Why does my beer taste bad?

Today’s brewers spend a great deal of time and effort trying to create products that they think people will buy and enjoy.  Let’s assume our imaginary brewer has created what he/she thinks will be the “magnum opus” of the brewery’s creations; or it’s just your favorite, “everyday” beer.  Now, let’s assume that they’ve shipped the beer via a refrigerated container to their distributor and that they have a contract with that distributor that requires their beer be stored cold at the warehouse.  Our distributor then delivers the beer to your neighborhood bar in a timely fashion.  Great!  The beer should taste awesome.  Unfortunately, there are a whole host of problems to overcome at the bar level.  The unfortunate thing is that the problems are being created by the bar itself.  Here are the two most common reasons why the beer you know tastes great doesn’t taste great at the bar.

  1. Dirty Beer Lines/System – The lines and other parts of the draft system are responsible for delivering the beer from the keg to your glass.  Unfortunately, if they’re not maintained correctly, they can ruin all the effort that it took to get that beer to the bar in good condition.  Bacteria and wild yeast can grow inside the lines and taint the beer on the way to the glass.  It happens that quickly.  Two common symptoms (besides just tasting off) of dirty lines are sourness and diacetyl.  Diacetyl is that buttery smell associated with movie theater popcorn.  It’s a natural part of the brewing process and is present in minute amounts but can be added in large amounts via dirty lines.  Lines should be cleaned regularly by a line cleaning professional.  Most bars have a line cleaner, but go with the cheapest guy available.  And when it comes to line cleaning, you get what you pay for.  (Line cleaning requirements vary state to state.)
  2. Poorly Cleaned Glassware – The glass you drink out of may be sanitary, but it may not be “Beer Clean.”  A beer clean glass should allow for good head retention during the entire drinking experience.  It should be free from any oils (lipstick, grease, fingerprints) and any other debris.  There is nothing worse than getting a beer you know you love and having it taste like soap: the head instantly gone, your nose filled with a chemical aroma, and a mouth full of soapy residue you can’t drink away.  The main culprit here is a chemical dishwasher using too much chemical.  Chemical companies often give bars the dishwasher in exchange for buying the cleaning chemicals.  And of course, they recommend chemical levels designed to use as much chemical as possible.  The glass is sanitized, but often still has lipstick or other oils clinging to it.  They don’t care if your beer tastes horrible; they get to sell more chemicals.

    The ideal situation is a 3 sink wash system.  Most bars don’t use this as it’s space and time consuming.  The next best option is a high temperature dishwasher.  It washes at a high temperature that uses less harsh materials and melts the oils off the glass.  You get a glass that’s closer to beer clean.  If you want to go the final step, the ultimate way to ensure a beer clean glass (and one I’m happy to say is becoming more fashionable) is to have a glass rinser at the  taps.  It squirts a cold jet of water into the glass, giving it a final rinse while chilling it down.  How can you tell if your glass is clean? Well, your beer tastes good.  It also has the classic lacing seen here:

    You just drank a great tasting beer from a “beer clean” glass.

It’s infuriating when bars who claim to be “beer bars” go to so much effort to buy great products then abuse those products on the way to the customer.  They’re doing a disservice to the beer community and most importantly, to their paying customers.  If you find bars where you get great tasting product that has obviously come through clean beer lines and has been served in a clean glass, thank the managers.  When you encounter bad tasting beer that you know should taste great, fill out a comment card with a well thought out complaint.  If your beer is unpalatable, send it back.  And if you notice no improvement?  Stop going there.  Bad beer service will only get corrected if it’s impacting the bottom line.  Please, reward bars that take care of the product and care enough about their customers to sell them the best tasting and handled beer.

(All links are for illustrative purposes only, and are not intended to sponsor or advertise anyone’s products.)

3 thoughts on “Why does my beer taste bad?

  1. Good post! I’m going to an “off-flavors” seminar by a couple of local brewers tomorrow, but this post made me realize that I often don’t think as much about bar/server procedures when experiencing a pint. Another thing I thought of: sometimes when I detect odd-tasting beers at a bar/restaurant, it’s a bit yeasty, which can be the fault of the brewer or the establishment, I suppose.

    1. Yeah. The beer may be fine in the keg, but the lines can quickly make the beer in your glass taste poorly. It makes the equation much more complicated than: Good beer vs. Bad beer.

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