Give Me Head!
Look, I know we just met. Maybe you’re thinking I won’t like it. Maybe you’ve tried it before with other guys and just gotten an ugly stare for your trouble. But listen up, bartender; if you’re going to pour me a pint of beer, I expect a luscious, foamy, creamy beer head.
…well, what did you think I was writing about?
Giving good beer head is an underappreciated talent, and it’s too often dissuaded in barrooms across the country, mostly due to paranoid cheapskates who are convinced they’re being cheated out of a precious 1/16 of an ounce of liquid beer. I know it may seem like an enormous sacrifice to forego your glass of beer with liquid filled to the very brim, impossible to even lift without it spilling over the sides, but if you’re drinking headless beer, you’re sacrificing appearance, aroma, and taste. And if you’re pouring headless beer, you ought to have your head examined.
What’s so great about beer foam? Let’s start by being superficial and talk appearance. Obviously, a beer with foam just looks better than its scary, Sleepy Hollow-esque sibling. Just try and tell me that the contrast of color, the pillowy, creamy top juxtaposed against the liquid beneath it isn’t aesthetically superior to the alternative view of mono uniformity.
A well-poured pint of beer is something to admire and show off, to hold up and look at in different light. A headless beer is like pie without whipped cream, a king without his crown, a tuxedo without a jacket; it’s a missed opportunity, an unfinished work of art.
But looks will only get you so far. Fortunately, beer foam delivers two other crucial experiences: aroma and taste.
Beer foam is caused by bubbles getting trapped together and forming a creamy barrier at the top of your pint glass. This barrier serves a very important function; it traps the aroma of the beer, allowing you to smell the hops, the toasting or roasting of the grains, the esters of the yeast, and it also slows the rate at which the beer loses its carbonation and effervescence. Without a head, CO2 escapes out the top of the beer, resulting in larger, gassier bubbles in your stomach and a stiller, flatter brew in your glass.
And then there’s the taste difference. Even if you want to argue that foam has no taste, it certainly has a silky, soft, creamy texture that contrasts with the texture of the liquid. It’s an extra level of complexity, another twist and turn on the tongue as you enjoy a favorite brew, and as your buds are picking up the flavor signals, your nose is pulling in that dense, potent aroma trapped within the foam. Drinking a beer without these elements is like watching a film without sound; sure you can do it, but why would you?
Finally, beer foam is a great indicator of a clean beer glass. Oils, grease, food debris and leftover soap residue will stifle the head on any brew. A beer served to you with bounteous, lasting foam is a quick visual guarantee of a clean drinking vessel in which to get your imbibe on.
To be fair, the bartender isn’t always the culprit behind headless brew. There are some styles of beers, mostly of the more acidic and sour variety or those at higher alcohol levels, that physically can’t form beer head, as well as plenty of under-carbonated kegs that result in stiller beer. And depending on the ingredients a brewer uses, certain beer styles just won’t have very good head retention. Unless you get a bartender who really cares about inducing head by pouring down the center of the glass or only opening the tap halfway, you may end up sans kräusen.
But nine times out of ten, there’s really no excuse for a bartender to hand you a pint glass without the standard one to two fingers’ width of beer foam. Pouring a beer isn’t usually that difficult. There is certainly a trick to it, but discounting the exceptions listed above, every beer should be poured so that whatever leaves the tap ends up in the glass and the foam is allowed to build into a sturdy, creamy barrier at its peak.
Unfortunately, on a recent barcrawl across town, I noticed an alarming number of headless pints caused by over-pouring and dumping on the part of the bartender, and I can’t tell if it’s just impatience with carbonation or if it’s largely a pre-emptive defensive response against potentially irate customers convinced they’re being cheated.
In the case of the latter, I’d encourage the bartender to build the head beyond its usual position flush with the top of the glass, so that it forms a towering dome above the liquid and allows more room within the glass for liquid. If customers still want to complain, stand your ground on the integrity of a proper pour, firmly but politely explaining that beer head is not a waste of space at the top of the glass, but rather a crucial part of the pint.
If they won’t listen to reason, just remember to remain calm and stay cool… and whatever you do, don’t lose your head.