Finally, there’s the last bit: how beer gets from package to lips. We’ve already talked about packaging and storage, two important areas that can determine beer quality. How beer is served at bars, taprooms, venues and your own home can really matter. You may think it inconsequential, but again, the devil is in the details here.
Glassware cleanliness is an obvious potential problem. Bars (or homes kitchens) that use fragrance-heavy soaps or strong sanitizing chemicals like bleach to keep glasses clean and safe can introduce a number of other flavors into whatever is poured into them–not just beer, but water, milk, anything. Ideally bars will sanitize their glassware in a high-temperature dishwasher with no chemicals necessary. Home drinkers should purchase unscented dish soap and inspect glasses before drinking. Glasses should also ideally get sprayed out briefly with water before filling in both bars and at home–ideally with nonchlorinated water, but clean tap water will do as well. If you’re concerned at home, give your glass a quick sniff. You’ll be able to tell if it’s in need of attention.
More likely a culprit in bars at least are dirty lines between kegs and taps. If these lines aren’t cleaned regularly, any number of undesirable things can build up in the distance between beer and pint: yeast accumulation, mold, bacteria or something called beer stone. You are likely familiar with the buildup of material on your showerhead or faucets. Beer stone is a similar idea. Calcium and oxalic acids present in beer can create deposits on surfaces, making sanitizing difficult and potentially entirely clogging beer lines. Beer stone can also come from other processes or equipment–inside kegs or even fermentation tanks, though breweries typically do regular maintenance to minimize beer stone.
You’ll easily recognize dirty lines in extreme situations if they’re allowed to create a space for mold and bacterial buildup, but beer stone can also just contribute a moderate harshness to the background of a beer that will often be overlooked or lumped into the IBUs by novice or less perceptive drinkers. Some drinkers even report gastrointestinal distress after drinking from dirty lines–whether it’s a result of specific bacteria or other yeast-related buildup, it isn’t clear. This doesn’t happen to everyone–some people are more sensitive than others, but it is a real possibility. When in doubt, inquire with the bartender or manager about how frequently they clean or change their lines. Some distributor agreements account for regular line maintenance, but it might not be for all taps. Many beer-centered establishments rotate through brands quickly and clean their lines between each–this is ideal, but not always feasible. If it’s a wine or spirits-focused bar that does not sell a lot of beer, you might better off skipping that pint.
Again, you can contact breweries if you’re worried that service establishments are serving their beer poorly, or you can visit breweries instead. Or drink at home, where you can control more aspects of your service. You might find that your senses are at their best there anyway.