CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Last week I found myself, as I often am, bellied up to the bar in a craft-beer nirvana, typically boasting a 100 or so craft beers on tap. This time it was in The Gingerman bar in midtown New York City.
I started the evening with a nice, easy-drinking light ale from a local brewer. But just as I was about to fall into multi-tap hypnosis, I glanced at the bottled-beer list and discovered a rare Belgian gem from a very small brewery in a very small town. It wasn't a hard decision to choose a beer called "Freddy," from Picobrouwerij Alvinne, a dark Flemish sour beer that is really yummy.
I was enjoying my Freddy and thinking how fortunate I was to have noticed the bottle list, when I started to ponder how American craft-beer culture has become so tap-centric. Beer bars are often judged on their sheer number of taps, or how often they rotate beers on tap.
Don't get me wrong; those are good metrics that can help make or break a craft-beer pub, but what about all of those great, often classic bottled beers that are just standing there totally shunned? Have we let tap madness distract us from the bottle list? It's a bit ironic in a way because in American swill-beer culture, draft beer is considered the cheap stuff while bottles and cans are the preferred delivery method.
Many of the world's most interesting beers are best served from the bottle even though draft versions are often available. Bavarian hefeweizen is an example. You will rarely find a bar in Bavaria serving hefeweizen on tap because the name hefeweizen describes "wheat beer with yeast."
Bottled hefe is packaged with a little bit of yeast and is allowed to naturally condition (carbonate) the beer via a small amount of fermentation in the bottle. The yeast settles to the bottom of the bottle, but is roused up when properly poured, enhancing the beer with its cloudy goodness.
When hefeweizen is kegged, the yeast (if any) settles to the bottom and is not delivered to the glass when served on tap. There are other qualities to bottle-conditioned beers that can't be duplicated in the keg; natural carbonation, souring and cellaring are other clear advantages reserved to bottled beers. Orval, a Trappist beer and one of the finest in the world, is only available in its little 33 centiliter bowling-pin-shaped bottle; the beer geek who won't look past the tap handles will surely miss out.
There are specific types of beer that are best or are only available in bottled format. Here is a short guide (hefewiezen was already discussed):
Belgian specialty ales: Belgian brewers do their best work in bottles, from complex "holy" Trappist ales to the wildly effervescent "devilish" beers such as Duvel. Many are corked.
Sour ales: Belgian lambic beers, Flemish sour red ales and American "brett" soured beers all show their best character from the bottle.
Strong ales: American and English barleywine, American specialty strong ales and also beers that are designed to be or are suited to be "cellared" like a last year's Sierra Nevada/Russian River collaboration.
Purchasing bottled beers comes with certain caveats. Bottles are more prone to what is called "trade abuse," meaning that they could be mishandled by anyone in the supply chain, right up to the point when the beer hits your glass.
Bottles that have been kept in excessive sunlight or fluorescent light may taste or smell skunky. If stored warm or hot, it may take on oxidative (cardboard) flavors. Don't let that scare you off; draft beer comes with its own baggage. It's always a good idea to try to purchase or imbibe your bottled, canned or kegged beer from a reputable source that knows their beer.
For more on the craft of beer, see Rich Ireland's "Beers to You" blog at thegazz.com.