Serving Beer is a task that in many ways is far trickier than serving most wines. Almost all beer contains some carbonation, and unlike sparkling wine it generally forms a crown of foam. Getting beer into its glass with its carbonation intact and the correct volume of foam while achieving a nice visual presentation is an art form that takes some practice. Once we also take into account draught versus bottled beers, differing beer styles, differing carbonation levels, and widely varying glassware, we arrive at a realization that proper beer service requires attention to a number of details. At home, of course, we can do as we please, paying attention only to our guests and to our mutual enjoyment of the beer and the moment. In restaurant and bar settings, service of both beer and food should be more formalized and designed to maximize the customer’s experience.
The service of any beer, whether draught or bottled, starts with the beer glass. First, it must be aroma free and absolutely clean—no oils, dust, detergent residue, or other foreign matter. Within the beer industry, this status is referred to as “beer clean.” Beer foam is made up of a liquid/protein matrix that will break down quickly in the presence of even trace amounts of fats, oils, or detergents. Rapidly collapsing foam can be a fault within the beer itself, but it is more often related to glassware contaminants. Dust, foreign particles, and scratches will cause breakout of carbon dioxide from the liquid. A large area of bubbles observed clinging to the sides of a glass is a clear sign that the glass is either dirty or otherwise compromised. In a restaurant setting, dirty glasses should never reach the customer, but if they do, the customer ought to reject them and request replacements.
Most draught beer systems are designed to serve a glass of beer within several seconds. Normally, the glass is placed at a 45 degree angle below the spout and the tap opened quickly, allowing the beer to pour down the side of the glass. The glass is brought to an upright position when the glass is approximately three-quarters full, allowing the foam to rise to the appropriate level. Allowing the foam to settle for several seconds afterward will increase its density and allow the server to add a little more foam for a perfect pour. The appropriate amount of foam varies widely between beer types, but “1.5 fingers” might be said to be average. Many American bars serve beer with very little foam, leaving the beer looking soapy and unappealing. Foam is considered particularly important in Germany, where servers may spend a few minutes building a large head with a consistency approaching that of whipped cream. Weissbier is famous for its high carbonation and voluminous head formation, and traditional weissbier glassware is tall and vase-shaped to accommodate perhaps “3 fingers” of foam.
The service of bottled beer is, of course, different, especially in restaurant settings. The bottle should be presented to the customer before it is opened; this will help avoid any confusion as to what has been ordered. The server can use this as an opportunity to check that the beer is at the appropriate temperature and to see whether it is unfiltered and therefore contains a sediment. The beer should then be opened at the service station and brought back to the table for pouring. If the bottle was sealed with a cork, it is appropriate to present it to the customer, especially if the beer has been aged.
In the majority of cases, especially in more formal restaurants, the glassware should remain in place on the table while the beer is served. This requires skill, a steady hand, and some patience. Many beers, especially wheat beers and beers brewed in Belgian styles, may have very high levels of carbonation; not surprisingly these tend to be very foamy. However, even for most foamy beers, pouring a slow, thin stream down the center of the glass will achieve a fine-looking pour with a good ratio of liquid to foam. In the rare instance that this cannot be achieved with the glass on the table, the server can ask the customer whether the glass can be lifted. Having gained the customer’s assent, the server may then lift the glass by its stem and pour the beer gently with the glass at an angle.
Beers that have been intentionally aged will often throw a sediment, even if they were originally filtered. Such beers should be poured very carefully and steadily to assure that no sediment ends up in the customer’s glass. Sediments are harmless, but rarely taste particularly good in aged beers and often have unpleasantly gritty textures. The bottle may be left on the table for the customer to decide upon the final pour.
When pouring beers that contain sediment, it is best to pour carefully until the last 1 cm or half inch of beer and then stop, leaving the sediment behind in the bottle. The customer should be asked whether he or she would like the sediment added and, if not, whether the bottle should be removed from the table. Notable exceptions to this rule are Belgian witbiers and German weissbiers, which are always served intentionally hazy. In this case the last 2 cm or inch of beer can be retained in the bottle, the bottle can be swirled gently, and the sediment can be added through the center of the foam to fall through the liquid in a plume.
The serving temperature of beer has dramatic effects upon its flavor, aroma, and appearance. Beer has a very wide range of flavors and textures, and it is therefore not surprising that optimal serving temperatures vary as well. Especially in the United States, many beers are served too cold, a legacy of the country’s long monoculture of mass market lagers. These beers were said to taste best “ice cold,” but better beers rarely taste of anything much at all when served below 3.3°C (38°F). On most draught systems, it can be difficult to serve beer much warmer without experiencing excessive foaming, but warmer serving temperatures are possible when a system is well designed and properly balanced.
For bottled beers, of course, the situation is considerably easier; it is essentially possible to served bottled beer at any temperature. In the home setting, the achievement of the correct temperature can be as simple as taking a bottle out of the refrigerator and waiting. In the restaurant setting, some attention must be paid in advance. Cold temperatures will enhance sensations of bitterness, dryness, carbonation, and tannin and will often give beer a more refreshing quality. Colder temperatures also assist foam retention. However, at colder temperatures, volatilization of aromatic compounds slows dramatically, and beer loses much of its flavor and aroma; it will also tend to taste thinner. Conversely, warmer temperatures bring volatile elements to the fore and allow the beer to display its full range of flavor and aroma while accentuating body, maltiness, sweetness, and acidity. Proper beer serving temperature involves finding a happy balance that accentuates a beer’s best qualities and, if necessary, suppresses any negative ones.
The vast majority of beers will show their best somewhere between 5.5°C and 12.7°C (42°F and 55°F). Lager beer flavors are ingredient driven, and cold fermentations do not develop many fruity flavors or aromatics. Colder temperatures tend to suit them because there is less to be lost by chilling. Darker lagers, especially heavier ones such as doppelbock, will enjoy a slightly warmer temperature to let their rich malt flavors evolve. Most wheat beers and popular American craft beer styles, such as India pale ale, do best at the lower end of this range. Many Belgian beers are warm fermented, delicate, and highly aromatic; most will taste their best in the center of this temperature range. The highest temperatures are reserved for British cask-conditioned beers. Contrary to foreign opinion, British ales are not served at “room temperature” (few drinks, including red wine, taste good at temperatures approaching 21°C [70°F]), but at a “cellar temperature” of about 11°C (52°F). Aged or vintage beers should also be served at these temperatures. Below are some general guidelines for best service temperatures.
Keep in mind that once the beer is in the glass it will tend to warm up, so there is little harm in serving a beer slightly below the ideal temperature and allowing it to warm into its optimal range.