It was Saturday, and I was drinking beer at a nameless bar in New York’s East Village. Enter two 30-year-old frat bros (brotherhood lasts for life, dude), who took a seat at the bar next to me:
“But wait ‘til you taste it on tap,” Pastel Chino Bro said, as he motioned toward his friend’s bottle.
“Is it better on tap?” asked Aviators Around the Neck Bro.
“Yeah, dude. Of course it is.”
“Because it’s on tap,” explained Chinos.
You’ve heard it, or hell, said it before. Beer is better on tap, right? That’s what we’ve been told, but does a keg really deliver beer in its most satisfying form? And if so, why? Sounds like we should ask some experts.
“When I walk into a craft bar, I immediately gravitate toward the draft list,” said Benjamin Pratt, co-owner and beer manager of Manhattan’s As Is. It’s easy to see that he practices what he preaches at the Hell’s Kitchen bar, which features one of New York City’s most impressive draft lists with around 20 beers (and 6 draft cocktails, plus some fantastic house-made pork rinds). “You can make a decent assessment of a beer bar based on what they have on draft at any one time.”
Because a good bar—whether it’s a craft beer bar or your favorite neighborhood dive with just three options—will put time into its draft program. “If a bar puts a beer on draft, they’re making a bigger commitment to that beer’s presence in their establishment. A bottle or can placement is secondary,” said Gabriel Magliaro, co-owner of Chicago’s Half Acre Beer Company, brewers of perfectly balanced ales like Daisy Cutter Pale and Vallejo IPA. Pratt and Magliaro are draft beer supporters, but unlike Pastel Chino Bro and Aviator Bro, there’s more behind their reasoning than, “Because it’s on tap.”
“The biggest issues for beer are time, temperature, light, and how well a brewer did their job,” said Magliaro. “Most distributors and bars keep kegs cold all the time. A consistent temperature will give that beer a huge advantage.” Unlike bottles, kegs and cans protect the beer from light at all times, but cans might not necessarily be kept in the walk-in.
Chances are, if you’re at a busy bar, they go through a lot of beer, and the beer you’re drinking from a keg is pretty fresh. “In today’s beer world you have to be most concerned with old beer,” said Magliaro, “In a bar, draft should be moving faster [than bottles], so I’d take the fact that it’s probably fresher as my largest beer-ordering concern.” This is especially important when ordering a hoppy beer, like a pale ale or an IPA, which degrade in flavor over time. At As Is, Pratt orders hop-driven beer as it’s released from the brewery and only takes as much as the bar can sell in that given week. “Those beers are best served as close to when they were brewed as possible, so we never stockpile them,” said Pratt. His kegs can kick within two days of being put on tap, so new deliveries arrive constantly.
There’s still another plus for draft beer, which brings in a bigger profit than bottles. Pressure and temperature are easy to customize with most modern draft set-ups, which leads to a slight textural difference. “When pouring from a draft system, you’re getting a different carbonation level/mouthfeel than you might from a bottle or can. By having the keg hooked up to the draft system, there is constant pressure being applied to liquid,” explained Pratt. “I usually think that a fresh beer, poured off a clean draft system, has a certain energy that a bottle or can poured beer can lack.”
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, though. Negligence can screw up a draft experience. The ultimate responsibility is on you and the bar owner to figure that out. “Dirty draft lines can screw up good beer, but you won’t know that until you order,” warned Magliaro. “If there are consistent off flavors, you might want to consider a different bar altogether.” It’s important to talk to the bartender. Ask what’s fresh. Ask what he or she is excited about. Getting a vibe for the place and how they treat their beer will lead to a better beer experience. Don’t play yourself.
There isn’t anything more beautiful than a freshly poured pint for Pratt, “I would take a fresh draft of Heady Topper to can any day, if I had the choice.” Draft beer has more going for it from a scientific standpoint (as long as it’s properly delivered), and at the same time, there’s something inherently special about it. The bar committed to that keg, treated it right, and poured that pint just for you. It’s an act of love, and as Magliaro advised, “There are a zillion factors in getting the best experience from beer, but for my money… If there’s draft, then I’d say go draft 100% of the time.”
When to order a bottle or can instead of draft:
• When you’ve tried a couple beers that taste a bit off and suspect the tap lines are dirty or need maintenance
• When you see something that you really want that isn’t on the tap list
• When six customers is more than the bar has seen all week
• When the glassware can be described as “crusty”
• When you’re sitting in your apartment and realize you shouldn’t set up a draft line behind the kitchen wall, because that would probably piss off your landlord
• When the 70 year-old bartender winks at you and says, “This one’s on the house, honey,” and hands you a bottle of cheap lager