When thinking about beer, the first thing that comes to mind is probably a cold one from your favorite brewery – but what many people don’t realize is that there’s so much more than just regular or craft beers. Enter draft beer – a type of brew with enhanced flavors, aromas, and carbonation levels due to its unique methods of preparation. Draft beer has been enjoyed by pub-goers for decades and it’s time you learn more about this tantalizing malt beverage. Read on as we shed light on this exciting world of draft beer – what is draft beer, how it’s made, and why you should consider adding it to your drink list when enjoying a good pint.
What Is Draft Beer?
|Beer served on tap from a keg or cask
|Fresher than bottled or canned beer
|Reason for Freshness
|Shorter turnaround from brewery to bar
|Carbonation, cooling, pressure control
|Impact of Dispensing
|Affects taste and texture
- Color: Varies depending on the type of beer (pale lager, dark stout, etc.)
- Alcohol Content: Also varies depending on the type of beer (usually 4-6% ABV)
- Temperature: Served chilled, typically around 40-45°F
- Glassware: Traditionally served in a pint glass or mug
- Popularity: Widely enjoyed in pubs, bars, and restaurants around the world
- Benefits: Some claim it has a smoother taste and retains more flavor than bottled beer
The origins of drinking beer date back thousands of years, but preserving and serving it in optimal condition has long presented challenges. In ancient times, beer was stored in clay or wooden vessels. This exposed the beer to oxygen and light, compromising its freshness and stability.
A major development came in the late 18th century, when Englishman Joseph Braham invented the beer engine. This device used pressurized carbon dioxide to push beer from a cask through a tube and out of a tap. The beer engine allowed pubs to store casks in cool cellars while serving beer upstairs. This enhanced preservation and enabled larger quantities to be served.
In the late 19th century, pressurized beer dispensing systems emerged as an alternative to the beer engine. Under this method, beer was pushed using pressurized air, carbon dioxide, or a mixture of the two. Pressurized systems allowed more precise carbonation levels and helped minimize oxygen exposure. This extended the beer’s shelf life compared to the beer engine.
Today, the terms “draft beer” or “draught beer” refer to beer served from a cask or pressurized keg rather than a bottle or can. While draft beer was originally distinguished based on its serving method alone, it has since evolved into a broad term for the category of beer served fresh on tap.
There are two main modern methods of dispensing draft beer: cask and keg. Cask ale refers to unfiltered and unpasteurized beer served from a cask by gravity, carbon dioxide pressure, or a hand pump. Keg beer is filtered, pasteurized, and served using pressurized carbon dioxide or a gas blend.
Cask Conditioning and Service: With cask ales, active fermentation finishes taking place within the cask, naturally carbonating the beer. Cask beer is unfiltered and unpasteurized, creating a fresh, full-bodied taste. Casks are transported and stored carefully to avoid disturbing sediment. In the pub, casks are kept in cellar temperatures between 11-13°C. Taps and lines from casks must be cleaned meticulously to avoid contamination. Cask beer is served only with the aid of gravity, hand pumps, or low carbon dioxide pressure.
Keg Conditioning and Service: Modern kegs are stainless steel vessels that hold beer and pressurized carbon dioxide. Kegs can vary in size from 5 liters to 50 liters. The beer is filtered and pasteurized after initial fermentation. Kegs are chilled and carbonated before transport to publicans. Optimal tap temperature is 3-4°C. Long draw lines and taps are needed to maintain carbonation levels on the way to the glass. Gas mixtures may be used to fine tune carbonation and head formation.
Draft vs. Packaged Beer
There are several key differences between draft and bottled or canned beer:
- Flavor: Draft beer contains no preservatives and has not undergone pasteurization, which can strip some flavors and aromas. The lack of light exposure also prevents “skunky” flavors in draft beer. Beer served from a cask or keg thus provides a fresher, richer taste.
- Storage: Bottled and canned beer is designed to have a longer shelf life. However, improper storage like warm temperatures or light exposure can still cause packaged beer to deteriorate quickly. Kegs and casks preserve freshness but must also be handled and stored properly.
- Freshness: Draft beer’s shorter time from brewery to consumer means fresher beer with a fuller “hoppy” character. Bottled or canned beer is usually at least a few weeks old before consumption. However, craft breweries are increasingly canning, bottling, and shipping beer in ways that maximize freshness.
- Temperature: Draft beer is served chilled, optimizing its flavor. Bottled beer can warm to undesirable temperatures during shipping and storage if not refrigerated. However, improvements in packaging help maintain cooler temperatures.
- Carbonation: The CO2 pressure system used for most draft beer allows for precise carbonation levels. Bottled and canned beer absorbs CO2 during packaging, but exact volumes are harder to control.
- Environmental impact: Reusable kegs and casks produce less waste compared to disposable bottles and cans. However, recent improvements in recycling make bottles and cans more eco-friendly.
Draft beer’s use of reusable kegs provides environmental advantages over the single-use glass bottles and aluminum cans used in packaged beer. Refillable stainless steel kegs last for years and require far fewer raw materials. They also weigh less, reducing transportation emissions.
However, bottled and canned beer has become more sustainable with the rise in recycling programs. Glass bottles can be reused up to 15 times and aluminum cans are infinitely recyclable. Most aluminum cans and around 30% of glass bottles in the United States are currently recycled.
There are also efforts to improve keg sustainability. Some craft breweries use recyclable single-use kegs made from recycled PET plastic to reduce shipping footprints. In Germany, eco-friendly kegs are up to 15% lighter to optimize fuel efficiency during transport. Ongoing innovations in brewing and packaging aim to reduce the carbon footprint across all beer formats.
Recent decades have seen numerous innovations transform draft beer dispensing:
- Stainless steel kegs revolutionized durability and longevity starting in the 1960s. The shift from wooden to synthetic kegs also improved beer hygiene.
- MICROMATIC introduced couplers in the 1950s allowing one-handed keg connections. Other coupling advances simplified changing kegs.
- Flowmeters introduced in the late 20th century help publicans track pours and manage inventory. Modern smart flowmeters provide data on waste, cleaning issues, and beer freshness.
- Temperature and gas blend controllers give publicans precision over both cooling and carbonation levels from the keg to the tap. This maximizes draft beer quality.
- Innovations like magnetic floating taps and bottom-up dispensing aim to eliminate oxygen contact during pouring, improving flavor. Draft systems also utilize foaming nozzles for smoother pours.
- Wireless smart sensors monitor draft line cleanliness and beer conditions in real-time, reducing waste while safeguarding freshness.
- Direct-draw systems allow breweries to serve beer directly from fermentation or bright tanks without kegs or bottles, providing maximum freshness.
Cultural and Economic Aspects
Serving beer on draft has long played an important social and economic role:
- The communal experience of pubs and bars centers around enjoying fresh draft beer. Draught beer fuels social gatherings and conversation.
- Beer festivals and other events highlighting specialized craft brews feature beer served directly from kegs or casks. This allows maximum appreciation of different beer styles.
- Draft systems allow bars and restaurants to expand their offerings and satisfy customer demand. Unique or rotating draft selections attract new patrons.
- Widespread domestic draft beer availability enables smaller craft breweries to reach consumers directly. This challenges the market dominance of major bottled beer producers.
- In the UK, “real ale” cask beer is considered part of cultural heritage. Cask ale pubs foster community and preservation of tradition.
- The higher profit margins on draft beer sales make up an increasing portion of revenue for bars, contributing to hospitality industry growth.
Health and Regulation
Despite misperceptions, draft beer does not have additional health risks compared to bottled beer. However, a few considerations are unique to draft:
- Because it is not pasteurized, contamination could occur if draft line cleaning protocols are not followed properly. Beer line cleaning systems help minimize this risk.
- Draft beer relies on refrigeration to inhibit microbial growth. Power outages or equipment issues could lead to increased bacteria levels if not addressed promptly.
- Due to its lower carbonation, cask ale generally contains slightly lower levels of dissolved CO2 compared to keg or bottled beer. This may make cask ale easier to drink in larger quantities.
- In the United States, draft beer makes up less than 10% of overall beer sales, limiting its impact on public health. The highest consumption occurs in beer-centric cultures like Germany and the Czech Republic.
- Sale and distribution of draft beer is overseen by alcohol regulation agencies like the TTB in the US. Licensing,Excise taxes, container requirements, and labeling mandate.
Global Consumption Trends
- Europe has the highest levels of draft beer consumption globally, led by the Czech Republic at 80% of beer volume drunk as draft. Other top markets are Ireland, UK, Germany, Austria and Spain.
- Draft beer accounts for 20% of beer consumed in the United States. Craft brewpubs and bars focusing on draft selections are driving growth.
- Australia is the most mature market for draft beer in the Asia Pacific region
- In the Czech Republic, beer is deeply ingrained in the culture. Pubs center around socializing over fresh draught beer, usually Pilsner-style lagers from local breweries. Low prices and emphasis on beer as a daily refreshment drive high per capita consumption, over 140 liters annually.
- Ireland has a rich pub culture and the highest per capita beer consumption in Europe. Over 50% of beer in Ireland is drank as draft, especially stouts like Guinness. Craft beer growth is now diversifying choices.
- In Germany, beer purity laws mandate that draft beer be dispensed only from stainless steel kegs or tanks. Germany has a declining number of small traditional beer halls but features big tent beer festivals.
- Spain’s social cafe culture leads to 60% of beer being consumed on draft, especially light lagers like Mahou or Estrella. Craft brewing is slowly emerging but still limited.
- The UK is historically tied to cask ale served in pubs. Cask beer saw declines but is recovering on renewed consumer interest in traditional methods. The real ale segment approaches 20% of UK draft sales.
- In the US, widespread refrigeration and modern sports bar chains accelerated draft beer. Craft brewers rely on draft for exposure. Draft beer is now projected to reach nearly 30% of American beer sales by 2025.
- Australia has one of the most mature draft beer cultures in the Asia Pacific, with 70% of beer sold on draft. Outdoor beer garden pubs drive year-round demand. Light lagers dominate but craft beers are growing.