Neil Witte, a Master Cicerone and beer industry veteran, puts it like this: “Craft-beer consumers want new stuff all the time, but they also crave authenticity.”
It’s a duality at the core of American beer culture and a driving force behind the incessant innovation on which the industry is built. From the first American pale ales brewed in the late 1970s to the renaissance of lager styles on taps today, American brewers have gotten quite good at taking Old World ideas and tweaking them for American palates. This isn’t limited to borrowing styles from Europe; some brewers and publicans have taken to borrowing service techniques endemic to beer cultures older than our own.
Take the rising popularity of the “slow pour” pilsner and the focus it places on the beer’s foam—this trendy service style often is enabled by a special piece of equipment that uses a sideways approach to the act of pouring a pint: the side-pull draft faucet.
Typical draft faucets are functional and boring. Nobody gives them much thought until a beer isn’t pouring just right. But the Czech-style side-pull draft faucets aren’t only an attractive piece of metal. They have two key differences that allow for increased control and interesting alterations to a beer’s flavor.
Before we get into that, though, let’s look at a typical American draft system’s faucets, which fall into three broad categories: the standard plunger-valve faucet; its cousin, the slightly more complex flow-control units; and another cousin, the dedicated nitro faucets. If you’ve ever poured yourself a beer from a reasonably well-setup draft system, you’re familiar with how they work: Pull the handle forward, and beer comes out. The main mechanism within the faucet is a plunger valve; when the valve is open, beer flows from the draft line and through the faucet into your glass. The thing to remember when using these plunger-valve faucets is that they are designed as a binary switch: They should either be fully closed or fully open. Trying to throttle the flow by opening the tap only halfway results in a turbulent flow, carbonation breaking out of the beer, and a glass full of foam.
Magic on the Side
Instead of the open-or-closed plunger valve, side-pull faucets feature a ball valve, and this allows for a range of flow rates without introducing turbulence to the beer. But that’s only half the magic of the side-pulls; there is also a micro-screen placed just before the opening of the faucet’s spout. As the pressure in the draft system pushes the beer through the screen, carbonation is forced out of suspension. Because the mesh is so fine, the bubbles created are comparatively tiny. The resulting “wet foam” from the side-pull faucet is quite different from the usual head atop a pint of draft beer. (Think of the silky, full-bodied foam in a flat white or cortado espresso drink, instead of the coarser, drier foam in a cappuccino.)
“The flavor of the foam is just different,” says Ashleigh Carter, cofounder and head brewer at Bierstadt Lagerhaus in Denver, Colorado. Carter says they were looking for something different when designing their taproom and draft system. A chance encounter with a tap dedicated to Pilsner Urquell at a New York City beer bar several years ago led her to the side-pull faucets. They are large and eye-catching and almost necessitate a performative pour; Carter quickly discovered that the side-pull faucets do more than just look cool. “They are everything we love about draft faucets: They look striking, they pour great, and you can really dial in the way they dispense.”
The flexibility inherent in the design of the side-pull faucet is often on display in Czech pubs, especially where Pilsner Urquell flows freely. Drinkers of the influential lager can even order their pours in three different ways. The standard pour, known as the hladinka, features three fingers of foam atop the golden beer, while the šnyt is slightly more than half foam and a little less beer. Then there’s the fabled mlíko pour—a nearly full glass of creamy, wet foam with some liquid beer at the bottom. “They are each a different experience of flavor and texture,” says Carter. The mlíko, in particular, is an interesting way to keep on enjoying beer when you’re not sure you want another whole pint—all the restraint of ordering a cheeky half pint, while still getting to hold a full-sized glass and sip along with your mates. (And remember, this is dense, wet foam that is readily sippable, unlike a cap of sticky, dry foam from an improperly poured pint. It’s really a novel and pleasurable experience.)
In an era of the “boss pour” (that peculiar Instagram-fueled fad of pouring, mostly hazy IPAs, to the very bead of a glass’s rim) and customers demanding a “full glass” of beer when any foam is left in the glass, American beer drinkers seem utterly unready for the mlíko. But the side-pull faucets are more about the quality of foam and how that affects the drinking experience than the more extreme example of the mlíko pour.
Slow and Easy
Poured in stages to develop a firm foam cap that will rise well above the rim, a “slow pour” can take several minutes to complete, but the result is as tasty as it is visually dramatic. “It creates a tower of flavorful foam,” says Jake Miller, cofounder and brewer at Heirloom Rustic Ales in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Miller is a pilsner partisan and a particular fan of the slow-pour service. The side-pull faucet makes the slow pour easier to achieve, and the effects on flavor are threefold. First, that dense cap of wet foam helps to hold volatile aromas in the beer. Second, the breakout of CO2 caused by the faucet’s mesh screen means the liquid beer has a softer mouthfeel (and a “rounder” flavor, according to Carter). Finally, the flavor of wet foam is closer in flavor to liquid beer than typical dry foam would be. Miller calls it a “mirror image” of the liquid beer in the glass, not the funhouse mirror of distorted flavors on display in typical dry foam.
About 100 miles from Heirloom, in Oklahoma City, there is an ambitious beer bar called Oak and Ore that features Oklahoma’s only “long-pour” lager program. Micah Andrews opened the pub in 2014, and he soon added a side-pour faucet manufactured by Lukr to replicate the service of the Slow Pour Pils that he fell in love with at Bierstadt. “There’s nothing else like it,” Andrews says of the slow-pour service. His guiding principle as publican is to serve beer the way the brewers intended it. He reached out to local breweries and asked if they’d like to create a beer for the dedicated side-pull tap. The breweries rotate quarterly; the best results occur when the brewers design the beer with the slow pour in mind. For example, Heirloom’s Miller says they brewed their pilsner with a firmer bitterness than usual, also concentrating on elements that add to foam stability, such as using floor-malted high-protein barley, step-mashing, and bittering with whirlpool hop additions. Most critically, they carbonate kegs destined for slow-pour service to three volumes of CO2 or more (instead of the typical 2.5 volumes). “CO2 loss inherent in the slow pour can lead to a sloppy body,” he says, but higher carbonation and increased bitterness combat any negative changes to the beer from the slow pour. “A lot of people say they like our normal pilsner more [than the slow-pour version], but they keep ordering slow pours for that drama and aesthetic.”
Of course, there are some downsides to the side-pull faucets—chiefly, the cost. Besides being more difficult to source, each Czech-made side-pull unit costs between $200 and $300—a far cry from the $49.95 Perlik flow-control faucets common in tasting rooms from coast to coast. Installation can also be a challenge, as the units require minor modification to work on direct-draw systems, and their longer shanks are incompatible with many draft towers. Once they’re installed and properly set up, more challenges follow, mostly related to learning to use them (and learning how to sell the service style to customers, who may demand fuller glasses with less foam). “There’s a little bit of a learning curve,” Master Cicerone Witte says of the pouring technique.
There are two main differences that run counter to standard draft procedures. First, instead of on-or-off, the flow is controlled by how far the tap handle is pulled—opening the tap only a little creates more foam, while fully opening the tap results in more clear liquid beer flowing. Second, after the initial stage of the pour that lays a layer of foam in the glass, the faucet tip is submerged in the foam so that liquid beer fills the glass from below—a taboo in modern American service practices. In this case, best practices are to wipe down the outside of the faucet with sanitizer after each pour and, of course, to follow a rigorous maintenance schedule. That’s another downside to the faucets: “They can need quite a bit more maintenance,” says Carter. There are lots of small parts, disassembly is required for a thorough cleaning, and reassembly can be challenging until you’re comfortable with the differences.
Are side pulls and slow pours gimmicky? Sure, but it’s just the kind of gimmick on which American beer culture thrives. Side-pull faucets and the slow-pour techniques they facilitate “fit very well into modern American beer culture’s embrace of obscure traditions and drive to adapt those authentic methods into new traditions,” Witte says. It is both an embrace and a rejection of an older beer culture, and the drama inherent in the towering foam shines a spotlight on how a beer is served.
In a world with more options for beer and bars than ever, a focus on excellence in service is critical for continued development of our own beer culture. Ashleigh Carter puts it succinctly: “The more we pay attention to how a beer is served, the more we elevate this industry.”