Beer drinkers can be a persnickety lot—from eschewing off-flavors to critiquing pours, being particular about glassware, and even having opinions about other people’s opinions. Still, there’s one area in the sensory experience that doesn’t get talked about enough: hand and dish soap.
Walk the hygiene aisles of a grocery store, and you’ll see soaps scented with all manner of aromas from flowers and fruits to weather concepts, such as spring breeze, summer storm, or winter warmth. In addition to achieving the intended purpose of cleaning your hands (or dishes) of dirt, debris, and germs, these scented soaps also leave you carrying around the odiferous effects long after your scrubbing has finished. That may be great for most occasions, but if you’re settling into a bottle share or heading back to the bar for another round, this can be problematic.
Aroma is key to the beer-drinking experience, and when you lift a glass to your nose in the hopes of getting hops, grain, yeast, and special ingredients but all you breathe in is rose blossom or Granny Smith apple, it distracts from the task at hand. The key here is unscented soap, and while that might sound like a no-brainer, it’s harder to come by than you might think.
Dana Johnson, the technical director of craft brewing at Birko, a sanitation company headquartered in Colorado, calls the lack of unscented soap at breweries “one of my pet peeves.”
It’s not completely the fault of breweries or bar owners that the soap in the restrooms carries a special scent. Johnson says it’s actually hard to come across unscented soap at retail, even though that’s how all soaps start out. The special aromas are added toward the tail end of the process and often are used to cover up the smells from the chemicals and compounds used in creating the soap in the first place.
If you shop in restaurant catalogs or at big box stores, it’s more common to find soaps that have been treated.
“We know how much time and effort go into making beer and keeping everything clean at a brewery, and then you go and wash your hands with coconut or lavender or something floral, and it takes away from the drinking experience once you put your hands to your face because a lot of these fragrances linger.”
Birko supplies the soap for the judging at the Great American Beer Festival and World Beer Cup awards and says the Brewers Association “easily goes through gallons” of soap at each event. Even that soap is not completely odorless, Johnson says. “It smells like soap but dissipates quickly and won’t linger once it’s rinsed off.”
The company also provides soap to food-processing facilities where the Food and Drug Administration forbids the use of scented products for fear that it could interfere with meat, fruit, or other items being handled. While it’s not mandated in the beer space, there are some breweries that are adopting the practice because by switching to unscented soaps in restrooms, brewery owners give customers an even better chance to taste the beer as intended.
The same is true for home use. While companies such as Birko don’t offer at-home solutions, there are other companies such as 365 Everyday Value (Whole Foods Markets’ store brand) and Seventh Generation (the preferred brand at the Craft Beer and Brewing Magazine® office) that offer unscented hand soaps.
Using unscented soap is also a good rule of thumb to follow when it comes to cleaning your glassware. Unscented and non-petroleum-based dish soap will keep your glasses scent free, and a film won’t build up on the inside allowing carbonation to stick where it’s not wanted.
“This is something that gets overlooked a lot,” says Johnson. “But it’s actually very important.”