Bottle or tap? When choosing a beer, I used to think: "Tap, of course. Always." Yet, in Charles Bamforth's book Beer Is Proof God Loves Us, the professor of malting and brewing sciences at UC Davis was asked by a reporter, "If there are 50 beers on tap, what do you order?" His defiant answer was, "Something out of a bottle."
Bamforth backs up his decision by citing all the things that often go wrong with beer in a tap system: staleness; bacterial infection because of unclean lines leading to things like diacetyl (a compound that causes beer to smell like butterscotch or buttered popcorn). I decided to call him to discuss.
When I asked him what, in an ideal beer world, would be his choice drink, Bamforth (who is British) told me, "My favorite style is beer on draft in England from a cask." The ideal beer, he says, requires a convergence of factors. "If you have only one or two on tap and the person knows what they're doing and at the end of the day they're cleaning the lines and then rerunning the beer through the taps to expunge any cleaning solution, at the end of the day, it has the potential to be the best."
Which perhaps explains why beer in Japan has tasted so good to me. A friend who worked in bars in Tokyo told me that it was automatic that the lines would be cleaned nightly. Bars and restaurants he knows in the States, he says, rarely bother. Likewise, it can explain why I've occasionally had transcendent pours of less heralded beers like PBR. Clean lines and a fresh keg can make a world of difference.
To get the best beer, Bamforth finds himself doing detective work every time he enters an establishment. The first question he asks: "Which is the beer you sell the most of?" This minimizes the risk of a beer having sat in the keg for a long time. "I'm always suspicious of places that have too many beers on tap," he says.
Also, he recommends, drink locally when possible. Bamforth "virtually never selects an imported beer anywhere, for the reason that there's an above-average chance that it has aged unprofitably." Even bottles that have traveled far are pretty much out of the question.
"The ironic thing," Bamforth says, "is that perhaps the best nonkeg vessel for transporting beer is a can." This explains why many microbreweries are shifting from bottles to cans for their microbrews.
So, bottle or tap? Apparently the best answer is neither.