It’s a pretty sweet time to be a lover of any beer style in Australia. OK, we're still waiting to see whether wheats will finally take off, but if you're a fan of lagers, these increasingly feel like glory days.
Stomping Ground hosted a lager festival earlier in the year, Range's JUICY will have its own Lager Lounge curated by The Crafty Pint this weekend, and breweries seem increasingly willing to place lagers within their limited-release schedule. Sure, tall tins of crispy bois don’t necessarily get the same attention as a new release hazy, yet in some quarters – particularly for many working within the beer industry – a well-made golden lager can be worth its weight in, well, gold.
Drinkers' enjoyment of such beers isn't just being enhanced by improvements in quality either: we're slowly seeing a soft and foamy transition as a small band of Australian brewers and venues embrace side-pull taps.
The taps (which are also known as side pours) are a common sight in the Czech Republic where they're championed by the brewery behind the world’s first pilsner, Pilsner Urquell. American craft brewers have embraced them too, particularly those known for making lagers, with taps often sourced from Lukr Faucets, a Pilsen-based company that makes particularly stunning models that feature wooden, horizontal handles and long spouts.
When Ryan Nobbs opens the doors to The Servo Taphouse in a couple of months, he’ll have no less than 12 side-pull taps alongside three hand-pull beer engines and four standard taps.
“That was my one splurge of the whole operation,” he told The Crafty Pint, while adding with a chuckle: “They’re all Lukr, so I had to take a bank loan out for that one.”
A dozen side-pull taps would make for a pretty astonishing sight if you came across them in one of the best beer venues in a capital city, which makes Servo’s dedication (or obsession) all that more impressive given it's opening in Cowaramup. To the uninitiated, it's a small town in WA’s Margaret River region which beer lovers may already know via Cowaramup Brewing, which opened a few kilometres away in 2006.
Ryan has been brewing for more than a decade and currently works at Cheeky Monkey. Having gone to school at Cowaramup Primary, he decided to take over the town's closed servo and convert it into a craft beer-focused venue. He's a firm believer that side-pulls offer the best way to pour beer, especially with a diverse lineup of beers in mind for the venue, and hopes the elegance of the Lukr taps will act as a showpiece.
“We’re trying to be craft-centric so we’re trying to give people the best possible pour,” he says.
“We’re not just going to be running lagers through the side pulls – we won’t get the tap diversity we need.”
So what makes these taps so special?
In essence, they provide a level of control not available with regular faucets, using a ball valve rather than a plunger valve. It’s a mechanism that gives the pourer the ability to master the amount of foam in the glass – think of the way dimmer lights can help you set the mood, as opposed to a regular light switch that only turns off and on.
Also key to side-pulls is the fact their spout is designed to sit in the beer glass and be submerged as the beer gets poured: the foam comes out first, with the thick head protecting the beer from oxidation as it then fills the glass. Meanwhile, a fine mesh helps break down the foam, providing a creamier or wetter head rather than one comprised of bigger bubbles.
“You’re lifting bonded CO2 from liquid instead of just having a turbulent, oxidised beer foam on the top,” Ryan says.
After studying brewing in Germany, Ryan saw his first side-poured beer while making a beer pilgrimage to Pilsen; he sees the taps as helping his team offer the best possible beer drinking experience.
“The side pour gives you control over the texture and density of the foam,” he says. “So, we’re trying to create a thick, dense and wet head that’s lifting through the liquid. Because you’re pouring from the bottom of the glass, you’re lifting aromas, esters, the hop aroma and phenolics - well, hopefully not in lagers for the last one.”
In Czech taverns, the different foam levels mean drinkers might order glasses of the same beer that look quite different. Hladinka is a more standard order for which the tap is opened only slightly at first before being fully opened so the beer runs under the foam – the result is around three fingers of head. Far more extreme is a mlíko or “milk” pour, where a slither of beer sits beneath a glass of mostly foam.
Although Ryan says he's keen to pour a mlíko if anyone comes in seeking one, they’ll be adjusting their pouring method depending on beer style.
“If I was pouring a three-finger head on top of a hazy IPA then it would be well outside of what people expect. But with the lagers and just about anything that’s European, then we’ll likely go there.”
His aim is to pour a number of styles not found that often in modern craft bars, including wheat beers, bocks and classic European saisons. The four regular taps, meanwhile, are reserved for “thinking beers” such as barleywines and imperial stouts.
While Ryan’s dedication to the cause is mighty impressive, he’s not alone in embracing the side-pull life. Range Brewing have them at both their Brisbane and Melbourne homes, and ran Side Pour Sundays earlier in the year as a way to champion both the tradition and their lagers.
Hop Nation hope to have theirs installed over the next couple of weeks too, after ordering theirs through Chilled Solutions. Like Ryan, brewery co-founder Duncan Gibson remembers spotting them in Europe some years ago – and enjoying the pilsners poured from those taps more than those from regular taps. The ability to control foam levels, pour a wetter, softer head, and protect the beer underneath are all seen as perfect for their award-winning pils.
“What we’ve tried to do with Rattenhund from the start is elevate lager to another level, and this is another way you can help elevate the product,” Duncan says.
The cost, however, is not insignificant: Hop Nation's cost around €300 each plus shipping, compared with around $100 for regular taps.
“But when you get them, they’re a heavy machine that’s really made well," Duncan says. "It’s a whole different product.”
For the moment, he’s not entirely sure how drinkers at their Footscray taproom will react, but they’re keen to offer a range of different pours and also obtain handled glassware for such beers. Ultimately, the hope is adding this extra level of care, and arguably performance, will excite drinkers and help build a love for craftier lagers.
“Far more attention is going to go into this pour, so hopefully more conversation comes around it,” he says.
A couple of months ahead of the Footscray team is the always-exploring crew at Rocky Ridge in Western Australia. They installed side-pull taps at their Busselton cellar door earlier in the year, with brand manager Ricky Watt telling The Crafty Pint they first started talking about them when they added their pilsner to their core range late in 2021.
They grabbed six when a multi-buy offer proved too good to resist, while Ricky says venue staff have been doing a great job educating customers about how the taps work and why a little more foam can be a fine thing.
“There are people who understand it, but you do have to straddle that line for the punters who don’t want to feel like they’re missing out on beer by getting too much head,” he says.
These remain early days; the brewery is just starting to roll out marketing and educational information around their new toys and they’re also looking at installing taps in venues that want to pour Rocky Ridge Pilsner permanently. Hop Nation, meanwhile, have grabbed one for Carwyn Cellars, with Rattenhund on side-pull set to be the craft beer haunt's first-ever permanent tap.
“It will be interesting to see how it plays out," Ricky says. "Will people request more head?”
While he’s been enjoying the softer mouthfeel and nuances he thinks the side-pours provide, there is a certain context to what they offer too.
“I was in Prague before the world collapsed in 2019 and that was a real turning point for me, it was a revelation,” he says.
“There is definitely an element of romance to it, and the best beer you have is more based in a situational context of where you’re having them.”
For Ryan, he sees his side-pours as not just elevating the beers they're serving but also the art of being a beer server. In countries like the Czech Republic or Germany, being a beer server is a career in which people often spend far longer compared with Australian hospo, and with these taps both harder to use and creating more wasted beer, he hopes it sees drinkers give a little more respect to the fine art of pouring the perfect pint.
“There’s a lot that happens in between a beer getting released from a faucet and into a glass, and then the glassware is so important too," he says. "That level of care is just about taking brewing and linking it to the consumer with a little bit more care and finesse.”