Flavors to look for
If you think the beer you’re drinking is compromised due to bad lines, there are exercises to go through. Many bad lines will give off flavors of fake butter, light vinegar, or mustiness. Good news: nothing toxic to humans can grow in beer, besides the alcohol content. You won’t die by drinking an infected pint, which is why line cleaning is largely unregulated.
If you feel the need to bring it up to your bartender, be polite. If you absolutely can’t finish the beer, especially one you’ve enjoyed before, simply say you think there may be something off with the beer. Most bars will happily give you another choice. Personally, I like to examine off flavors and wrap my head around them so I can be better attuned the next time I experience them. (Although I’ll likely just order a whiskey the next time I’m at that establishment.)
It’s not rude to ask the staff how often they clean the lines. Don’t expect them to know the answer, but they should be able to find someone who does.
Other causes of off flavors
Off flavors can come from something other than beerstone, too—namely, the beer that was on that line before. This is where a good bar manager can save the day. Micro Matic USA, a global supplier of draft systems and solutions, recommends cleaning a line following every beer variety change. In a fast-moving bar, however, it sometimes isn’t feasible to rinse a line before switching to a different beer.
That’s why it’s common to assign certain beer types, like coffee-infused, smoked, or sour beers, specific lines and keep them there until the end of days. Because if that line isn’t rinsed or cleaned before the next keg is on, the bar patron will almost assuredly be drinking a beer with flavors from its previous tenant.
A good bar manager will mitigate this issue by following a coffee beer with a stout, for instance. While the line may still contain traces of coffee, the stout should be able to cover it until the next professional cleaning, hopefully less than a few days away. Fruity IPAs can cover previous pepper beers, imperial stouts can cover many smoked beers, and ciders or fruited beers can cover previous sour ales. Having an experienced bar manager who recognizes this can make a huge difference.
If you ever see me out at a bar, look at what I’m drinking. Hopefully I’ll be raising a glass of beer to toast you. If I’m not, I’d advise you to skip the beer and order a whiskey.
Photos by Aaron Davidson
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