Focus on the Foam
Lagers the way the Czechs intended
By Karl Klockars | March 13, 2021
As Farm Club approaches its first full year in business, it’s appropriate to look at some of the things that the agriculturally focused brewery, restaurant, and market has brought to the Traverse City area.
A destination for literal farm-to-table vegetable-focused cuisine? Check. A market for local craftspeople to sell their products, and a home for thoughtful lagers and farmhouse-style ales? Check and check. Perhaps the only place in Michigan to offer draft lager beer from special side-handle faucets? Check … er, Czech.
If you look behind Farm Club’s bar and focus on their series of beer taps, on the right-hand side you’ll notice two odd-looking wooden handles emerging sideways from the wall. Farm Club had these special faucets shipped from the Czech Republic, where they were popularized by breweries like Pilsner Urquell, home to the world’s first pale lager. These tap handles aren’t just pretty; they’re designed to allow bartenders to control the velocity of beer being poured, which gives them a greater ability to control not just the amount of foam topping the beer but also its density.
What does that mean for the drinker? Well, far more than scoring an Instagram-perfect head of thick, dense, wet cappuccino-esque foam on top of your mug of lager.
“It creates a beautiful looking beer, first of all, but more important is that when you're making these subtle beers like the dark lager and pilsner, every little aspect of the beer is really important,” explains Farm Club owner Gary Jonas. “The mouthfeel is really, really important. And when you have these like tiny little bubbles come through with a nice big head on top … I think for me, that makes a big difference in the drinkability of it.”
“Here's where nuance really matters,” brewer Corey Valdez says about the full range of decisions that go into their lager beers, which include their dark Czech lager and bright, snappy pilsner. “It’s ingredient selection, brewing process, fermentation … but the unspoken part of that process is the carbonation and storage.”
These beers are even brewed a little differently to capture the power of the pour a little better. “Pilsner’s got this nice bite to it at the end — or the ideal pilsner does, anyway,” says Valdez. “[This handle] really softens up the carbonation, and that can affect perceived bitterness. And so what you might do is in terms of recipes, you might bump up the carbonation, you might bump up the bitterness to kind of get that ‘snap’ back.”
If it helps to think about it this way while you’re sipping a lager and looking out over Farm Club’s verdant fields this summer, imagine this: The brewhouse in the back builds the flavors and body of the beer, while adjustments to mouthfeel, fragrance, and head come courtesy of the artistry perfected at the front of the bar. When you think about how important a beer’s aroma, feel, and look are to the overall beer-drinking experience, it’s a bit amazing that the last step, the pour, is often the least considered.
If you’re wondering if these handles take a special kind of touch or finesse to get a perfect pour, the answer is a definite yes. “A new bartender pouring any beer from any draft pulls, you’ve got to go through the training process. This one definitely is another process for sure,” Jonas says. “And not everybody can do it. So this summer we might have one or two bartenders that are only pouring beer. And that's their job. Because it's that important.”
To get the perfect pour, you do have to break a couple of rules of traditional beer service. First, the faucet gets placed inside the glass and is submerged in the beer — a definite no-no when it comes to your usual beer handles. The other: Foam first. “If you go to a Pilsner Urquell bar, and they pour you one of these, the standard there is foam first, then you put the beer under it,” Valdez says. “You submerge the tap, and then you fill it slowly to maintain that foam.”
“You want to have that head with every sip,” Jonas adds. “You miss it when it’s gone.” (This type of pour also lends itself to some beautiful rings of lacing on the inside of the glass — something to appreciate even when your glass of beer is emptied.)
If you’re patient, these handles even allow the creation of a beer head so dense it can rise up out of the glass and tower over the top. If you’ve ever heard someone raving about the famed Slow Pour Pils from Denver’s Bierstadt Lagerhaus after a trip to the Great American Beer Festival, it’s that beer and brewery that served as the impetus for a lot of the newfound popularity of side-pour handles over the last few years. However, Farm Club’s inspiration came from a place significantly further east.
“We took a trip out to Vermont, to Hill Farmstead, before opening this, and that was always talked about as an inspirational brewery. We liked what they were doing,” Jonas says. (For those unfamiliar, Hill Farmstead has been named Best Brewery in the World by the RateBeer Best awards no less than seven times.) “And they had these [handles], and we felt like it really contributed to a lot of aspects of the beer. It was something that we had to do, especially when we decided that we wanted to focus on the lager program … yeah, it was kind of a no-brainer.”
Beyond just the orientation of the handle, even the internal construction of the side-pour is different. “The typical draft handle is a plunger valve — it's basically a binary switch,” Valdez says, whereas the side pour handle has a variable ball valve, which allows a lot more finesse. “[It] allows you to control the flow, but in addition to that, there's a small, fine screen at the tip of the tap that drags out a little bit of extra CO2 and creates a kind of dense, wet foam on top.”
Since these handles are of a European origin, even the installation was different, requiring conversions to metric: “All the sizes are slightly different than what we use in the U.S., so we had to get special tools, and the guy who installed it had never worked with this before — it was a puzzle, but we managed to figure it out,” Jonas said.
All of this adds up to not just a better beer, but also a greater connection to the global beer community. From the central European country where pilsner originated, to a farm brewery in Vermont, to a farm brewery in northern Michigan, it’s a small but important link to beer’s history.
“The performance part of it — that's always been a really thrilling part. It’s almost like a cool social ritual that you get to experience,” Valdez says. “It's a connection to a world beer culture. All that stuff is part of the allure.”