I recently was served a draft beer with a giant head. How much foam is proper and at what point is a restaurant/bar taking advantage? Kevin R., Brentwood. MO
Not long ago, if you'd asked the average male college student how much head goes on a beer, the answer would have been "none"-- he learned that lesson in freshman year. Ask the same question to today's college student and there's a good chance he (or she) is a graduate beer geek, and will therefore provide a more studied response.
They might inform you that beer foam is an indicator, an aromatic key to the flavors found in the liquid portion of the beer, and that aroma plays a huge role in one's perception of flavor, just as it does with food. Ask a brewer about foam, and you'll learn how much effort goes into the aromatics, and that you're selling the beer--and yourself--short by not savoring such nuances.
In his broad-brushed comment "Don't fear the foam," Evan Benn (beer columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, curator of Hip Hops, suds contributor to Esquire magazine, and author of Brew in the Lou: St. Louis' Beer Culture—Past, Present and Future) echoes the same sentiments, further noting that "much of it [foam] is out of the bartender's control. Some wheat-style beers like hefeweizens, witbiers, and American wheat ales tend to be more foamy than other styles because wheat contains more protein than barley." Benn noted that "you get what you get--but all draft beer should have some sort of head."
But the question remains, how much head is appropriate? We need to quantify here, we need a measurement. Again, we defer to Benn: If the beer style is properly made and appropriately chilled, "your beer should have anywhere from a half-inch to an inch-and-a-half of foam." He also cautions "to beware the foamless pour, which could be an indication of a problem with the bar's tap lines, improperly cleaned glassware, or simply a flat beer."
Further, draft beer must be properly dispensed. Fortunately, even the rookie corner-bar pull-jockeys know to start with the glass tilted at a 45-degree angle, begin pouring down the side, then straighten the glass and finish the pour down the middle.
Benn concludes that, "And yes, you're being a nudge if you push off the foam and ask a bartender to 'top me off.'"
Editor's Sidebar: When discussing the "45 degrees, then straighten" beer pouring technique with a female friend, she informed me that she had grown up in a house with a keg beer dispenser, and thought the information was common knowledge, that she'd known the technique "since I was eight."