If you’re a bit of a beer fanatic, or you spend a lot of time around fellow craft beer enthusiasts, then there will often be a whole load of specific terms that you hear thrown about.
How often have you heard a beer connoisseur refer to his favorite beer and its impressive lacing and wondered what they mean by beer lacing? Wine is often referred to as having “legs” but what exactly is lacing when it comes to beer?
To answer the question simply, beer lacing is the name given to the delicate patterns of residue that get left inside your beer glass from all the white foam.
As you drink, the foamy head of the beer goes lower and lower. As it does this, it leaves behind more ghostly white residue on the inside of the glass.
However, there is plenty more to learn about this fascinating – and very common – part of drinking beer.
After all, most of us beer drinkers will have experienced beer lacing, just never known it – or perhaps even thought about it!
In my handy guide below, I’m going to explain beer lacing in greater detail.
On top of that, I’ll cover the sorts of factors that can influence beer lacing – because it may not always happen as much as you expect.
Additionally, I’ll also look at why some beers might end up having more of a foam head than others.
What Is Beer Lacing?
Beer lacing is a descriptor used to describe the beer foam residues left on the side of a well-rinsed glass as you drink any type of beer. As you take the first sip from your glass of beer the foam beer head drops with the level of beer consumed. When the foam collapses and recedes, some of it adheres to the glass walls, forming patterns that resemble lace.
As you continue drinking your beer, the head of beer will drop and form more distinctive rings of laces on your pint glass. If you look closely, you’ll notice that the white lattice-like foam rings are made up of hundreds of little bubbles.
Beer lacing adds to your drinking experience and indicates not only that the glassware is clean but also that your beer is fresh and protein-rich.
But what is the scientific cause of beer lacing?
What Causes Beer Lacing?
Beer lacing as we have already stated is simply the foam that often clings to the side of a glass but to understand the art of beer lacing we first need to explain how that beer foam is generated.
Beer foam occurs due to a process known as nucleation which causes the formation of bubbles in many liquids. Nucleation is the same process that causes the bubbling in water as it is heated to boiling point. If you were to shake a can of soda or a champagne bottle the froth which explodes out is caused by nucleation.
But, you may be asking, why do the bubbles from a fizzy can of soda, a glass of champagne, or even boiling water not last as long as the beer bubbles?
Well, beer contains an element called Lipid Transfer Protein 1, abbreviated to LTP1 which coats the carbon dioxide bubbles as they rise to the surface in beer with foam. LTP1 are stable proteins that trap the gas in the dense texture of the head formation for longer. Soda and champagne don’t possess this LTP1 protein hence the head dissipates much quicker.
LTP1 actually interacts with various proteins and compounds that are active on the glass, as well as carbon dioxide.
The mixing of all these bits together helps to create the patterns that you will see from beer lacing.
They look like a mesh of little bubbles, almost like a lattice, on the inside of the glass.
The Importance of Proteins in Beer Lacing
LPT1 belongs to the albumin class of proteins similar to that found in egg whites, hence the lacing you often get in a tumbler of a milkshake when eggs are added. These albumin proteins are found in abundance in malt, especially barley, wheat, corn, and rice (sound like familiar beer ingredients?). When the malts are being mashed, enzymes will break down the starches in the grain to form carbohydrates and proteins. LTP1 protein is resistant to any further protease (enzyme breakdown) action.
The Lipid Transfer Protein 1 is hydrophobic, meaning they don’t mix with water, but they do form complex bonds with hop compounds to make foam. As beer is made up of 95% water this leaves the malt-derived proteins in a bit of a predicament. Basically, these proteins attach themselves to the CO2 gas bubbles which are a result of the fermentation process, and hitch a ride to the surface of the beer.
Once they reach the surface, bubbles in beer will be coated with the LTP1 proteins which will help the beer to keep its foamy head for longer. It’s for this reason that beer foam sticks around much longer than soda or champagne bubbles.
The Role of Carbonation in Beer Laces
As we have already explained, LTP1 proteins don’t mix with water and do use the carbon dioxide gas found in beer to escape from the water-rich beer. They cling to the bubbles of gas as they rise to the surface.
The higher the level of carbonation in a beer, the more dissolved carbon dioxide gas there will be. At room temperature and normal pressure, carbon dioxide will fizzle out of the beer. The more CO2 there is in a beer the bigger the head of beer will be. Larger beer heads tend to leave more lacing.
Brewing Factors Which Affect Beer Lacing?
However, you won’t always get the same amount of lacing from beer to beer.
Variables in the brewing techniques of beer can often affect the amount of lacing in your pint.
The malt used can vary in the amount of LTP1 proteins with grains such as barley, corn, rice, and wheat in particular known to have more LTP1 than others. Bavarian Wheat Beers found in German Beer Halls where 50% of the grain bill is wheat are notorious for their larger foamy heads.
Hops are one of the major factors which can affect a beers’s lacing ability. As LTP1 proteins bond with hop compounds, the more hops in a beer will also affect the lacing of your beer as beer hops are also hydrophobic substances and cling to the CO2 bubbles giving the beer that hoppy aroma. Overall, highly-hopped beers will often feature more dense lacing.
Alcohol itself is a foam deterrent and can often block protein interaction. When the alcohol in beer is either too high or too low, the beer will have a poor lacing ability. About 5% seems to be the optimum alcohol level for beer lovers who want a high level of lacing.
Finally, your drinking speed also affects beer lacing.
If you drink your beer speedily, then there will be less leftover beer residue. Let it settle and drink slowly.
What About Beers with Nitrogen?
Stouts like Guinness or Nitro-infused beers often have a creamier head, which can result in thicker beer laces. Nitrogen is much less soluble than Carbon dioxide and, as a result, forms a high quantity of tiny bubbles which in turn translate into a bigger head and more prominent lacing on the beer glass.
Tips for Serving Beer With Better Lacing
Not only does lacing vary, but also the amount of foamy head on different beer styles – which in turn affects the lacing anyway!
The amount of head also depends on various factors including serving temperature and glassware.
How Temperature Affects Lacing
Firstly, the temperature of the beer will alter how much foam there is on top of it. Serving beer at the appropriate temperature can affect the carbonation release and foam stability, influencing lacing quality. At warmer temperatures beer forms larger bubbles which absorb the smaller bubbles to increase their size. Although larger bubbles form, they don’t tend to lace too well and so they dissipate quicker leaving a rather flat-looking beer.
Cooler temperatures usually lead to the formation of tiny bubbles which don’t absorb each other. Smaller bubbles will foam and lace better than large bubbles so you should really consider serving cooler beers if you want better lacing.
GlassWare and Lacing
The shape and cleanliness of the glass significantly affect the lacing. Beer glasses with nucleation points, such as etched bottoms or laser-etched logos, encourage the formation of bubbles and, consequently, more lacing. Clean glassware with no residue or oils also helps in maintaining a better lacing pattern.
Oils and grease from fatty foods or even lipsticks block protein interaction and therefore kill the beer foam. It’s why your girlfriend’s beer often looks much flatter than yours, or maybe you’ve been given a dirty glass that still has lipstick stains around the rim. Men aren’t totally free from this effect though, as often we may enjoy fatty snacks like pork rinds at the local craft beer bar and then complain that our beer looks flat.
Clean beer glasses will always lace better than dirty glasses.
Some etched beer glasses can also improve the quality of beer lacing. Tiny grooves or patterns at the base of an etched glass can form sites for extra nucleation, As carbon dioxide bubbles gather at the nucleation site they will rise to the surface as they become more buoyant, replenishing the head foam of the beer.
Additionally, if you’re drinking from a carved glass, then the carved bottom will be a popular place for the bubbles to group together.
Eventually, the bubbles come free, floating up and adding to the head.
Therefore, a carved glass can result in an impressively foamy head.
Final Thoughts – Why Does Beer Lacing Matter?
Beer lacing is a captivating phenomenon that adds to the allure of beer drinking. Its presence enhances the visual aesthetics, traps aromatic compounds, influences the mouthfeel, and can offer subtle insights into the beer’s quality. The formation of lacing is influenced by various factors, including carbonation levels, protein content, glassware, and temperature.
Although beer lacing is no measure of the quality of a beer, lacing can be indicative of how fresh the beer is, how well carbonated the beer is, and that the beer is being served at the correct temperature in clean glassware. As well as being aesthetically pleasing, a large foam beer head that causes lacing can also trap the hoppy aromas of your beer to enjoy for longer.
Next time you pour a glass of beer, take a moment to observe the intricate patterns of foam clinging to the glass and appreciate the subtle details that make the world of beer so diverse and fascinating. Cheers to beer lacing and the many wonders of this beloved beverage!