Master Draughstmen: In Praise of Great Beertenders
That first sip of a really great tasting draught beer is a magical moment. The senses are brought to life by the beer’s color, aroma and flavor. The dichotomy of the moment is inspiring: At once a thirst is quenched and an appetite created.
All who love great beer know this sensation. It might be the 99th trip to a favorite neighborhood beer bar or the first visit at a brewpub discovered while on vacation. It is the instant a brewer hopes for when the inspiration and hard work finds its way from the brewhouse to the pint glass. We know it from the first sip. It’s the beer world’s equivalent of baseball’s perfect game.
Sadly, we also know the feeling of the moment that misses the mark. When the experience is just not what it could have been, not what we remember from the past. It is a promise unfulfilled. And just like the difference between the perfect game and a one hitter, there are a number of little things that can go wrong that are hard to detect until it is too late. The one pitch that hangs in the strike zone or the outfielder playing one step too far from the foul line, and a memorable experience becomes something less than perfect.
Who decides whether or not we have that perfect pint? Let’s call them the Beertender.
Assuming that the brewer has done their job and the distributor handles the product properly and gets the beer delivered fresh, there is no reason why each and every pint of beer should not be perfect. To deliver on the promise requires a dedicated Beertender who worries about everything from temperature in the cooler to the glassware to the knowledge of the staff. Part art, part science and part vaudeville. A great glass of beer does not just happen. Each step along the way helps determine whether you will be smiling the moment that first sip crosses your lips.
In recognition of All About Beer Magazine’s 25th Anniversary, we set out to find the most important factors in a perfect pint. After all, this magazine exists for beer lovers and there is nothing a beer lover loves more than a great draught beer. In talking with Beertenders around the country, we learned what goes into making sure your next pint is your best beer.
1. System Design: What you don’t see really does matter. Yes, the bartender might have a cute smile and there may be tons of interesting breweriana hanging from the rafters, but you have come to find the perfect pint. What’s behind the wall where the tap knobs beckon is more important than you can imagine. A good draught system is critical. One key element that can get ignored is the beer lines. Lines from the cooler to the tap should be short and chilled. “Beer lines need to be refrigerated. All of our lines are no more than nine feet long, which is about a pint or a little more,” says Josh Judy, beverage manager and Beertender at The Flying Saucer in Charlotte, NC, which has 82 taps.
2. Walk-in Coolers: The best draught emporiums have two or more separate coolers to allow beers and ales to be served at their optimum temperature. At Wynkoop Brewing, an always-busy brewpub in Denver, CO, bar manager Scott Stengaard has the Beertender responsibilities for a line up of 10-14 different house brews. He maintains two cooler temperatures: one in the upper 30s for most of the beers and a second at between 43-45 degrees for IPA and ESB that are hand-pumped through a beer engine.
3. Gas Mixture: Most beers are served using carbon dioxide. Some use a mixture of carbon dioxide and nitrogen. Making sure that the gas mixtures are correct and at the right pressure is critical to proper draught beer service. At Monk’s Café in Philadelphia owner and Beertender Tom Peters runs beers and ales off of three different gas mixtures: straight carbon dioxide, a 75 percent nitrogen and 25 percent carbon dioxide “Guinness mix” and a 30 percent nitrogen and 70 percent carbon dioxide mix. “The right gas mixture and the amount of contact the beer has with the gas is critical to the flavor of the beer,” Peters says.
4. Clean Lines: At Wynkoop they take clean lines seriously. Brewers get the two-three hour job twice a week to flush and clean the lines in the morning before the bar staff arrives to start to get ready for that first customer.
5. Appropriate Glassware: Glassware is one of those things that can be easily overlooked. The right glass, however, is essential to the perfect pint. And, please, avoid the places that frost mugs and give you one without asking. The low temperature ruins the taste of any craft beer, making it impossible to appreciate the flavors the brewer worked hard to produce. Frosting can also coat the glass with unintended flavors and smells picked up from the kitchen or refrigeration system.
6. Clean Glassware: A clean beer glass is critical, but just as important is a properly rinsed glass. Detergent residue will alter the flavor and aroma of a beer, plus it will rob the head from the beer quickly. The glass not only should look clean, it should be clean.
7. Beer Selection: “We go to the (Great American Beer Festival) every year and look at new beers and new styles to see what we should put on,” says Michael Parker, owner and Beertender at Opal Divine’s Freehouse in Austin, TX. Parker is proud of the fact that Opal Divine’s, which has 28 taps, was one of the first five bars in America to sell Chimay on draught and is the top seller of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale in Texas. A good beer selection is more than numbers; it is all about either a range of styles or going deep into a particular category. A frustration for anyone looking for good beer is to find a bar with 10 taps that cover an uninspired range from domestic light beer to nationally available mass-produced lagers.
8. Stock Freshness and Rotation: “Slow movers don’t do anyone any favors,” Parker notes. “They just sit there and oxidize.” At Opal Divine’s he has limited the beer selection to 28 beers. A second location about to open will have 36 taps, even though there is room for many more. “No matter how many beers you have, there are always others you want to put on. We limit our selection on purpose,” he says.
9. Taps You Can Read: The Europeans have this beer-merchandising thing figured out. They put the beer engines and draught towers right out front for the world to see. My pet peeve about a good many great beer bars is that the taps are along a back wall that is not properly illuminated. You may never know that they have one of your favorites if the various handles are lined up along the length of the bar or in a couple of groupings in dimly lighted areas.
10. The Pour: The right pour can bring out the best in a pint. The perfect pour—for most beers—starts with the glass at a 45 degree angle (preserving CO2 in the beer), then ends with the glass upright (generating a nice head). At Monk’s, they use flow restrictors on each tap and train the bartenders on pouring techniques. It cuts down on the dumping of beer caused by foaming, which Peters says is “A disservice to the beer and the bar owner.”
11. Knowledgeable Staff: At Wynkoop, the bartenders “work their way up. It is at least a year before they even hope to set foot behind the bar,” says Stengaard. “Their knowledge of beer has to be a cut above the average bartender.” To get there, staff at the Wynkoop take classes about beer while they are servers and tour the brewhouse with one of the brewers. Once they become a bartender, the training does not stop. Monthly sessions feature a range of topics, including matching beer with food. At Opal Divine’s they also have a training program, but Parker notes “We just seem to hire a lot of beer geeks.”
12. Friendly and Enthusiastic Staff: At the Flying Saucer, Judy regularly has staff contests to move certain beers and to encourage experimentation. This also keeps the staff interested and upbeat about new beers. The prizes don’t have to be big: a t-shirt or a small tab for the waiter or bartender. “It helps us move something if it is slow or to get customers to try something new and exciting we’ve just brought in.”
13. A Chance for a Taste: When most of us walk into a bar with a selection of beers we may have never had or not tried in quite sometime, the immediate concern is how to not make a mistake in picking a pint. Some Beertenders will give you a quick one or two once sample to see if the beer is worthy. Others, like at the Flying Saucer, have several pre-packaged flights that offer a range of styles. At Monk’s, where some 30-liter kegs cost the bar $220-$250 each, they pull a 5-ounce sample for $2.
14. Information, Please: At the Flying Saucer, customers can make use of a computer terminal, used by members of the U.F.O Club to track the beers they have consumed, to get tasting notes on individual beers before they buy. Other bars have beer lists that are arranged by style.
15. Give Me a Little Variety: At the Toronado in San Francisco, owner and Beertender David Keene keeps an ever-changing array of beers flowing from 53 taps. During February, the Toronado has a legendary barley wine festival with 53 of the strong brews on tap. In April, it’s Belgian beer. July features American draughts. In December, Christmas ales make their appearance. “We rotate a fair amount of the draught selection,” Keene says. “If there is something new or interesting, we like to put it on.”
16. Give Me My Favorite Beer: Even at the Toronado, they know there are certain beers that regulars demand. That’s why you’ll always find Big Daddy IPA (named after Keene), Guinness Stout, Spaten Franziskaner and Two Rivers Cider on tap. A few well know, well made brews can be just the kind of security blanket we all occasionally need.
17. Ambiance: A great draught is always nicer in a comfortable setting. A Beertender won’t blast the music and they are more likely to have a clean comfortable place for customers to gather. Breweriana is a nice, but not necessary touch.
18. A Warm Welcome: Beertenders are in a service business that is more personal than most service industries. A warm welcome and a check back at just the right time to replenish a pint is a true measure of the individual you need to trust to deliver that perfect pint.
Rick Lyke is a drinks journalist based in Charlotte, NC.
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