It’s said that good things take time. That is true when it comes to certain beers, especially ones that have been lovingly aged in tanks or barrels before they are packaged and ready to serve. At that point, though, it’s a fairly quick affair. Bottles or cans are popped and poured into a glass; tap handles are opened as the beer slides into a glass. Serve. Drink.
Now, a sprinkling of breweries and bars around the country is asking customers to wait a few extra minutes for their glass of beer so that servers can create a sturdy pillowy crown of foam that is not only endlessly Instagramable but will hold up for the duration of the drinking experience and change the very flavor of the beer.
The slow pour is nothing new to beer, but a recent rise in popularity, thanks to those craft breweries that have put it center stage, has engendered a renewed interest in this well-topped pour. In American craft beer today, when a slow pour is mentioned, those who have been there will call to mind Bierstadt Lagerhaus in Denver.
The brewery’s commitment to lagers is well known and documented, and their Slow Pour Pils is popular both because of the commitment the drinker must make to waiting a few minutes between an order and the first sip and because it’s just so darn tasty. The tip, regulars will tell you, is to order the next round when the current one hits the table.
Charles Bamforth, the celebrated beer educator who is often called the Pope of Foam, says one of the best-known examples of a slow pour is Guinness. When pints of the dry Irish stout are poured according to the brewer’s suggestion, the whole process takes almost 2 minutes (119 seconds, to be exact), with the first half of that time going to build up a solid base of foam.
“What happens when you produce a lot of foam is that you’re driving the proteins and bitter substances into the head, and when they get into the bubble wall, they interact and begin to stabilize the foam,” says Bamforth. “If you don’t produce much foam in the first place, you’re not giving the molecules a chance to interact.”
As the name would suggest, the key to a perfect slow pour and getting that fantastic dome of foam is to take your time with the pour, but Bamforth reminds us that you shouldn’t be timid in the process.
With a standard tap, it takes a vigorous pour down to the center of the bottom of the glass, where the force separates the carbon dioxide, creating foam. Continuously doing this will keep building upon that foam while the liquid drops down until you achieve the ratio desired. What you should avoid is the weak sliding-down-the-side-of-the-glass pour from a standard tap. That won’t achieve the proper results.
“You want to see the beer splash into the glass,” Bamforth says.
There are other tap-handle options, such as the side handle, which is more of a ball-valve mechanism that controls the level of foam or liquid that is allowed into a glass. This is more common in parts of lager-loving Europe and is often seen around this country attached to a Pilsner Urquell–branded tower.
In fact, that brewery often promotes various pours with increasingly dense levels of foam. Each, tasted side by side by side, winds up tasting different from the others. Bamforth makes it clear that he hasn’t done scientific trials to see whether the flavor of a beer is altered if it receives the slow-pour treatment but notes that “the larger factor in play here is the foam and the psychology and beauty of it and the storyline the pour tells. Maybe there is a flavor difference; maybe it has lost a bit of its fizzy nature, and you get a mellower mouthfeel, depending on how much of the CO2 has dropped out of the solution. But, I think the visual triggers are more important than the taste ones.”
Although any style of beer can benefit from the practice, lagers seem to be enjoying the slow-pour spotlight these days. At the Suarez Family Brewery in New York’s Hudson Valley, Owner and Brewer Dan Suarez regularly serves his lager in 25-centiliter glasses and only as a slow pour.
“I think it’s the proper way to do it,” he says. “If your going do something right, you’re going to want to give it the best presentation and in its finest form, and I think that pouring a beer with a proper head is only proper. What I tell people is that it’s not a gimmick. It’s something super special. It enhances the experience.”
Suarez, like other brewers who swear by the practice, can barely contain his excitement and reverence when talking about the slow pour.
“You drink with your eyes first, so it just looks great when it’s served, but equal to that is the mouthfeel. When you knock out some of that CO2 from the solution, the body is more supple, and it volatizes the aromatic compounds, and that provides a pop in the nose.”
From a nitro pour to traditional CO2 pours to even cask ale poured through a beer engine outfitted with a sparkler, the slow-poured beer is dominated by creaminess. For the uninitiated, the idea of having to wait for a beer to be poured, especially a lager, can be strange; but Suarez, the folks at Bierstadt, and others are usually ready with a response. And in the case of Suarez, it really takes only about a minute and a half for the beer to be poured and ready.
“I think the slow pour speaks to the lizard brain [the most primitive part of the brain] of most people,” Suarez says. “Waiting a little bit builds the anticipation, gives them a special experience, and anyone who might have grumbled in the beginning is usually saying it’s pretty cool afterwards.” And to help prevent anyone from accusing the brewery of cheating them out of liquid, their glasses have a fill line to ensure that the proper ratio is achieved.
Then, of course, come the cell-phone shots and social-media uploads.
While those who have regular access to these pours might swear by the value of waiting, it’s unlikely that the slow pour will become the default beer pour.
“Most people are not prepared to do this patience thing,” says Bamforth.