Both sides have their fans and long, storied traditions that engender die-hard loyalty. Although some like to claim obvious superiority over the other, the truth is that each has its merits and each has its shortcomings. Like any classic rivalry, the question of which is better is largely subjective -- there are several important factors that can help determine which one is best on any given Sunday, or any day of the week for that matter.
So which one do you root for? Draft beer or bottled beer?
Let’s face it, draft (or draught if you prefer the UK spelling) beer seems pretty easy from the consumer’s perspective. You show up to your favorite local, survey the tap handles behind the bar and then order what you want. If the bar is on its game, you should get a beer served to you at the proper temperature, in the proper glassware and with a nice collar of foam on top. A properly stored and poured draft beer is, arguably, superior in several ways to a packaged (bottled or canned) beer.
Most draft beer is unpasteurized, for starters. The pasteurization process prolongs the freshness or shelf life of beer, but it also takes a toll on the beer’s subtle aroma and flavor components. The trade-off is longevity for a nominal, but discernable, degradation of quality in pasteurized packaged beer you won’t find in draft beer assuming it is fresh. Draft beer kegs also block out 100 percent of damaging UV light and oxygen, two all-stars on special teams for beer ruination.
Ideally, draft beer offers the closest experience to drinking a beer precisely how the brewer intended the beer to taste if, and only if, important variables are properly managed. Proper temperature is obvious, but the correct CO2 (or CO2 + Nitrogen) levels and the condition of the draft system (beer lines, faucets, etc.) play a huge role in the quality of the product poured into your glass. And speaking of glassware, it’s also critical you have a “beer clean” glass for head retention and avoidance of off-flavors and aromas transferred from dirty glassware. Do you see tiny groupings of bubbles on the inside wall of your glass? If so, it’s not beer clean.
So, if all the planets align, and you are lucky, you’ll receive the perfect draft pour. Like the beer equivalent of a kickoff return for a touchdown, though, a perfect pour doesn’t happen all the time but it sure is nice when it does!
Packaged beer -- and I say packaged because many more breweries are opting to can beer in addition to or instead of bottling -- has its obvious merits as well. Bottles and cans are highly portable, colorful and creative from a branding and marketing perspective for the consumer and also offer some protection from UV light and oxygen, except in the case of green or clear glass which offers little or no protection from “beer skunking” light.
Bottles are also valuable for certain beer styles like many Belgian ales which benefit from bottle conditioning -- a process by which live, active yeast remains in the bottle and continues the fermentation process over time to develop the nuanced character of the beer. Bottles are also effective for cellaring beer. Yes, just like some red wines, beer styles like barleywine, old ale, imperial stout and others can actually benefit from aging in the bottle over months and sometimes even years in order to round out flavors and bring out certain nuances in these complex beer styles.
Regardless of how great you think your beer bottle is for all these reasons, however, you’re still robbing yourself of the full aroma and flavor experience of a beer if you fail to decant it into a glass. You might think this is unnecessary or pretentious but it is actually important to release CO2, making your beer less filling, and in order to open the beer’s aromas and flavors in order to maximize your drinking experience. The release of CO2 is important whether you’re drinking a light American lager or a double IPA, while the “opening” of aromas and flavors is obviously much more critical in full-flavored, craft beers brewed to have greater complexity and deeper, richer profiles.
Just like a keg, packaged beer is delicate as well. Dr. Matt McCarroll of the SIU Fermentation Science Institute notes, “storage conditions and time on the shelf can affect bottled and canned package beers. Thus the brewer and the consumer are at the mercy of distributors and retailers to provide a fresh and properly stored product.”
Which one is best, then, is really up to you. Well, you and the bar or store you buy from, the distributor the beer arrived through and, ultimately, the care and attention the brewery puts into its beer. Beer is perishable, like any food product, so fresher is generally always better -- but, being armed with some of the basics of the draft vs. package beer game -- you can make the call for yourself. I’ll put money on a fresh, cold pint any day.