I’ve just seen yet another Instagram post I “may like” from a guy who scored some great beer. In this case, it’s Elaborate Metaphor, a delicious American Pale Ale from Burlington Beer Company. This guy has poured his beer into a 16 oz glass, but rather than leaving a bit of space at the top, and pouring vigorously, he has painstakingly set about having the liquid beer itself fill 100% of the vessel, eclipsing the glass with hazy, hop juiciness.
It’s a sexy picture. The problem is, he’s screwing himself out of the full experience.
Since June, I’ve been working in the tasting room at Bissell Brothers. We serve 5 and 10 oz pours of beer, and those beers are served in glasses 2 oz bigger than their filling to make room for a head. Since we’re serving primarily hop-forward beers, that head is integral to the experience of the beverage; aromatics play a huge role.
Jake Austin of Austin Street in Portland echoed the sentiment. “Brewers put a lot of time and effort into making sure their beer has a pleasant aroma, so pouring a beer without head is doing a disservice to the brewery and their work.”
The best beers offer a distinction between the “nose” and the “flavor”. That distinction lends a complexity to the drinking experience. It makes for a more fulfilling and interesting beer. For example, you might get a ton of apricot aroma in the nose of an IPA, but when you taste it those apricot notes are still there but are complemented by a strong push of grass and melon. Brewers are pulling a greater variety of flavors out of hops than ever before, so getting the full picture is important. As Jake put it, “IPAs rely heavily on hop aromatics, so when a beer is poured to the very top of the glass not only is there no foam pushing aromatics out, there is also no space in the glass for the beer to open up.”
But it’s not just hoppy beers that benefit from a little breathing room, German wheat beers are traditionally served with at least two fingers of head, and stouts should give one a mustache for a reason; you’re smelling it and tasting it all the way down.
Even with wild beers and sours, it’s important to pour with purpose and let the beer swirl a bit. Lambics and Belgian witbiers are often so lively that a narrow stream from height is all that’s required to open up a head, but many wild ales (and particularly kettle-soured beers) have a quickly-disappearing head, so it’s best to pour steadily down the side of one’s glass and let it all swirl. The more hydrophobic the chemical composition of the head, the longer the foam will stick around before dissolving into the beer.
This is all to say, please pour some head into your beer. But for his part, Jake Austin isn’t worried about this whole top-of-the-glass thing being more than a trend. “For every ignorant pour I see on Instagram there is at least one person calling them out on it.”
I’ve written in the past about the burgeoning beer culture of collector-versus-drinker, but this particular development really riles me. It amounts to making an aesthetic choice based on the look of the beer, rather than having any focus on aroma and flavor. I like observing the visual characteristics of a beer as much as the next person, but I prefer drinking it, and getting the most I can out of the experience.