Monday, 6 June 2011

Losing your head

Many years ago I remember staying in a hotel in South Wales and a fellow guest explaining to me how the sign of a good beer was that it left a series of rings of foam down the glass as you drank it. I remember thinking at the time that this was, at best, far from the whole story, and, at worst, total bullshit. But on the other hand, there is some truth in the corollary, that the absence of a head is usually a bad sign.

I have in the past had gravity-served beer – often Draught Bass – which had little or no head but was perfectly fine, with an almost vinous character. That’s not something you come across very often now, though. Last year there was some discussion in the blogosphere about the Bree Louise in London, a Good Beer Guide listed pub that some rated very highly, serving cask beer that came out looking completely flat. I can’t see many people in the North-West finding that acceptable.

This also seems to be an issue with quite a few bottled beers. For example, I recently had a bottle of White Horse Wayland Smithy where the head had completely disappeared within a couple of minutes of pouring. It also afflicts quite a number of beers from the Marston’s stable – see my review of Pedigree VSOP, although more recent samples have been better. Another one is Budweiser Budvar, regarded as one of the best widely-available lagers, described by Tandleman in the comments here as having “a head that lasted a millisecond”.

Clearly there’s far more to beer than just having a good head, and there are plenty of indifferent beers where the head is about the only positive thing about them. However, regardless of a beer’s inherent qualities, the absence or rapid loss of a head invariably gives a poor impression, and in the vast majority of cases is a sign that there is something amiss.


  1. Quite often over here all you get in the head department in many a pub is a thin layer of scum on top of the beer, the kind of thing that would have been sent back in Prague for not having the commensurate amount of foam.

    In my experience back in the Czech Republic, draught beer usually held its head better than bottled.

  2. However, regardless of a beer’s inherent qualities, the absence or rapid loss of a head invariably gives a poor impression, and in the vast majority of cases is a sign that there is something amiss.

    But the "impression" is just about what people's cultural expectations are.

    In Wiltshire, most of the beers don't come with a head, and if I got one from a Wiltshire brewery I'd be wondering what tricks they'd pulled.

  3. I remember doing a City and Guilds course in cellar management in 1989/1990 as ordered by the brewery. The brewery rep holding it constantly talked of their research showing that customers all wanted "marbling" down the glass when finished. At the time, I pointed out that most of our customers weren't interested in that and many wanted their beer in the same glass to cut down on head so they got a full pint (as in "can you get a whisky in the top of that glass?", "yes", "so top it up with the beer that I'm missing out on, then").

    He wouldn't have it. But then, these were the days when breweries were starting to eradicate ullage as an excuse for bad stock-takes, leading to many managed houses recycling beer from the drip trays.

    I heard from a publican in London last week that it's apparently a byelaw that they have to pour each pint in a new glass for H&S reasons. Anyone care to confirm/deny that this is valid or urban myth?

  4. @JT: I would say beer in Wiltshire (and the rest of the South-West) would typically come with a looser, shallower head than is usual in the North-West, but it certainly wouldn't have no head at all.

    @DP: it is generally now considered good practice, but certainly not a legal requirement. At any beer festival the punters will be getting the same glass refilled several times. Indeed only yesterday I had my glass refilled in a pub. I have been told in all sincerity that the requirement for a fresh glass was to combat the spread of AIDS :-|

  5. I believe Barm's issue with the Bree Louise was that his pint *looked* completely flat but that it *was* completely flat.

  6. Martin, Cambridge6 June 2011 at 20:58

    Nearly all the great pints I remember have had a thin scummy looking head on them, (often in scummy looking basic pubs if I'm honest), but some pubs in the (slightly northern) Amber Valley round Belper do serve a glorious glass of Pedigree or Bass from barrel or jug that brings out fantastic flavour- Dead Poets in Holbrook the best example.

    The very flat from the barrel Marble 3.9% I had in Thomas Street was my beer ofr the year so far.

  7. The important thing is not the head but condition. I agree that the beer in the Bree Louise is totally flat and unpleasant. They should make better use of hard pegs methinks.

  8. Beers should contain a certain amount of dissolved CO2, a product of the fermentation. A beer that doesn't have any CO2 left in is flat, and is horrible.

    When you serve the beer, particularly through a handpump and tight sparkler, but to some extent even on gravity, you're agitating it, which gets small air bubbles in, these then act as nucleation sites and so some CO2 comes out of solution. The resulting foam gives you the head, but actually results in the beer underneath being flatter.

    Unless it's a new cask and very lively, I'd expect a beer served on gravity to have very little head, there should definitely be some bubbles visible but probably not covering the whole surface. It shouldn't taste flat.

    A tight sparkler will result in a thick head on almost any beer (even one that's actually flat will get a bit of a head because some air will be trapped), but will make it taste flatter. Northern beers tend to be brewed with this in mind, but some Southern beers can end up rather dull.

    Another factor is the head retention. This is due to various chemicals in the beer, including some in hops. (Compare soft drinks which contain huge amounts of CO2, but never form a head). Most beers have more than enough head retention but there may be some that do not, without there being any fault in the beer.

    Apparently domestic washing up liquid can cause problems with head retention (no I don't understand this, I'd have expected the opposite effect), so if you find bottled beers you drink at home lose their head quickly, you might want to try rinsing your glasses better.

  9. I watched the 'Dales' programme on tv this evening and saw a pint from the pump with more 'life' than any chemically induced creamflow.
    Oh how I drooled .......
    Let's celebrate REAL Beer not real ale!!
    I'm so old I remember beer that was still alive and needed love when it arrived in the cellar. I'm told we shouldn't live in the past but .......
    Your comments are welcome

  10. I have to say that, although I'm not a fan of big heads on beer, I find a flat-looking beer unappetising. From my home brew days, I recall that thinner beers with less malt would lose their head much more quickly. Can the quality of the ingredients be a factor?

  11. Same as eating you also drink with your eyes. I loath flat looking pints the same as I loath warm beer.
    BTW I was reading yesterday about a local micro brewery which starts selling to Sainburys in September a very strong beer called full bore. Do others have a limit in the strenght of beer they like?
    I dislike strong beer and am happy at about the 5% range.

  12. I think I mixed up two different points in this post – the general issue of heads on draught real ale, and the specific issue of some bottled beers showing poor head retention. And it isn't detergent, as some bottled beers do consistently keep a reasonable head while others lose it quickly.

  13. RedNev,

    Real ales are all still alive, and do need love to some extent. But my experience is that the better quality ones need less attention than the mediocre beers. (I've never worked in a pub cellar but I have helped to look after the beer at beer festivals).

  14. Many years ago I drank Brain's Bitter in Cardiff; there was a correlation between marbling and the quality of the pint.
    It was suggested to me by one individual that poor head retention was often caused by poor cleaning of glasses. I have also noticed this with some beers in Europe (eg Belgium, Czech Republic) in those pubs where they rinse the glass immediately before use, and pour the beer into a wet glass. It takes some doing to get most Czech beers to go flat after a couple of mouthfuls, but I have experienced it in pubs serving in wet glasses

  15. I've recently had some bottled Caledonian 80/- and Deuchars IPA, both of which retain a creamy head completely covering the beer right down to the bottom of the glass.

  16. Just cracked open a bottle of Springhead Roaring Meg, of which I entertained high hopes. Head pretty much entirely gone within a minute of pouring :-(


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