I was recently drinking an Antares Kolsch on draught at the Breoghan Brew Pub (San Telmo,
). Buenos Aires
Besides being struck by the fact that it was a rather nice beer overall (and a rather nice Kolsch at that), I noticed that I enjoyed it significantly more on draught than I had in a recent bottle. It reminded me of why Kolsch is a great beer style and brought back memories of my time in
Cologne ( Kö ln). What
better compliment can I pay to a beer than that?
|You Thirsty? Me Too.|
It also ignited in me some insights into why I was enjoying the beer more on draught. I don’t propose to settle the question here once and for all. Indeed, each method of storage and dispense has its pros and cons. These vary again style by style. Why rigidly stick to drinking out of one container over another? Far better to have a grasp on why you might prefer one over the other for a given style or situation. We will discuss this issue today, as well as Kolsch, that beautiful flower of
The number one thing you need to know about Kolsch is how it is served in
|Check out that Tray|
As long as your coaster is under your glass the waiters will constantly bring more beer and make a tick mark on the coaster to keep track of your consumption. Place your coaster on top of the glass and the beers will stop coming. Your bill will promptly arrive. How’s that for ‘German efficiency’? My tick-covered coasters are a cherished memory of my attempt to drink every Kolsch in
Not only does this lead to a great atmosphere in the bars of
also ensures that your beer will be appropriately cold and freshly poured every
single time you sip it. The giant Oktoberfest stein looks cool but leads to
warmer beer once you get beyond the halfway point of your liter. The glass of
kolsch will always be cold to the touch and recently arrived from the tray of
your blue-aproned waiter. Cologne
|Ewe, Brewmaster at Paffgen|
|Pouring glasses at Fruh|
Kolsch is all about freshness. With that in mind we return to the draught vs. bottle question.
I had some barstool insights, but I also ran into the limits of my knowledge. This is also known as speculating. I was aware of some of the reasons why the beer might have tasted different, but was unsure about some of the more theoretical and anecdotal reasons. The beer world has as many folk tales as a sex ed class (who ever met a guy telling people you can get AIDS from toilet seats, anyways?) and these are best avoided and not repeated.
In order to separate the hypothetical from the merely thetical*, I reached out to Roger Mittag. Roger is a beer industry veteran and runs the Prud’homme beer sommelier program. This is a three-level course that will bring you from Homer Simpson to beer sommelier. This is especially worth a look if you are based in
I encourage you to read over the Prud’homme website if you are interested in some high-level beer education. He also has a tumblr blog** and a twitter account. What a savvy dude.
To summarize what Roger had to say in our email exchanges: all other things being equal the taste differences between bottle and draught beer are negligible. Where taste differences do exist, they can be chalked up to pretty much anything except the container. The major exception here is beer in green bottles that has been damaged by light (as has been previously discussed here). Blame that one on the bottle.
Freshness is one of the major factors at play.
When was the beer kegged and bottled? How long was that bottle I drank on the grocery store shelf for? Kegs are not known for gathering dust in the bartender’s fridge. Having worked at The Beer Store I can attest that bottles sometimes do. I have also seen dusty beer in Argentine shops. I recently saw the shelves being stocked and employee was armed with a feather duster reminiscent of a French maid. No kidding.
Roger pointed out that “beer typically has a 90 day shelf life”. This means that the beer won’t undergo negative flavour changes before this time. It will still be drinkable after 90 days.
It will just be less
enjoyable as oxygen slowly starts to get the better of the beer. You won’t be
drinking the beer as the company intended.
|Met some nice people at Muhlen Kolsch|
One minute old beer is definitely better than 90 day old beer even if both are still drinkable and un-oxidized. This is the same principle embodies by your bustling waiter in
Another point Roger brought up was storage and handling. You don’t necessarily know where that beer has been and how it was stored during those 90 days. Oxidation is the enemy, “creat[ing] a papery, wet cardboard kind of aroma in beer”. Roger also pointed out that temperature fluctuations accelerate this. Going from a cold truck to a warm stockroom, plucked from a fridge, warming in your car, cooling in your fringe again…you get the picture.
Now for some mythbusting. In case you thought the containers themselves could be responsible for flavour effects, do not worry. “Kegs are stainless steel and impart no flavours and the same with glass”, says Mittag. Surely, someone out there is thinking “what about cans?”. I did not ask Roger abut this specifically, though he did say that cans are worst for preventing oxidation when compared to kegs and bottles. This is probably because cans do not have the ability to absorb extra oxygen that can get caught inside. Beer caps are almost invariably treated so they can absorb oxygen.
|This was my Favourite Kolsch brewery in Cologne|
Perhaps many armchair bottle vs. draught debaters are unwittingly stifling the taste of their beer and tilting the playing field. You aren’t making a fair comparison if you are drinking straight from the container and comparing that to a properly served draught beer in a glass. The bottle will be more subdued in flavour. Pour it out so you can get the full experience.
|Classy Wooden Barrels at Paffgen|
I have never seen a lager beer meant for keeping or aging. The Steamwhistle example shows this well. You may be inside that 90 day window but lager’s clock is always ticking. All beer will eventually oxidize, but not all ales are at their peak the minute they are bottled. Pick up a bottle of Thomas Hardy’s Ale***, for example, and forget about it in your cellar for a couple years.
Caveats & Context:
The beer world is complex and varied. Blanket statements will not serve us well.
Nowhere did we delve into the issue of cask ales vs. kegs, nor did we discuss at much length the aging of bottle conditioned beers. Sorry folks, not really going there today. For the record, I like cask ales but drink from any container with good beer in it.
Don’t get your knickers in a twist about bottles vs draught. Just enjoy your beer, properly poured, in clean and well-selected glassware. Don’t get caught up in the container. At their most basic, bottles and kegs are just ways of getting beer out of the brewery and into your hand in the best state possible.
When you get a bad bottle or a bad pint it is because someone, somewhere messed it up. Don’t blame the messenger. Don’t blame the keg or the bottle (unless the bottle is green). Blame poorly cleaned lines, adverse storage conditions, shopkeepers not rotating stock, etc.
For fun, here is a light-hearted and handy table for reference.
Chills beer fastest.
Light and portable.
No clinking noise.
Support your local independent recycler/hobo.
Fun to stomp on them and crush them.
Useful for MacGyver situations
Also warms up the fastest.
Shape is not aesthetically
Worst oxidization protection.
Most craft beer not in cans.
Aesthetically pleasing, cool labels.
Good for ageing beer.
Heat from your hand passes more slowly.
“99 Bottles of beer on the wall”
Blow over the lip to make music.
Precursor to beach glass.
Message in a bottle, yeah.
Glass is heavy.
Green bottles suck.
Holds more beer than cans and bottles.
You pull a handle and beer comes out: amazing!
You can turn them into makeshift brewing equipment.
You can stand on top of them like a logrolling lumberjack.
Dropping a keg on your foot.
Need roomy fridge.
“Party Pumps” and their ilk destroy the beer rapidly.
Every asshole at the kegger has an opinion on why the beer is foamy.
Tapping a keg is a figurative action.
Cool new words in your vocabulary like “Hard Spile”, “Bung” and “Beer Engine”.
No hoses, gas, valves, etc. Can be installed on bartop.
Tapping them both is fun and literal. You get to carry a mallet.
Fantastic smoothness. No excess of CO2.
Learn what beer tastes like when not ice cold.
Serving beer is also good exercise.
Not as easy to maintain as a keg.
Shorter shelf life than kegs.
Potential for spoilage.
Beer engines can be tough to come by.
*I know that isn’t a word. I’m just having fun.
***Embarrassing anecdote: before I knew any better I once kept a bottle of Thomas Hardy’s Ale in the fridge and drank it ice cold the week after I bought it. Of course, I hated it. I couldn’t have committed a greater sin against Barley Wine if I had tried. I learned something though.