Welcome, ale aficionados, to another edition of Beer Fact Friday. Today, we discuss the important aspect of beer presentation known as “head.”
Head is another name for the layer of froth or foam on top of a glass of properly poured beer. It’s important for a few reasons, not the least of which is that a beer with a thick foam cap is undeniably sexy. But aside from improving a beer’s appearance, the amount of head on a beer can also affect the way it tastes, smells, and feels. Since the head is formed by the carbon dioxide within a beer, beers poured without any foam will have more CO2 trapped inside the liquid, which will make the beer seem bubblier on your tongue and may lead to you feeling more gassy. Also, bubbles retain and release beer’s aroma; a beer with a well-formed head will smell brighter and bolder than one without any foam.
Head is one of the reasons that you should always pour your beer into a glass: Without it, you’re always going to experience a higher level of carbonation in the mouthfeel of the beer, and you won’t be able to experience its full aroma.
The size of the head that’s appropriate varies somewhat by style. Most beers should have about an inch of foam when poured properly, but effervescent styles like hefeweizen and most Belgian beers might require 2-3 inches. (You can see we got a little aggressive with the pour on this glass of Kilt Lifter).
Outside of a bad pour, there are a few other things that can ruin a beer’s head. Alcohol is foam-negative, so the head on stronger beers tends to be smaller and less lasting than on low-ABV brews. But the most frequent cause of poor foaming is the presence of soap or detergent that hasn’t been properly washed from the glass or tap lines. Pouring a beer into a glass with soap inside will result in what we call “false head”—big, soapy bubbles that fizzle away within a few seconds.
To make sure your beers always have the right amount of head, give your (clean) glass a good rinse with water, hold it at a 45-degree angle, and pour your beer into the middle of the slope of the glass. When the liquid in the glass hits the halfway point, tilt that sucker up to 90 degrees and continue to pour into the middle of the glass. You can control the amount of foam you create by adjusting the distance between the bottle and the glass as you pour; a closer pour will result in a tinier head, while pouring from far away will create lots of froth. Aim for 1-1.5 inches of head, and enjoy.