The Perfect Pour

By Emma Solak / Staff Writer

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Michael Barnes can tell a good pour just by the smell. 

The art of pouring beer isn’t just a formality for Barnes, co-owner of the Pittsburgh-based Broken Paddle Brewing Company. The stream of alcohol can instantly delight not only drinkers’ taste buds but also their noses.

Broken Paddle Brewing Company is a small craft brewery that Barnes founded with three friends last fall. Through his work, he’s noticed a misconception about how to pour beer, he said. 

Barnes said most people think they’re supposed to turn the glass much further than a 45 degree angle to fill it up, but that’s actually false. A good pour entails the right amount of “head” — the frothy foam produced by the release of bubbles that rise to the top of a beer. 

To master the pour, Barnes said, you should start with the glass at an angle, then straighten it out at about the halfway point, letting the glass fill up until you have about one inch of head floating on top of the beer.

The length of pouring depends on the type of beer, according to Barnes. For example, stouts have a higher ratio of nitrogen to carbon dioxide, so, when pouring, you should stop about halfway through to let the beer settle. Since nitrogen bubbles are miniscule, the beer contains higher volumes of them. As a result, if you pour too quickly, you’ll end up with too much head.

“Beer is like a rainbow,” Barnes said. “From one side to another, the style makes a difference.”

More carbonated beers, such as IPAs and ales, have a crisper, sharper taste. Mass-produced beers, such as American lagers, have little aroma and flavor, according to Barnes. All kegs have the same pressure level, which can cause certain subtle details of taste to be lost in beers that require slightly higher or lower carbonation levels. Typically, there is no difference between a bottle of beer and keg of that same beer. What makes the difference is the amount of carbon dioxide. 

For Jackson Crowder, a Pitt alumnus and bartender at A Bar + Kitchen in Washington, D.C., learning how to correctly pour a beer was difficult, but now the technique is second nature to him. 

“You have to learn to dial into that sweet spot, but then it’s just muscle memory,” Crowder said. 

Crowder, who has also worked at Verde, a restaurant and bar Downtown, said beer pouring technique is standard at many places. 

According to Crowder, there are two main kinds of beer taps: a standard tap and a nitrogen tap. To pour a beer from both these taps, the bartender should hold the glass as close to the spout as possible, at a 45-degree angle to the stream. Tilting the glass, the bartender should fill it two-thirds full, he said, then hold it upright to finish the pour. 

One difference in filling from a nitrogen tap, Crowder said, is that the bartender must let the beer settle before finishing the pour. It’s important to fill the glass steadily and not too fast, Crowder said, and not to let too much foam build up. 

Too much foam is the one sign of a bad pour, he said. 

“[The foam] is just taking up space. You can let it settle out, but in a fast-paced bar, you don’t have time for that,” Crowder said. 

Laura Buermann, also a Pitt alumna and bartender, said that the way you pour a beer absolutely affects taste. 

“Its mostly about controlling the size of the head. You get a lot of aroma and flavor from the head, and I think the aroma is a large part of the taste,” Buermann said. 

Buermann, a bartender at Fuel and Fuddle, follows the 45-degree-angle technique and starts by placing the nozzle halfway into the glass. As the beer pours, she tilts the glass to a 90-degree angle. She also said she wouldn’t pour slowly. 

“I wouldn’t want to mess it up for a customer,” Buermann said. “It’s kind of nerve-racking being a bartender, because the customers are right in front of you and can see everything you’re doing.” 

Even though the bartender doesn’t need to pour anything when a customer orders a bottle of beer, Brian Meyer, advocate for Local Craft Beer and webmaster for the Craft Beer Academy in Pittsburgh, said beer tastes best in a glass, regardless of the type of beer.

Bottles let light in, which can skunk a beer. Although cans keep a beer fresher longer, Meyer said an open glass lets out the aroma of beer, which is essential to truly tasting the drink.

“Most of what we taste in beer is what we smell,” Meyer said in an email. “So being able to smell the beer as you drink is important.”

Barnes said the various styles of glasses for different beers come from the tradition of the region where the beer was first produced. Today, Barnes said, there is no real practical reason for why certain glasses pair with certain beers.

“So, if one is romantic about beer — and who is not — then you might consider a traditional glass with your beer based on style,” Barnes said.

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