Are we being served beer at a pub or restaurant that is of inferior quality due to the ill-informed publican or restaurateur?
See the answers below if you are at all a concerned drinker.
A brewer goes to great lengths to make good quality and good tasting beer only to find that once it leaves the brewery it often is out of the hands of the brewer in how it’s handled and served.
Just what is the right way to handle and store beer and how should it be served?
There are generally two ways that a beer reaches the consumer; in a small takeaway package of some description (can or bottle) and served on tap via a keg or straight from a serving tank.
Believe it or not there is already a difference on the quality of the beer served in those two ways. In the bottle or can the beer is usually distributed via a bottle shop or large liquor store or on-premise. It can be stored on a shelf exposed to light and heat for untold number of months or stored in a display fridge which have strong display lights showing its wares.
Lets look at how each one of these distribution and dispense systems can have an effect of the quality of the beer.
1. Bottle or Can
This method of packaging has actually the highest risk associated with it in terms of flavour and visual degradation.
Firstly, in the bottle there is the risk of light exposure and the longer the exposure time the more effect on the beer quality. This phenomenon is referred to as light-struck or sun-struck and results in a skunky aroma which when present in low amounts can smell something like “off stinky socks” and sometimes confused as rotten eggs. In reality it is exactly like the odour of skunks. And this becomes apparent in beer packaged in clear or green bottles but can also occur in brown bottles.
I would not tolerate or even accept it as part of the characteristic of beer. Sometimes the character is disguised by addition of a citrus wedge to the beer.
In this regard beer packaged in cans has an advantage as light cannot enter the container and cause this skunky flavour.
However, there is another sinister enemy of beer which can affect the flavour in subtle but significant ways. That enemy is oxygen from the air. But not only flavour but the appearance of bright clear beer can be affected dramatically.
Inappropriate filling of packages can lead to a rapid reduction in beer flavour, called staling, and can increase the haze or cloudiness of filtered beer. It happens in cans as well and more likely to happen quicker due to the larger surface area in the head-space.
This oxygenation process is accelerated the higher the storage temperature and the more shaking the container experiences. That is why long travel distances, especially with hot temperatures, literally ages the beer to a point it tastes and looks nothing like the original brewery fresh beer.
If this beer then sits on the shelf in some remote place for months on end then you cannot ever expect the beer to look and taste the same as intended when it was first made.
You probably have noticed this after tasting brewery beer compared to retail outlet beer. Rarely tastes or looks the same.
Beer in kegs can be a different story. Although the turnaround of kegs is theoretically much shorter, kegged beer can suffer other associated problems symptomatic of the dispense system.
The dispense system used in a pub or serving tank system requires proper setting up and maintenance. The publican would be aware that temperature and pressure drops in the line from the coolroom to the tap are paramount to serving beer with just the right amount of head and carbonation, without too much wastage.
How many times have you seen a beer poured with too much foam only to see the barman use a spatula to scoop off the excess foam. And then he continues to fill and scoop off excess foam until the glass is full. This is not only wasteful it literally changes the flavour of the beer!
Some of the bitterness of the beer passes into the foam layer and is then lost with poor habits of the barman. The beer becomes less bitter upsetting the balance of the beer. This is not an ideal situation in respect to highly hopped beers which takes alot of effort by the brewer to get it right in the first place.
And the other aspect which is ruined is that the beer becomes less carbonated and can taste flat and lifeless.
Another big flavour change that can also occur in kegged beer doesn’t even originate in the beer itself or how it is served. It comes from poor cleaning practices of the very lines carrying the beer from the keg to the tap.
Either using inappropriate detergents or not cleaning frequently enough can lead to a sulphury flavour which is akin to what I call “dead rat” flavour. I have experienced this more often than what I’d like.This fault can also appear when the lines are left full of beer every night upon closing the bar.
So what can be done about these problems?
First of all the brewer should limit the amount of oxygen pickup the beer experiences BEFORE leaving the brewery. Various methods like eliminating air from lines and tanks at every transfer can go a long way to limiting exposure from air.
But the real killer comes especially from the filling equipment. How the beer is put into the bottle/can and techniques to remove air from the package are so very important to the flavour/visual aspect of the beer. So elimination of O2 at this stage is very crucial.
As for kegs the filling of them is usually done well as the keg is prepared sufficiently by removal of air in an adequate manner before filling.
However, the dispensing and cleaning of lines becomes paramount in not only the presentation but the flavour changes that can occur with incorrect dispense.
There is not much the brewer can do with the beer once the beer leaves the brewery apart from educating the publican and retailer to the traps of incorrect transport, storage and dispensing of the beer. Of course, selling the beer in fast turnaround situations is the preferred option, as is selling the beer to customers as close as possible to the brewery.
The merits for using antioxidants in the beer can sometimes be of immense value even though there is a pervading feeling in the community (including some brewers) that preservatives are nasty and should not be used (but that is an issue for further discussion).
To learn more about these effects and the value of preservatives Costanzo Brewing School offers short courses that revolve around quality and shelf life of beer. These courses are unique in that the facilitator researched the area of stability and shelf life of beer for many years.
So next time you come across a beer that is not quite right you are in your rights to ask questions regarding its handling and even to the point of refusing to drink that beer, if you know it can be better.