer glasses allow a thick head to form, while aiding the even distribution of suspended yeast particles for the full cloudy effect.
Traditional British pint glasses are admirably suited for the dual functions of ‘getting lots in’ and ‘necking it’, without any pause for thought or admiring the bouquet.
Refer to a straight-sided British pint glass as a ‘sleeve’, or ‘sleever’ in the West Country; and remark on how the traditional dimpled design of a handled pint glass shows the glinting bronze and copper hues of British bitter to best effect. The handle, of course, also keeps warm hands away from the glass.
Ordering a Kwak, a dark, strong Belgian beer, will inspire glass-envy in any crowded bar. It’s traditionally served in a round-bottomed flask, like something from a laboratory, standing in its own wooden holder. Explain that this unique receptacle dates back to Napoleonic times, when mail-coach drivers were forbidden from stopping for a beer. Cunning brewer, Pauwel Kwak, solved the problem by designing a glass that could be hung from a wooden holder attached to the side of a coach, which lends a whole new meaning to ‘nipping out for a swifty’.
It is a myth perpetrated by Australians that the Brits drink warm beer. This is pretty rich coming from a culture where beer is considered too warm unless your lips are frozen to the ‘tinny’; and aimed at the country responsible for about a third of the classic beer styles. Pity such ignorance and patiently explain that while lagers, like white wines, benefit from cooler temperatures, fuller-bodied ales, like fine red wines, are best enjoyed at ‘cellar temperature’, which is somewhere between 10 and 14 degrees centigrade – which is not warm. Point out that chilling beer enhances refreshment and carbonation, at the expense of flavour, while warmer temperatures enhance sweetness, aroma and body.
Beers that blossom at cellar temperature include cask conditioned ales, porters and stouts, mild, Trappist ales, and lambics. You can go slightly warmer (cool room temperature, about 16 degrees centigrade) with vintage beers, old ale, barley wine and Imperial stout. Wheat beers, golden and blonde ales, pale ales, IPAs and most British bitters can handle a light chill (8 to 12 degrees).
At the other end of the scale, most lagers should be served well chilled (4 to 8 degrees). Beers that are chilled to within an inch of their lives (below 4 degrees) taste of precisely nothing, making it the ideal serving temperature for many Australian lagers.
Probably the closest you’ll get to cellar temperature, in the absence of an actual cellar, is your garage; which you must, naturally, refer to as your cellar. It’s where you keep your extensive collection of bottle-conditioned, old and vintage ales, barley wines, Imperial stouts and porters, and Belgian Trappist ales. Of course, most beer is designed to be drunk within a few hours of getting it through the door, but these robust, high-alcohol styles, some with yeast sediment, will mature gracefully, developing greater complexity over a year or two.
Keep a watchful eye on the sell-by date of ‘hop forward’ beers (those with lots of hops), because hop oils are quite volatile and sensitive. Their delicate floral and resiny aromas are susceptible to oxygen and will fade dramatically if left for too long.
Most bottles should be stored upright, as beer will degrade crown-cap seals over time. And you certainly don’t want to keep bottle-conditioned beers laying down, as the yeast sediment will collect halfway up the bottle, making them tricky to pour. Corked bottles, on the other hand, should be stored horizontally to prevent their corks from drying out, leading to oxidation. They should be restored to the perpendicular a couple of days before drinking to allow any yeast sediment to settle.
In the absence of a cellar or garage, you should store bottled beers in as dry, dark and cool a place as you can find – perhaps a cupboard under the stairs. It’s important that this space remains at a consistent temperature, so beware radiators and heating pipes. Consistently cool is better than cold with warm spells.
Bottles or cans?
Where does the bluffer stand on the thorny issue of bottles versus cans? It’s true that cans have developed something of a pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap reputation, but these days even trendy craft brewers are beginning to see the benefits of ‘tinnies’. Some people swear blind that bottled beer tastes better and, specifically, less metallic than canned beer. Suggest that this might be a psychological hurdle, seeing as the vast majority of beer cans are lined with an inert plasticky lacquer to prevent any contact with metal.
Bottles and cans are both recyclable, but cans are cheaper and lighter. Bottles have more aesthetic appeal, which is an important part of beer appreciation. Choose your weapons.