In case you haven’t guessed, the "head" referred to in this column's relates to beer, not sex, but I figure the name might increase traffic to the site. It won’t be the first time someone thought they were getting sex, only to end up wallowing in beer instead. So if this was not what you were looking for, feel free to wander off. But bear in mind: This might be the best offer you get all day.
For many people, the head in a draft beer is nothing more than foam taking up the space where beer could be. For others, though, a great beauty lies in the frothy mass. Aesthetics aside, the head on a beer serves a number of important purposes. While the amount of head is a personal matter, it helps to think about the contribution of good head to the overall beer drinking experience.
First, as was noted in last week’s column, a vigorous pour releases the carbon dioxide in the beer, making it less prickly on the tongue and allowing the malt flavor to come through. Where malt flavors are less desired, such as in a pilsner or light lager, carbonation is higher to maintain their crisp character. Second, the head releases aromatic compounds as the bubbles burst, greatly enhancing the perception of flavor. According to Dr. Alan Hirsch of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation, 90 percent of what is perceived as taste is really from smell. If you want to taste your beer, you should be able to smell it, too. Finally, a persistent head is a sign that the dissolved carbon dioxide is releasing at a steady rate, providing a consistent level of carbonation and a lively mouthfeel.
Many things affect carbonation and head retention, including the temperature of the beer, the ingredients, the style of beer, the glass, and, of course, the way it is poured. Warm beers typically foam up big, but the head often recedes rapidly. Wheat and oats added to the brew kettle can aid in head formation and retention, which explains why a Hefeweizen is poured into such a large glass. The head on those puppies can be enormous. Oats also contribute a creamy texture to the head. Higher alcohol beers are often less heavily carbonated and lack good head retention, but this is not always the case. Belgian tripels are notoriously frothy, despite ABVs of around 9 percent. On the other end of the spectrum, British ales are often relatively low in alcohol, but are less carbonated than their American counterparts.
Perhaps the most important element for good head is clean glassware. Residual oils and soap film on the glass are head killers. Beer glasses should be hand-washed in a mild solution of soap or sanitizer and rinsed thoroughly with hot water. Dishwasher soaps tend to leave residue on the glass that adversely affects head retention. Some pundits suggest pouring salt into the glass and then rinsing to improve head formation. I have seen truckers pour the salt directly in the beer to release the CO2, leaving it flat for easier drinking. (I recommend this technique to anyone who likes flat, salty beer.)
Because all beers behave differently, sometimes even within the same six-pack, the best approach to pouring is to start out with a tilted glass, then adjust upward or downward to increase or decrease head formation to suit your taste. If you want to keep a beer from foaming over, don’t use a plastic cup or a glass with rough surfaces, which provide too much contact area for the release of the carbonation, leading to premature ejaculation. And there is no crime in working it slowly, letting the beer sit while the head recedes to a level where it can be sipped without getting a mouth full of bubbles. In fact, watching a head settle can be immensely satisfying. The anticipation of putting the creamy goodness to the lips only further intensifies the experience.
OK, so head is kind of like foreplay.
Talking Head columnist Jeff Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.