Serious Eats: Drinks

Ask a Cicerone: Which is Better, Draft or Bottled Beer?

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Does beer from a tap beat beer from a bottle? [Photo: Wes Rowe]

When it's beer o'clock and you head to the bar, do you order from the bottle list or always opt for draft beer? Is one better than the other? We asked our crew of beer experts about the advantages and risks of draft vs. bottled beer (and also what they think about craft breweries packaging beer in cans.)

Here's what they had to say.

"In most cases, so long as the bottles or kegs and draft lines are well kept, I think there's little difference. But if the beer is in a green or clear bottle, then you can run the chance of the beer being skunky, in which case it's safer to go draft. Aside from that, there are a couple of situations where I'd go for one or the other. If a beer is strong and can benefit from aging, or if it's a yeast-driven beer like a Trappist ale or a German Weizenbock, personally I think it shows better out of a bottle. On the flip side, if there's a beer you should drink spanking fresh, like a dry hopped pale ale, there's a good chance it will be better out of a keg."—Jesse Vallins (The Saint Tavern)

"Some beers, like a barleywine or other higher alcohol beers, really benefit from aging in bottles. Other beers, I usually prefer on draft because they may be more likely to be fresh. That being said, once the bar or restaurant that is dispensing the beer has it, you don't necessarily know what condition the tap lines are in or how long the beer has been sitting there. For tap beers, there are certain bacteria that can infect tap lines and cause off flavors and rancid buttery aromas. Look out for characteristics you wouldn't expect and ask the staff if you're not sure. My absolute preference is to drink beer directly from the brewery if I can."—Lindsay Bohanske (Love Beer, Love Food)

"Places where I will most likely order bottled beer and cans instead of draft: bars with more than 15 taps. While some of these places like the Mayor of Old Town in Fort Collins pride themselves on regular line maintenance, most can't keep up with the extensive line cleaning necessary. In these cases, pass me a local bottle or can."—Becki Kregoski (Bites 'n Brews)

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[Photo: Orr Shtuhl]

"The first thing to point out here is that no matter which packaging a brewery uses, improper storage by the distributor or retailer can ruin the experience of the drinker. That said, draft is great for beer that's best consumed fresh, like light lagers and hoppy beers (assuming you're at a bar that keeps their lines clean). Bottles are great for beers that do well with some maturation time, in particular many Belgian beers are best after 'refermenting' in the bottle and maturing for a couple months. And please: let's have more beer in cans! Cans are better than bottles for the environment and for the beer. Cans are easily recyclable, light weight, and they stack well. Trucks transporting cans save lots of gas. Aluminum also blocks light from hitting the beer, which can otherwise cause skunky off flavors."—Chris Cohen (San Francisco Homebrewers Guild)

"The very short answer is that in most cases due to the expedited distribution of kegs vs. bottles and the price per ounce difference between kegged beer and bottled beer, draft is better. The real answer is far more nuanced. I tell every consulting client I have that draft lines should be saved for beers that truly benefit from being served on draft. For example hop-dependent styles like most craft-brewed American Pale Ales benefit tremendously from being served as fresh as possible. Often beer programs that are run by sommeliers/wine experts tend to place an emphasis on fermentation-driven beer styles like saison, Abbey-style ales, and wheat beers. These styles frequently feature higher-than-typical volumes of dissolved carbon dioxide, recipes calibrated toward bottle conditioning and the intentional lack of filtration, and therefore are not flattered by serving on draft. Hefeweizens and Witbiers, for example, are styles that are to some degree dependent on the integration of their lees to achieve the desired texture, flavor and aroma. Nearly all modern keg designs feature a down-tube, that causes the beer to dispense from bottom to top. Therefore the lees, which fall to the bottom of the keg, are dispensed first and after the first few pints you are left selling a beer that is missing its defining characteristic."—Sayre Piotrkowski (Hog's Apothecary)

"It all depends on the beer and the situation. Kegged beer is kept cold for the majority of its life. Additionally, kegs usually aren't pasteurized. This means that kegged beer can be a highly fresh and flavorful option. The biggest problem with kegs and kegged beer isn't actually the keg, but the retailer. Retailers often view line cleaning as a good place to save money and thus have poorly cleaned beer lines. I don't care how good the beer is in that keg, it can totally be ruined by the last 30 feet of its journey from the keg to your glass. Knowing who takes care of their lines properly will go a long way towards helping you decide if you want draft beer or bottles. However, when it comes to Belgian beers, I may choose bottles over draft. Belgians use those thick glass bottles: they can carbonate the beers to a much higher level in bottle than they can in the keg. It's often a characteristic of the beer that gets overlooked, but carbonation is a big part of the flavor equation. Part of the joy of drinking Belgian beer is that intense carbonation and thick, fluffy head. Belgian beers also tend to be bottle conditioned allowing for a more elegant bubble and that added bit of flavor that the process gives you. Creating keg-conditioned secondary fermentation can be a very tricky process that most breweries won't even attempt."—Christopher Barnes (I Think About Beer and Columbia Distributing)

Atlas Brew Works Kegs

[Photo: Brian Oh]

"I'll choose draft whenever I can provided the bar I'm at does a good job maintaining their draft lines. Domestic draft beer is almost always un-pasteurized, allowing the beer to have optimum flavor. I'll only pick up a bottle or can if there's a born-on or best-by date so I can be sure what I'm buying is fresh. Look on the bottom of cans for 'canned on' dates. Even though they have a bit of a stigma, I'll choose a can over a bottle—you can think of cans as mini-kegs—they completely shut out light and oxygen, ensuring your beer is at its best."—Sean Coughlin (Genesee Brew House)

"Almost all draft beer is unpasteurized demanding immediate service and proper storage to avoid spoilage. The upside is that the beer likely has more delicate flavors and aromas left intact than the pasteurized version found in cans or bottles, as pasteurization can negatively affect flavor. A properly balanced, cooled, cleaned and maintained draft system will deliver the freshest and most flavorful beer. A mishandled or neglected draft system might pour beer that is overcarbonated, flat, foamy, or even sour from bacterial infections in dirty faucets or beer lines. Seek out establishments that take their taps seriously and stick with bottles if you see faucets being submerged in beer. Avoid clear or green bottles which undoubtedly house light struck beer. Brown bottles are preferable, but the surest way to protect packaged beer is in pitch-black airtight cans. Sure, cans might not look as fancy as bottles, but what we really care about is the liquid inside."—Chris Kline (Schnuck Markets)

"With the exception of some bottle-conditioned or wild ales, I have a slight preference for draft beer over bottled beer simply because kegs seem to be, on average, fresher. Freshness is critically important for most craft beer, and thankfully more breweries are now date-coding their bottles. I'm always careful to observe the 'bottled on' or 'enjoy by' dates when buying beer; you'd be surprised to see how much old beer is sitting on retailer's shelves. Cans are becoming a more popular vessel for craft beer, but there's still some lingering stigma against the packaging. The prejudice is mostly unfounded, and cans are superior to bottles in a few ways. Cans prevent any exposure to light (which will quickly degrade a beer), and often contain less dissolved oxygen than bottles (though it really comes down to the equipment the brewery uses). Cans or bottles or draft, all craft beer is best when poured into a glass. Drinking from the bottle or can is cheating yourself out of the full aroma of your beer."—John Verive (Beer of Tomorrow, Beer Paper LA)

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