Tap Handle Mania

Three Game of Thrones-inspired tap handles (left to right): Highgarden Ale (House of Tyrell), Dragon’s Blood Ale (House of Targaryen), and Direwolf Winter Ale (House of Stark).

I’ve been brewing off and on since the early 1970s when I was a student at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. At that time, all that was available to me was unhopped Blue Ribbon Malt Extract (in a big can), plain old table sugar, and baker’s yeast (all combined to produce a strange brew). I’d mix the ingredients up in the kitchen of our apartment, then haul it down to our wired storage cubicle in the basement where it would ferment. I also kept my bottled brews there and can remember a bottle bomb or two. I brewed again for about six years in the early 2000s, until we moved to Arizona in 2006. Prior to the move I sold all my equipment because, “I’m sure I’ll never do that again.”

In 2014 my wife suggested I try brewing again, but to also get a kegerator (three tap) as I had always bottled before and never really enjoyed the work that goes into bottling. And so began my third phase of brewing. I had done some woodcarving off and on since my Boy Scout days, so I figured why not carve a tap handle for each of my brews? I’m retired, what else do I have to do? With that concept in mind, a whole new wing of my homebrewing hobby took flight.

I make each from basswood using knives, gouges, and chisels. First, I drill the bottom to put in a threaded insert for the tapper. Then, I transfer the design with graphite paper (or draw with pencil) and start carving. Once done, I lightly sand, then add a couple of light coats of spray matte finish clear coat to seal the wood. I use acrylic paint and after it dries, I use a very light wash coat of a burnt umber color acrylic to accent the details and tone down the brightness. Finally, a couple more coats of clear protective finish and you’re ready to go.

My first beer, and subsequent tap handle, was my Running Rabbit Red — an Irish red ale. With more new beers came the need for more tap handles. Sometimes it was a challenge coming up with a unique carving, but I pushed through. Los Muertos Molé — a Mexican spiced beer with chocolate, cinnamon, chili peppers, and others, for the Mexican Day of the Dead Festival held November 1. Gnarly Gecko Ginger Beer — heavy on the ginger, with a nice bite balanced by a little honey and lemon juice. Kokopelli Kölsch — a crisp German-style ale. Ass Dragon Ale — an American strong ale . . . I came up with concept for the tap handle before I designed the beer. A hard cider with a chip carved handle. Oktigerfest Ale is an Oktoberfest or Märzen ale and the tap handle features Calvin and Hobbes in lederhosen.

When the HBO series Game of Thrones was released I decided I had to flex my creativity muscles. Over the next year (2016-ish) I came up with four Game of Thrones-inspired beers, each with their own uniquely carved tap handle, which I was quite proud of. #1 Highgarden Ale — a Belgian blond with bitter orange peel and coriander. #2 Direwolf Winter Ale — a Scottish strong ale clocking in at 23 IBUs and 7.6% ABV. #3 Dead Crow Stout — an Irish dry stout with Maris Otter malts, and a nice dry finish clocking in at 35 IBUs and a sessionable 4.3% ABV. And finally, #4 Dragon’s Blood Ale — a spiced copper ale with 26 IBUs and an ABV of 6.7%. For those fans of the show, you’ll know that Ānogar Zaldrīzes, as it was named in Old Valyria (carefully researched, of course), was said to have contained the blood of dragons as an important ingredient. I tried to duplicate it as closely as possible (a little habanero pepper tincture). Drink like a Targaryen. My favorite tap handle (if you can like one child more than another) is the one for my Dragon’s Blood.

I was an extract brewer up until about a year ago, but I’m slowly getting my recipes converted to all-grain for my BIAB (Brew-In-A-Bag) setup, which I’m calling my fourth phase of brewing. But I’m bringing one major aspect of my third phase with me into the era. I’m now 25 tap handles deep, all for different homebrews. And when inspiration strikes, you’ll find me out with my whittling knife and a fresh piece of wood to bring a new brainchild to life.

Issue: May-June 2024