What Is Draft Beer? (Full Guide)

Picture yourself sitting at a cozy bar, surrounded by friends, as you savor a cold, refreshing beer poured straight from the tap. The amber liquid cascades into the glass, forming a perfect, creamy head that releases an enticing aroma. You bring the glass to your lips, taking that first sip, and your taste buds come alive with a symphony of flavors. There’s something undeniably alluring about the rich, frothy head and the vibrant flavors of draft beer.

Draft beer, often regarded as the pinnacle of beer enjoyment, offers a sensory experience like no other. It is the embodiment of craftsmanship, tradition, and the art of brewing. While bottled and canned beers have their merits, draft beer presents a unique set of qualities that elevates the beer-drinking experience to new heights.

This article will teach you everything you need to know about draft beer, including what it is and why it is the best way to drink beer while answering some commonly asked questions about it.

What Is Draft Beer?

beer dispenser
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At its core, draft beer refers to a brew that is served fresh and directly from a keg or cask, typically at bars, pubs, and breweries. It undergoes a meticulous dispensing process, involving carbonation, cooling, and pressure control, all of which contribute to its distinct taste and texture.

Background of Draft Beer

The earliest mention of draft or draught beer seems to be from the Middle Ages of Europe when medieval monks would brew extra batches of beer, which would be stored in wooden barrels or casks.

They would often serve this beer straight from the cask using a spigot or tap system and hence draught beer was born. Previously, the beer would be served in large communal bowls with people using straws to drink the beer.

The London Gazette first mentioned a patent for an engine that could serve beer way back in the 17th Century (1691), but the use of an engine to dispense beer didn’t become widespread until 1785 when Joseph Braham created his beer engine. Before then, beer was still delivered in barrels, drawn off, and carried to the customers.

History of Draft Beer

These original beer engines would use a gravity-fed hand pump, which would draw up the beer through the lines to a serving tap. The cask or barrel would be unpressurized, just allowing for the vacuum created as you drew back the pump to draw the beer up.

It wasn’t until the 20th Century that draught beer would be served from pressurized containers. Artificial carbonation was introduced in England in 1936, with the regional brewer Watney’s pasteurized ale “Red Barrel.”

This method of serving “draught” beer didn’t immediately take hold in the UK but was quickly adopted by the rest of Europe, gaining favor in the UK much later in the 1950s.

The carbonation method of serving beer subsequently spread to the rest of the world; by the early 1970s, the term “draught beer” almost exclusively referred to beer under pressure as opposed to the traditional cask or barrel beer.

What’s the Difference Between Draught Beer and Draft?

Absolutely none! The use of either spelling depends on where you live. In the UK, New Zealand, Australia, and Ireland, “draught” is the common spelling, coming from the English term “dragan,” meaning to carry or pull.

Since the invention of Joseph Braham’s beer machine, the word draught has been almost exclusively used in terms of alcoholic beverages such as beer.

In modern times, especially here in the US, the word draught is more commonly spelled “draft.” It means exactly the same thing and is even pronounced the same.

Is Cask Ale (Real Ale) the Same as Draft Beer?

No! In 1971, beer connoisseurs in the UK set up the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) to protect the traditional beers and brewing methods of the UK against the rising popularity of draught beers.

This group of beer enthusiasts came up with the name “real ale” to differentiate between traditional cask beer and a carbonated draught beer served under pressure. Their main point was that while a cask or keg can store “draught beer,” a real ale comes specifically from a cask.

Real ales must be unpasteurized and unfiltered and should be transferred to a cask while the ale yeast is still active. A process of secondary fermentation in the cask provides beer carbonation rather than force carbonation with external sources of CO2.

Beer snobs argue this creates a smoother, creamy beer and gives the real ale much deeper flavors than regular beer.

The terms “real ale” or “cask condition” can also be used for ales that have been bottle-conditioned with sugars added to the bottle to kick-start a secondary fermentation. The beers will be less fizzy than those served from a keg or face carbonated at the bottling process but shouldn’t be flat.

Cask ale, or real ale, is a traditional form of beer that undergoes secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, typically a cask. This secondary fermentation creates natural carbonation, resulting in a softer, gentler level of carbonation compared to other forms of beer.

Cask ale is typically served at a slightly higher temperature, around 50-55°F (10-13°C), which allows the flavors and aromas to develop more prominently. The dispensing method involves the use of a hand pump or gravity tap, where the beer is drawn by hand or by gravity, without additional pressure.

This slower dispense method contributes to a smoother, less fizzy texture and a more traditional, less carbonated mouthfeel.

What Is Keg Beer?

Keg beer is draught beer that is specifically served from a pressurized keg. We’ve all been to keg parties during our college days where some local jock has “acquired” a keg of beer. Hopefully, he also acquired some serving equipment such as temporary taps or a kegerator, otherwise, things would often get very messy.

Kegs have become so widespread across Europe and the UK that they have almost replaced the traditional cask-served beer as they require less handling care.

Kegs only have one opening where the flow pipe is connected compared to the two openings on a cask, one for the taps to be attached and a spile hole on the top of the cask, which allows the beer to breathe and continue with secondary fermentation.

The beer, which is transferred to kegs, has finished fermentation and is artificially pressurized with Carbon Dioxide or Nitrogen gas, or even a combination of carbon dioxide and nitrogen.

A cask of real ale will normally require tapping and venting a couple of days before serving and be allowed to settle so the unfiltered lees of the beer drop to below the tap level. A keg, once it has been left to settle, will normally be ready for serving straightaway.

There’s an art to serving cask ales which takes many cellar men years of training to get right while changing a keg is something a new bartender can be taught in minutes.

The Gas Used for Draft Beer Dispensing

Carbon dioxide is most commonly used for providing the carbonation for most types of beer, especially those fizzy, often over-carbonated domestic lagers you will find on draft.

Fresher beer types, such as IPA craft beer, will use less CO2 to mainly pump the brew from the keg rather than force carbonate the ale.

Some creamier types of ale, such as stouts or Nitro bitters, will use nitrogen gas as a way of giving a creamier mouthfeel to the smooth beers. Nitrogen has larger bubbles that don’t usually rise to the top of the foam head as quickly as the smaller nucleation of CO2.

Beer Keg Sizes

Commercially-sized beer kegs usually come in sizes from 20L to 50L. These are ideal for bars or large-sized events but can be a problem if you don’t have an enormous draft beer storage space for these giant kegs.

Smaller restaurants of home-sized kegs are available in 5L or 10 L sizes and are often referred to as pressurized growlers. Smaller kegs are an ideal way of keeping beer fresh at home for that next backyard party. The kegs will protect the beer from sunlight and also protect the beer from oxygen getting inside once being served.

How Is Draft Beer Stored?

stainless steel tanks
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Draft beer is stored in a stainless steel barrel called a keg. Beer goes through filtration and pasteurization before being put in the keg.

Kegs make it easy to store beer and transport it from the brewery to bars. These barrels typically come in 5-liter, 20-liter, and 50-liter sizes for home consumption and large entertainment establishments.

Kegs are stored at cellar temperature (around 54 degrees) to keep the beer at a perfectly regulated temperature. If it gets too cool, the beer can lose its flavor and bubbles, become flat, and produce excessive amounts of foam when it’s dispensed. If stored and served too warm, it can develop a sour taste and present an irregular appearance.

person carrying keg tanks
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Non-pasteurized keg beer has a shelf life of up to 60 days, while pasteurized beer can last longer, between 90 to 120 days.

Does Draft Beer Taste Better Than Bottled Beer?

labeled glass bottles on shelf
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Ask almost anyone who drinks beer, and they will usually agree that draft beer is hundreds of times better than canned or bottled options. Beer on draught can taste better for several reasons, including how it is brewed, stored, and dispensed. Unfortunately, you can’t always get your favorite brew on draft nearby!

Some bottled beers will try to label themselves as draft beer, but that is an oxymoron and impossible. Companies will use that as a branding technique because draft beer is notably better than bottled beer. If it comes out of a can or a bottle, it cannot be draft beer.

Now, there are a few things to consider with draft beer to ensure that it retains all its features. If you don’t let it rest for enough time after transport, it can be too foamy. If you serve it too warm or too cold, it can affect the flavor. If you don’t have clean tap lines or use your keg right away, you may find that it also affects the flavors.

So, it comes with a few added instructions – but those who have an affinity for draft beer love it.

What About Bottled or Canned Draught/Draft Beers?

You will often see the word draught or draft proudly emblazoned across the label of a bottle or can of beer. How can something in a bottle or can be considered draught? Indeed, draught is something that is served from a tap, not a bottle.

In the case of beers like Miller Genuine Draft, the word ‘draft’ is used to determine that it’s exactly the same beer as served on draft, brewed in the same way at the same brewing plant – just bottled rather than transferred to a keg.

It’s like taking a bit of the bar home with you, same beer, same carbonated taste – just a different location and a much cuter bartender (I do love my wife sometimes!).

For other types of beer, such as Guinness, cream ales, and bitters, the word draught often refers to the nitrogen widget that is found in the can or bottle to give that same smooth beer you would experience on draft.

Nitrogen can degrade the quality and flavor of a beer, so it has to be stored in a sealed widget or ping-pong ball-like container, which only oozes out into the beer once the can is cracked open. Guinness Original was the first to pioneer this technology and many other beer companies quickly followed suit.

However, don’t let the beer companies fool you – beer bottles or cans of beer are not draft beer. Beer on tap is the only true draft beer.

Filling a growler up with beer at your local taproom to bring home and calling it draft is acceptable. However, when those bottles or tins have been filled at a mass-producing brewing plant, it’s not really a draft beer, despite what the labels say. Maybe it should say “draft style” or “draft tasting” beer.

Is Craft Beer Different Than Draft Beer?

man pours beer into a glass from a beer tap
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It is entirely possible to drink a craft draft beer. Craft beer offerings are custom-made artisanal beers where the brewer creates recipes and experiments with different flavors, typically in smaller and exclusive batches.

Craft beer brewers tend to develop new, exciting, and complex beers that draw people in to present the results as either canned, bottled, or served on tap as a draft beer. many would argue the craft beer scene is largely responsible for the resurgence in popularity of draft beers.

Are There Cons to Draft Beer?

While most beer lovers prefer draft, and the reviews are almost always positive, there are some cons to this type of beer. Draft beer can easily be destroyed by barkeepers if they have dirty draft lines, leaving the beer contaminated and foul-tasting. Draft beer lines can be very long in some bars and keeping them all clean can be challenging.

Barrels have to be set for a certain amount of time before drawing the beer. It will need to stay at the right temperature, and if any of these things aren’t done correctly, the beer can come out tasting flat and lacking in flavor.

If you are a bar owner and your beer is coming out unsatisfactory, you may need to do some troubleshooting to discover what might be wrong.

Does Draft Beer Have Higher Alcohol Content?

It is a common question whether draft beer is more alcoholic than bottled or canned beer. In short, it depends. The alcoholic content of beer is measured in “alcohol by volume,” or ABV. ABV differs between brands and types and is determined by what percentage of the beer is alcohol.

Some beers have different alcohol content for the same beer in the draft version and the bottled versions. For example, Sierra Nevada’s canned Original Pale Ale has an ABV of 5.6 percent, but it has an ABV of 5 percent in its draft form.

It is essential to be aware of these differences before consuming different beers or trying a new one for the first time, as the alcohol content can vary greatly.

Final Thoughts

So there you have it – everything you need to know about draft beer. It’s a pressurized beer, stored in a keg and served on tap. Ultimately, it’s fresher than canned or bottled beer.

Next time you go to a restaurant or bar, ask them what they have on tap and try some draft beer for yourself. Cheers!

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