What Is Draft Beer? – Complete Guide

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There is nothing quite like a chilled glass of beer on a warm summer’s day! But, like many of the finer things in life, there is a lot of debate around what makes the perfect beer.

Connoisseurs will tell you that draft beer is the only way to go, but not everyone is as familiar with the differences.

So, what is draft beer? Draft beer is the term used to describe any type of beer that is stored in a barrel and served from a tap. This includes cask ales, lager beers, and keg beers.

Beer connoisseurs believe that draft beer has a better flavor and texture than bottled or canned beers, as it has been matured in bulk in a larger container.

Keen to find out more about the mysterious world of draft beers? Then read on!

What Is Draft Beer?

In recent years, the production and market for artisan and craft beers have quite literally exploded! While the consumption of other types of alcohol is in decline, the rise in microbreweries has taken everyone by surprise.

Many of these smaller companies specialize in making draft beers, keeping up age-old traditional brewing methods.

But what exactly is draft beer, and why do beer lovers prefer to drink this type of beer?

Draft beer is stored in a keg or barrel after it has been brewed, and is served straight into glasses from the barrel using a tap or pump.

So, instead of being brewed and then decanted into bottles or cans, it is stored in bulk and served directly from the barrel.

If you’ve ever been into a bar and been poured a glass of beer from a tap, it is most likely to have been draft beer.

There are several advantages to storing beer in this way. Keeping the brewed beer in a large barrel means that the flavors will become more rounded and well developed – this is a process called bulk maturation.

Beer served straight from the barrel is crisp, fresh, and has a depth of flavor that is hard to achieve in bottled or canned beers.

Draft Vs Draught Beer

You might sometimes see draft beer labeled as draught beer, and the two names are used interchangeably to refer to the same thing. The word ‘draught’ is more common in the UK, while draft is normally used in North America.

The name of draft beer has interesting historical origins. Until the late 1700s, beer was transported on wagons and served directly from the barrel.

The Old English word ‘dragan,’ meaning to carry or pull, was adopted to refer to beer that had been transported on wagons.

If you’ve got an interest in horses, these two words will be very familiar to you. Large horses such as Shire horses and Clydesdales were used to pull wagons of beer, and these breeds are still referred to as draft or draught breeds to this day.

If you’ve ever been lucky enough to see the famous Budweiser Clydesdale parade, you will know how much pride breweries took in their team of draft horses!

How Is Draft Beer Stored?

Draft beer is stored in a solid container called a barrel, cask, keg, or kegerator. In the past, these would have been made from wood, but the modern-day version is normally made from aluminum or stainless steel.

Barrels for draft beer come in a range of different sizes, from large casks supplied by the big beer manufacturers through to smaller batches made by small artisan breweries.

But whatever the size of the barrel, there are a few elements that are vital to ensure the success of a draft beer. Firstly, the cask must be stored in a room with a low temperature.

This is because the beer inside the cask will not have been pasteurized, and high temperatures can cause the yeasts in the beer to become more active.

This not only alters the flavor of the beer but also increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the beer. So a beer that is too warm will be foamy, leading to a loss in flavor.

On the other hand, a draft beer that is too cold will have very little carbon dioxide and will be flat and flavorless.

The perfect temperature to store draft beer is 38°F. This can be difficult to maintain at home, but a purpose-made kegerator system will help to keep your draft beer at the ideal storage temperature.

Draft beer is also stored under pressure inside the barrel, and getting this precisely right is key to retaining the flavor and characteristics of the beer. Pressure that is too high or too low will cause the beer to be too foamy or flat.

Luckily, the kegerator system will also help to regulate the pressure of draft beer. Most draft beers are best stored at 10-12 PSI, but this may differ slightly with some artisan beers.

The final key to storing draft beer is to limit movement as much as possible. Don’t be tempted to roll your barrels around, as they will take a long time to settle down afterward!

Be gentle with your barrels of draft beer, as excessive movement will cause the beer to become foamy and explosive – pretty much like when you shake a can of beer before opening it, but on a large scale!

Moving the beer will also cause sediment to rise from the bottom of the barrel, resulting in cloudy beer. This can take several days to settle back down.

How Is Draft Beer Served?

In bars, draft beer is served through a complex series of pipes, pumps, and chillers.

The barrels are all stored in a specialist cellar, keeping them at the perfect temperature. The taps for draft beer are located on the bar, enabling bar staff to pour the perfect glass of beer.

Depending on the type of draft beer, it may be served directly from the barrel as it is, or it might be chilled through a cooler as it is served. The vast majority of draft beers are served at 38°F, the same temperature as they are stored.

When draft beers are poured from the tap, they should come out slightly fizzy – this gives you that delicious foam on the beer that we all adore. 

This occurs because the beer is pressurized within the barrel, creating a carbonation process as the beer is served.

One factor that is very important to beer aficionados is the glass in which their artisan draft beer is served. Brewers don’t go to all that trouble for you to just pour that beer into any old glass!

The optimal glass for draft beer does depend slightly on the type of beer you are serving, but as a general rule, you need a wide-mouthed, slightly curved glass that also traps aromas and carbonation within the glass.

The topic of the best glass for draft beer is a huge topic that deserves an article all to itself, but if you were to pick just one glass we’d say you can’t go wrong with a traditional pint glass!

Is All Beer On Tap Draft Beer?

There is a lot of confusing terminology around the world of beer, and it can be hard to figure out what the difference is between draft beer, keg beer, cask ale, and all the other beer on tap we see on offer.

But don’t panic, as we’ve got it all figured out for you!

The term draft beer is used as an all-encompassing way to describe any type of beer that is served directly from a large vessel via a tap.

So, this could include a real ale served using a hand-pull system, or a light beer poured via a pressurized carbonation system. If it comes from a tap, it is a draft beer!

Within the draft beer category, there are several subcategories of draft beer:

  • Cask ale is aged, or conditioned, in the barrel through a process called secondary fermentation. It is poured using a hand-operated hydraulic pump.
  • Keg beer is pasteurized beer stored under pressure in a metal keg and dispensed using gas pressure.
  • Lager beer is produced using a different method than ales and is normally pale or golden in color. Most lager is served using a pressurized gas system.

One thing that is for sure is that a draft beer should be served straight from a tap.

So, if a can or bottle of beer is labeled as draft beer, this is a marketing gimmick! Manufacturers use this to make consumers think they are drinking a high-quality product.

While these beers may well have been bulk matured in a barrel, the fact that they are sold in bottles or cans means that they are not true draft beers.

If you want a true draft beer, it should have been poured from the barrel just minutes before you consume it.

Luckily, these days you don’t have to visit a bar to have a draft beer, as the equipment needed to store and serve all types of artisan and craft beers is now available for home consumption!

Draft Vs Bottled Beer

So, now we know what draft beer is, let’s find out what all the fuss is about! Beer is stored and sold in barrels for practical reasons, as it is easier to transport in bulk.

But for a bar to serve draft beer, it needs to meet some pretty strict storage conditions, and ensure that enough beer is sold for a barrel to be consumed fairly quickly once it is opened.

Selling bottles and cans of beer would be far easier for bars to manage, so why do they bother with draft beers? Quite simply, it all comes down to taste and quality!

When beer is stored in kegs, barrels, or casks, it means that the flavor of the beer has the opportunity to develop fully. This is called bulk maturation and gives draft beer a smoother and more rounded flavor than its pre-packed counterparts.

This method also allows for some processes to be used that would not be possible with canned and bottled beer.

For example, real ales undergo a secondary fermentation within the cask itself and are served without any further filtering. This is only possible because the beer is stored in this way.

Another advantage of storing beer in kegs is that sunlight is blocked, preventing the beer from degrading in bright light. It is also tightly sealed against oxygen and is also easier to keep at a constant cool temperature.

So, what does all this do to the taste and texture of the beer?

When it comes to artisan craft beers, especially those which undergo secondary fermentation in the barrel, the difference is clear. The taste is much fuller and more rounded, with bottled ales sometimes tasting watery in comparison.

This is thanks to not only the secondary fermentation process but also because the beer is allowed to mature in a larger quantity. This is the secret to any good quality form of alcohol, be it beer, wine, port, or even strong spirits such as whiskey.

Draft beer also has a different texture from bottled and canned beers. When draft beer is served, it is pulled through a tap line and poured into a glass. This makes it smoother and slightly less fizzy than bottled or canned beers.

But there is one oddity that is hard to put your finger on when it comes to draft beer vs canned and bottled beer.

It is common for the large beer manufacturers to sell the same beer on tap in bars as is sold in cans and bottles at the grocery store. However, beer drinkers will swear by the fact that the draft version of the same beer tastes better.

But why is this, when they are made in exactly the same way? The answer most beer fans will give you is: “Just because it’s better on draft!”

Whether it is the changes that occur when beer is stored in bulk, the smoothness that comes from the way it is poured, or just the fact that it is served in a bar in a chilled glass, the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of beers are better when served on tap rather than bottled or canned.

Why Does My Draft Beer Taste Bad?

If you’ve ever had a draft beer that is not quite right, the likelihood is that it has not been stored or served correctly. This may be because it was not rested adequately after transportation, or it was stored at the wrong temperature.

Another common problem with draft beers is that the equipment used to pour them is not kept clean. Tap lines should be flushed and cleaned regularly, as stale beer can taint them and cause your drink to taste unpleasant.

Draft beer that is served in the wrong type of glass, or a dirty glass, will be flat and tasteless. This is a common problem in glasses that are washed in a glass washer, as they develop a film of soap on the surface of the glass.

And finally, if a bar does not sell draft beers in large enough quantities, it will start to deteriorate in the barrel. Draft beer is intended to be consumed as freshly as possible, and is normally only sold by bars that serve a high turnover of drinks. 

If you’re not sure what to order, look at what everyone else is drinking! The most popular drinks will always have the freshest flavor, as they are poured more often and are not left to sit in the barrel for days on end.

And if your freshly-poured glass of draft beer does not taste quite right, don’t be afraid to take it back for the bartender to check.

Most bar staff take pride in their artisan and craft beers, and will be happy to check and replace a drink that is not 100% perfect!

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