Why are trees tall? This may appear to be a peculiar way to introduce an article on tap handles in bars. However, as we will see, the evolution of trees and tap handles have a lot in common. Rory Lawton on an essential tool of every beer bar.
Trees have evolved to capture sunlight in their leaves (via photosynthesis) and convert this light energy into a form that they can store and use for their own survival. There is no inherent need for trees to grow tall – they just try to maximise the sunlight collected by their foliage. However, because many individual trees end up competing for the same light, tree species have evolved to grow taller and taller, in a sort of arms race against their competitors. Ultimately, trees reach a point where the energy invested in growing tall balances that for survival and this becomes the canopy height that all trees adjust to in order to survive.
A Brief History of Tap Handles
Although British cask beer has a long history (bottled beer is a more recent phenomenon), the tap handles used to dispense beer have been simple and functionary for most of their existence. In the British tradition of serving ales that goes back centuries, the tap handle served merely as a lever for the bar staff pumping the beer from cellared casks into the glass. Unlike modern kegged beers, traditional ales were not kept under pressure, so manual force was required to fill each glass – therefore a long lever was required, as opposed to the simple modern spigot. Although British pubs would advertise and serve a variety of ales, these were not distinguished by pump-clips on the beer engines until the 1930s – and would not come into wide use until the 1950s.
Where Is Beer Ordered?
In Britain, beer has been traditionally ordered at the bar, so in the last century, it has been an opportunity for brewers to distinguish their brands at the point of sale. In Germany, on the other hand, beer is traditionally ordered from the table. In a monotonous beer drinking culture (more often than not…), the beer drinker is only interested in the styles available in the menu. Occasionally, a beer drinker may be brand aware/loyal, but in general, the bar area is of little interest – and beer tap handles play no part, other than the functional filling of a glass for a kegged beer.
In recent years, in the United States, the growth of craft beer has provided brewers with a new opportunity to showcase their brands. Although U.S beers have had branded tap handles since prohibition, it is the emergence of the variety of craft beers that has pushed the tap handle to new heights (literally!). The craft beer enthusiast is generally quite fickle – always looking for something new. In this market, where brand loyalty is simply not a factor, the key decisions are made at the bar. In specialist bars, often with a variety of 15-20 beers on tap – many of them unfamiliar – the breweries tap handles become hugely significant tools in the promotion of their beers.
This has resulted in an arms race between many brewers, to produce the most outrageous tap handles. These include full sized baseball bats, steam-punk gear shafts, guitar necks and science-fiction paraphernalia. Recent tap-handles from more affluent breweries have included embedded digital video displays with advertising for the beer brand on a non-stop loop.
Tap Handles in German Bars
Today, most beer drinkers in Germany will order “a beer” from the comfort of their seat and be served the house Pilsner without further thought. Large beer brands simply do not need to distinguish themselves via tap handles. Instead, the marketing war is waged on posters, in television adverts and on supermarket shelves. However, we are at a turning point. Specialist craft beer bars have sprung up in many cities. Variety – and an ever-rotating selection of beers – plays an important role for these bars. At the same time, the number of German craft beer breweries is growing at an even greater pace. Printed beer menus will never be able to keep up – the consumer will need go to the bar to make their beer selection.
It will not be long before canny German craft brewers decide to distinguish themselves amongst a forest of generic taps at these craft beer bars. In a context where the bottle design plays no role, the tap-handle may be the only option. Is a new dawn of the German tap-handle upon us? Brewers – embrace your creative streak!