Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Bottles vs. Draught - What's the Difference? (Antares Kolsch & Chat with Roger Mittag )

I was recently drinking an Antares Kolsch on draught at the Breoghan Brew Pub (San Telmo, Buenos Aires).
These Clowns have Good Taste

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 (Kรถln). 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 Cologne.

The number one thing you need to know about Kolsch is how it is served in Cologne. This ritual alone is part of the beer’s mystique but is not all for show.

Check out that Tray
The beer comes in small, straight sided glasses that hold 200 ml of beer. The bartenders are always bustling with trays of glasses. The glasses fill every square inch of the trays. Your coaster (beer mat for our UK readers) serves as your bill and as an indicator of your thirst. No need to get the barman’s attention and ask him for a drink.

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 Cologne.

Not only does this lead to a great atmosphere in the bars of Cologne, it 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.
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.
Hard at Work at Fruh, right in the shadow of the Dom
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 Canada.  

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
While the beer might be fine to drink in a 90 day window would you rather drink a one day old beer or an 89 day old beer? A vivid memory I have illustrates this well. I recall getting a bottle of Steamwhistle fresh off the line while taking their beer tour. It was plucked from the bottling line by an employee for me. It didn’t even have a date stamp on it. It was the best Steamwhistle I’ve ever had. What it tastes like from the store is fine, but is nothing like the bitter, yeasty, fresh-bread brew I had that day.

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 Cologne.

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
If you are convinced that your beer tastes “like a can” it is probably because you are drinking it from the can directly and getting a metallic aroma of some kind. Pour it into the glass and see what happens. We won’t  debate the differences between drinking Coors Light from the can or a glass, but as more and more craft beers show up in cans people will need to break the habit of drinking form the can. Pour your cans of Red Racer IPA (for example) into a glass just like you would with a bottle. It is essential for letting the flavours and aromas be fully expressed. Don’t neglect the choice of glass either.

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
The issue of freshness is more relevant to beers like the Kolsch and lager beers. These have cleaner, clearer flavour profiles and thus defects show up more readily. It is very hard to make a good Kolsch or lager for this reason. Lagers and Kolsches tend to be yes or no propositions. Once things start to go out of balance the beer doesn’t lose a couple points. It gets relegated to the B league. Generally, even a relatively bland ale will usually have a bold enough basic flavour that defects will be less noticeable.

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.

Collecting caps.

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.
Bottles break.

Glass is heavy.

Green bottles suck.

Clinking noise.

Potential weapon.  
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.
Line Maintenance.

Heavy lifting.

Dropping a keg on your foot.

Expensive deposit.

Need roomy fridge.

Need gas.

“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.

Dry hopping.

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.

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