A big driver in craft beer’s growth has been the public drinking experience in bars, brewpubs, and taprooms across the country. These venues offer real variety and, often, passionate staff who can help guide intrepid drinkers toward new flavor experiences. With well-tuned draft systems, deep beer lists, and deep beer knowledge on tap, such destinations have long been the best places to drink craft beer.
So, what happens when the drinker is forced into isolation and there must navigate the seas of beer alone?
Many of us are drinking at home more often these days. Between the lingering pandemic, the closures of several of my favorite places to drink, and the inflationary realities of $12 pints, nights out at the bar have become rare indeed. The beer still flows—but it’s most often enjoyed on the comfort of my couch.
But you know what? It’s actually not too bad—and I’m not alone in that view. I spoke to brewers, barkeepers, beer writers, and homebrewers, and many shared that they’re also appreciating more homebound brews. “I make my own snacks, get to chill with my kid; I don’t have to drive anywhere or wait for the bathroom,” says Beth Demmon, a San Diego–based freelance writer (and a fellow contributor to Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®). “As much as I love draft beer, it’s just hard to beat the comfort of home.”
With that in mind, let’s consider some of the equipment, accoutrements, paraphernalia, and doodads—the gear—that can help us make the most of it, whether we’re in self-isolation, out of gas money, or simply want to enjoy home sweet home.
Where to Keep It
The selection at your favorite local watering hole is an undeniably important draw, but the packaged options available today can be nigh overwhelming. The best weapon for keeping session-induced beer boredom at bay is a spacious beer fridge. There is the ever-popular garage (or basement) full-sized fridge, the more compact mini-fridge alternative, or even the chest freezer converted to a full-fledged draft system. However much real estate you devote to your stash, you’ll want to keep a diverse selection.
My personal solution is a mini-fridge devoted to beer, usually half-filled with everyday styles—mostly IPAs, pale ales, and pilsners—and half-filled with big bottles of specialty brews, each patiently waiting for a special occasion. Years ago, I kept this fridge set a little warmer while the big fridge in the kitchen was kept icy-cool for any lager I wanted to serve that way. However, as modern craft lager has proliferated, I’ve instead dialed the beer-fridge thermostat down and now keep the ales and lagers together. The point is to tune your setup to the styles and brews that you most enjoy.
That can even include the kind of improvement you might expect to see only in a specialized pub.
Colin Hayes, a teacher and homebrewer in Chicago, says he developed a taste for traditional European lager styles on a school trip to Prague several years ago. He adapted his homebrewing regime to replicate those clean, crisp Continental brews. He keeps his six-tap kegerator stocked with a rotation of Czech dark lager, German pilsners, and seasonal bocks, and he’s even added a Lukr side-pour faucet to replicate the creamy-foam Czech lager experience at home. In fact, he believes his Lukr tap was only the second one installed anywhere in the Chicagoland area, and importing the brass treasure was no easy feat. His attention to detail also encompasses glassware; his go-to is usually a half-liter logo glass from one of the European breweries he’s visited.
“The visual experience is a big part of the beer-drinking joy,” Hayes says, “and I knew I had to have a Lukr tap to nail that European bar experience at home.”
More Ways to Serve It
The topic of glassware is one of those acid-tests that quickly separate obsessive beer snobs from more well-adjusted, pragmatic drinkers—or so I thought.
I’m an inveterate glassware snob, with (too many) shapes and varieties of glass that can be called upon to suit most every style. It’s not that I won’t drink a beer from a bottle or can; it’s just that I prefer to use a glass. I don’t even drink Scotch ale, yet I have a thistle glass, just in case. A typical Friday evening session of four or five beers will regularly, somehow, create a pile of six or seven dirty glasses. I don’t know why I’m like this. My wife makes fun of me. It’s embarrassing, and for a long time I thought I was alone in my neurosis. But no! Many of you share a similar dedication to “proper” glassware.
There’s plenty of information about which glass for which beer (and why) out there, so I won’t delve into the nuance of why a delicate pilsner vase elevates the experience of quaffing a “crispy boi.” Much more important than the recommendations of experts and obsessives is your own personal connection to that vessel. You don’t need a cabinet full of esoteric shapes and branded pint glasses—but, if you have favorite beer styles, consider finding glasses that elevate the unique characteristics of those styles. My go-to styles are pilsners and pale ales, and the glass that I grab most often is a simple, heavy-walled Becher Pint with a logo of a brewery I have no particular affinity for. It’s my favorite because it feels great in the hand with its thick base, and its 20-ounce capacity makes it a unicorn in a herd of 16-ounce pint glasses.
Another example: Spiegelau designed its vaunted, well-marketed IPA glass from the ground up to showcase the character of American IPA. From the shape of the bowl to the way the glass tapers to the lip to the nucleation sites laser-etched into the bottom to bolster head formation, every aspect of the glass is intentional. Yet the best thing about the fragile and expensive bit of geekery is its 19-ounce capacity. In a world of 16-ounce cans, the ubiquity of the branded 16-ounce glass is maddening. You can’t pour a whole pint of beer into these undersized vessels with any room left for head, let alone a visually pleasing few fingers of foam.
Brewery marketing departments, if you are reading this: Please offer more oversized glasses! (And more half-pint glasses, too.)
Ensuring that your glassware is clean—beer clean—is another one of those beer-nerd giveaways. Pouring a beer and seeing a blanket of tiny bubbles on the side of the glass irks me more than it should, but even at my most neurotic I never implemented a proper three-sink setup at home. (I did try in-sink bottle brushes for a while but found them too fussy.)
After the unending parade of dirty dishes that typified my lockdown experience, I can hardly be bothered to hand-wash my beer glasses anymore—most end up in the dishwasher, where the Los Angeles hard water necessitates a head-killing rinsing agent. Most of the time that is “beer clean enough” for me, though I often think about installing a glass rinser in the kitchen. Perhaps my fear is a slippery slope that ends with a counter full of machines of questionable utility, all aimed at incrementally improving my beers at home.
However, there are several models of rinsers available these days, and they are relatively easy to install without much plumbing know-how.
Gadgets & Gizmos
You could fill a whole SkyMall catalog with the gadgets and gizmos marketed to beer lovers—or, rather, to their friends and family who don’t know any better. Most are of dubious utility.
There are stone coasters that promise to keep your beer glass colder for longer, “beer stones” that you add to your glass to promote carbonation and head retention—clearly the invention of some dentist in need of patients—and every permutation of bottle opener and can koozie imaginable. The competition for your dollar and space in your junk drawer is fierce, and most products don’t live up to their promises.
Who doesn’t want to replicate the draft beer experience at home? Yet if you’re space-deprived, or if adding a dedicated kegerator to your home bar isn’t feasible, there is a whole galaxy of beer gadgets that offer alternatives. There are pressurized growlers with capacities from 32 ounces all the way to half gallons and larger. I’ve long been skeptical of these units and their promises of longer-lasting beer and a real draft experience—but I spoke to a few who use them, and they love them. I’m not one to keep a growler in the fridge for more than an evening, but if you’re slow to finish off a big to-go container of beer, these tap-equipped jugs may be worth a try.
If you find yourself regularly filling growlers to go, upgrading from a glass flip-top bottle to a double-walled insulated growler such as the Kleen Canteen or MiiR products is a worthwhile investment. Fill them with ice water before you head to the brewery, and a fresh fill will stay at drinkable temperature all day without refrigeration. I love the ease of crowlers, but my one-liter Kleen Kanteen is a better solution in almost every way—and this is one beer gadget that does make a great gift for beer lovers. (Just don’t forget to fill it before you give it.)
One gadget that seems brilliant in its simplicity and utility is the shower beer holder. This silicone cup sticks to the shower wall with suction cups and holds (and insulates) a can of beer while you wash up—a solution for a real “if you know, you know” problem. There are several brands available; my favorite based on name alone is the Sudski, available for $15 from Duluth Trading Company. If your shower has more shampoo bottles than space available, throw a Sudski in your cart with your next order of Carhartt gear and add a dedicated place for the bath-time brew.
There’s also the Draft Top, an invention that promises to unlock the flavor and aroma potential of canned craft beer. As featured on the Shark Tank TV show, the $25 device clamps to the top of a can; a few deft twists un-seam and detach the top of the can, leaving you with a more open-topped drinking vessel (and a razor-sharp lid, and possibly beer-covered hands).
Gamely trying to overcome my glassware snobbery, I decided to see if the Draft Top would live up to the hype. It takes a few cans to get the technique down, but with practice, I was able to enjoy a fragrant brew direct from the can without the indignity of sipping through the pop-top opening. I also usually got beer everywhere and swore a bunch while trying to fish the lid out of my beer. Notably, it also turns out that the can top is structurally important, and pint cans were not really meant to be used as lidless drinking vessels. The contraption works—but as with so many of these devices, I’m not sure the solution is worth the hassle (or the drawer space).
The Social Lubricant
Shower beers (usually) excepted, “beers at home” doesn’t have to mean beers without friends. There’s no overstating the importance of drinking buddies to the big-picture beer experience. Virginia Thomas, co-owner of Chicago’s Beermiscuous bar and bottle shop, weathered the pandemic lockdown and closures in her backyard. Small hangouts, low-key bottle shares, and impromptu jam sessions became the preferred venue for beer drinking. She says she tried to replicate the tavern experience as much as possible with a wide selection, a proper (beer clean) glass, and attention to the little things that make beer drinking into a social event.
“Music can be a big part of the drinking experience,” Thomas says. The best beers engage multiple senses, but beyond the crack-hiss of a can opening and the glug-glug of pouring, the auditory stimulus is comparatively lacking. That’s where a Bluetooth speaker and a wide-ranging playlist come into play. “Guests drive the soundtrack,” she says, “even if it’s just chatting and listening to the din of the neighborhood.”
Hayes—the aforementioned homebrewer and teacher—is a regular attendee of Thomas’s backyard sessions. He also mentions using a gadget borrowed from history on chilly Chicago evenings: the hot poker. Another import from Europe, the bierstacheln is heated in a fire, then quenched in malty bock on cold evenings. The pleasant sounds and distinctive caramelization flavors are an exciting flip of the cold-beer script.
Even if you’re not hosting guests, there are ways to engage in the social aspect of beer drinking, such as the proliferation of online guided tastings and Zoom happy hours aimed at bringing beer lovers together via the Internet. Less common now than at the height of the pandemic, the virtual toasts remain a way to connect with folks you can’t salute in person.
“Sometimes a tasting room isn’t the best place to do a focused tasting,” says Hal Mooney, founder of LA Beer Hop tour and its offshoot Your Beer Friend, which provides curated beer tastings over the Internet. Mooney hosted brewery tours for 10 years before the pandemic forced a shift in the business model, and now he’s a big fan of the online tasting experience. “You can go more in-depth and tell a beer’s story with less distraction,” he says. Whether it’s over Zoom, Discord, or an emerging platform for video conferencing, the online beer tasting is here to stay. The accessibility of these tools also allows for more participation for those who may have difficulty attending face-to-face tastings at bars or breweries.
Beer is a simple drink, but—as this column has illustrated over the past three dozen installments—brewing is no simple task. From the mills that unlock barley’s potential to the canning lines where the finished brew is sealed away, there are a lot of moving parts. Brewing is a craft that rewards intention and attention. When we sit down to enjoy the fruits of all this labor, a little attention on the drinker’s part goes a long way to showing off the brewer’s intentions.
When everything aligns—from the ingredient selection to brewing processes to storage and handling of the product to the way the beer is poured and the glassware it’s served in—the result can be so much more than the sum of all that effort.
With the intention to elevate your home-drinking experience, and some attention to the details of beer storage and service, replicating that perfect pint on your own patio is not just possible. It’s pleasurable.