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Belgian Beer on Tap


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In the last few years it seems like a few of the traditionally bottle conditioned Belgian Beers have begun to push their beers on tap to restaurants and bars.

Over here eGullet member plattetude had a bit of a rant:

As for seeing Rodenbach Red on tap, it's really getting to gall me how many of these incredibly special bottle-conditioned Belgian brews are showing up on tap. I know that "freshness" is so emphasized with beer, and bottles may seem anathema to that, but the difference between a well-kept bottle-conditioned beer and a keg of the same can be massive. Recently, I had a couple rounds at a small Belgian beer bar in Manhattan, and the bartender tried to steer my friend to La Chouffe on tap, when they also had it in bottles. I took that opportunity to order one bottle and one from the tap. My friend got a very quick lesson in how best to order Belgian beers.

Does anyone else have thoughts on this matter?

Are Belgian and Belgian style beers as good on tap as they are in bottles?

Tangential to that, it seems like Leffe/Stella/Hoegaarden are really pushing their products in the US beer market right now, in advertising, on tap, and in 6 packs.

---

Erik Ellestad

If the ocean was whiskey and I was a duck...

Bernal Heights, SF, CA

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I can offer the perspective of a homebrewer of Belgian style beers-- There is indeed a massive difference between bottle conditioned beers and kegged beers. Over on the eGCI Q&A thread I described brewing a belgian strong dark style beer. I bottled half of it and kegged the other half. The kegged beer never dropped a certain earthy murky flavor that the bottles lost... I found myself preferring the bottled version quite a bit.

I've never done a commercial head-to-head of bottled vs. kegged, though I could next time I find myself in Monk's or another of Phily's fine Belgian establishments...

Christopher D. Holst aka "cdh"

Learn to brew beer with my eGCI course

Chris Holst, Attorney-at-Lunch

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Thanks for spawning off the thread, Erik.

Anyone have any notion of cost differential for comparable amounts of kegged vs bottled beer? I'm sure cost is considerably lower for the kegged version -- no bottles, no breakage, greater product per cubic volume (hence lower shipping costs), but no idea how substantial a difference it is.

I do have a pretty concrete sense of how substantial the difference in taste is (or can be), as related in the original, unrelated thread. Just last week, I uncorked my last bottle of the original bottling of Malheur Brut Reserve (produced "méthode Champenoise"), which I'd laid down for about 6 years, and good gravy had it matured well.

I really this boils down to the difference in expectations by the standard U.S. beer drinker, and no doubt 9 times out of 10, most beer drinkers simply ask "what's on tap?" and go with whatever grabs them of that list. Unless it's a temple of beer, even an avid beerfan probably wouldn't look much beyond that.

What's a little more distressing, though I don't have all that much experience drinking in the Benelux region, I'd venture to say that my recentish trips to Amsterdam might indicate that the pendulum is swinging toward taps even in the cradle of the Belgian beer civilization. Maybe it's always been thus and I'm just a naif.

Oh, and ironically enough, the sublime beer that inspired this thread, Rodenbach Red, was my first memorable Belgian beer experience (outside of standbys like Chimay and Duvel which have long been available here) some 10 or 12 years ago. And here's the punchline: I had it on tap.

Christopher

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I noticed a similar thing, a small (Barley's chain) pub in my hometown for a while had a barleywine style on tap, later Unibroue's Ephemere. The idea of having a barleywine (I guess it was this year's brew anyway) on tap so fresh made me cringe, and sure enough the sample i got was barely palatable. They apparently sold through it though, and the ephemere as well (Which I adore, but it was lacking some of the complexities that the bottled version has, I thought)

My guess is that it's easier to get small joints to take a chance on stocking the stuff at ALL offering it kegged vs bottles, and at a price point people are more willing to go for (Ephemere was 3.50 a glass, which I think comes out cheaper than the small or large bottle price I've seen in stores in this state)

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I noticed a similar thing, a small (Barley's chain) pub in my hometown for a while had a barleywine style on tap, later Unibroue's Ephemere.  The idea of having a barleywine (I guess it was this year's brew anyway) on tap so fresh made me cringe, and sure enough the sample i got was barely palatable. They apparently sold through it though, and the ephemere as well (Which I adore, but it was lacking some of the complexities that the bottled version has, I thought)

My guess is that it's easier to get small joints to take a chance on stocking the stuff at ALL offering it kegged vs bottles, and at a price point people are more willing to go for (Ephemere was 3.50 a glass, which I think comes out cheaper than the small or large bottle price I've seen in stores in this state)

I've had the same experience with fresh Bigfoot and Old Foghorn on tap. Your explanation on price points for a glass vs. a bottle makes sense, Malkavian.

I wonder if it also has to do with labeling laws. For instance, here in TX, anything over 5% ABV has to be labeled as ale, even if it's a lager, and anything over (I think) 9% has to be labeled malt liquor. Don't quote me on the exact percentages. My point is that I've seen doppelbocks labeled as ales and a Belgian quad labeled as malt liquor here in town. The ale label isn't an issue for most Belgian brews, but putting a malt liquor label on tripels and strong darks has to be a pain. Not to mention costly. And not that appealing to the upscale customer. Some microbrews are unavailable to us in TX simply because the brewers won't (or can't afford to) label a lager as an ale. This issue may be skirted with kegs (then again, it may not...I'm not that familiar with the laws regarding keg labeling).

Which brings up another point. Bottling lines and labeling are major costs for small-scale brewers, and anything they can do to save on time and $ packaging their beer is to their advantage. Especially since they can reuse the kegs. I know other states have odd labeling laws, too, which may contribute to the decision to just use kegs.

Tim

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I'd go for that Old Foghorn or Bigfoot in a heartbeat, myself. I think they're great on draught (less filtration) and I tend to prefer those beers fresh anyway. Somehow an aged Bigfoot just seems to lose what makes it so Bigfooty in the first place. One of my fondest experiences with a barleywine happened to be the draught version as well- Bridgeport's Old Knucklehead in the early 90's (back when the Ponzi's still ran the joint). It wasn't too anything, just perfect in every way. The bottles I had were quite good but didn't blow my socks off like those half pints from the brewery.

I'm not so sure you can generalize about such a broad spectrum of styles as Belgian beers. Some may be better aged and bottle conditioned whereas others may not. I know a place that brews a killer Tripel and serves it unfiltered via gravity dispense, pretty darn young too. Best Tripel that I've had in a long time, with a lot of finesse and vibrancy that I would imagine could be aged away if held onto for too long. Something like Orval, otoh.....

I've always been a fan of the compare and contrast experiment- particularly when it comes to draught vs. bottled. I think I'd love to find a place where I could give that a go with a few beers, like that La Chouffe (I thought the draught Hoegaarden was the better the last time I did that one, fwiw). Sounds like a fun evening.

aka Michael

Chi mangia bene, vive bene!

"...And bring us the finest food you've got, stuffed with the second finest."

"Excellent, sir. Lobster stuffed with tacos."

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  • 1 month later...

Leffe, Hoegaarde and Stella are all owned by Interbrew, the Belgian equivalent of Anheuser Busch or Budweiser. While they do still produce some good beers, most of them are now generic, mass-produced imitations of decent beers, or previously good beers (like Leffe). As regards bottle versus keg, you can, in the Netherlands and Belgium get some very good beers on draft, generally the seasonal ones. But for export, I'd certainly stick with the bottled stuff: it's less likely to be mass-produced (once you avoid the marketed, mass-produced ones, obviously), and it should keep better I would say.

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  • 3 weeks later...

I worked as a bartender at Mad Mex in Columbus, Ohio and for a time we had four different Unibroues on tap (including the Ephemere). It was sad to see because for a lot of people, this was their first experience with this type of beer and most were not fans. Something about the taste of all four was just not right, hard to explain to someone, but it was just "off." I'm not a huge belgian fan to begin with, but I can appreciate them and their nuances, on tap did not do these justice.

Shannon

my new blog: http://uninvitedleftovers.blogspot.com

"...but I'm good at being uncomfortable, so I can't stop changing all the time...be kind to me, or treat me mean...I'll make the most of it I'm an extraordinary machine."

-Fiona Apple, Extraordinary Machine

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  • 3 weeks later...

One problem that's starting to come into play here in Wisconsin is the fact that keg lines just aren't kept as clean as they should be. So, not only do you have the false "freshness" issue, but add to that stale and clogged lines, diacetyl flavors, and any number of other problems raised by unclean lines and it makes for an inferior "keg" experience in beers in which you would really notice a difference.

Otherwise, as others have mentioned, I think (properly maintained) kegs aren't necessarily "inferior", but because of low demand kegs simply weren't an option for these small breweries. Until demand requires it, it just isn't feasible or cost-efficient for Rodenbach to ship a few kegs to the US; it is far easier to just ship bottles. With premium beers gaining in popularity, the demand for these beers is starting to justify kegs. (granted, Rodenbach is big enough, but look at a brewery like Loterbol which simply couldn't justify sending kegs of its product to the US where it may, or may not, get sold).

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