The Art of Presentation

Did you ever wonder why there’s no blue food?

Think about it. Green pasta, red tomato sauce, brown cookies, orange cheese, yellow margarine. Manufacturers can make processed food just about any color they want. But other than one-sixth of the world’s M&Ms, you won’t find much that’s blue.

The reason? Marketers have spent countless bazillions of dollars researching every aspect of why we consume what we do. They’ve found that blue food ranks somewhere south of Barry Manilow and plastic flowers on our cultural popularity scale. If someone served you an electric blue potato chip, would you eat it? Looks matter.

One reason the uninitiated have trouble appreciating a cloudy homebrew is that even though the beer may taste great, it doesn’t look the way they expect beer to look. Besides the technical cures, there are many simple steps you can take to present your beer so that people will appreciate it even before they taste it. Sure, it’s part marketing, but it’s also fun to serve your own beer in a way that is appropriate to its hand-crafted quality. Here are some ways to make your special beer even more memorable.

Beer Is Served from a Bottle

Think about how your brew is bottled and how that bottle will affect the presentation. Consider everything about the bottle: size, color, shape, even whether it’s scratched up or brand new. You may purposely want to use a particularly scratched and worn bottle to emphasize an alt beer. Or maybe one of those cage-cap bottles with the resealable ceramic stopper.

Some believe bigger is better. If you agree, you might try using larger bottles for your beer. Try 22-ounce bottles instead of the standard 12-ouncers. A bonus to using bigger bottles is that there is less capping to do at bottling time. If you want to get really big, did you know that you can cap champagne bottles? Think how interesting it would be to serve your next batch of beer from bottles that size! (Just make sure they fit your capper before you go out and buy a case of champagne bottles.)

On the other hand smaller bottles can be cute. Some beer styles, such as barleywine (which has a high alcohol content), are more appropriately served from smaller bottles. Just like their larger cousins, the small bottles come in a variety of shapes, from short and stubby to tall and slender. You can take the bottle-size topic a step further and serve your beer from bottles of all different shapes and sizes.

Classic dark brown bottles are the best for storing beer, but this is probably the most boring color. That’s why some manufacturers will sacrifice the shelf life (and some of the taste) to present their beer in attractive clear, green, or other non-brown bottles. For the homebrewer as long as you protect the bottles from light, the color of the bottle won’t affect the taste, but it will affect how others view your beer.

These lighter-colored bottles let you see what you’ll be getting before the beer is poured, in a sense giving you a preview of what’s to come. This is especially true of clear bottles, since you will get an almost unobstructed view of the beer. Plus, beer poured from lighter-colored bottles gives the impression that it is fresher, especially when the beer has good clarity.

Top It Off

The bottle cap can also be a source of decoration. You can buy bottle caps that have a variety of generic beer logos stamped on them as well as plain bottle caps.

Many brewers use the plain caps to market the batch or the date. Now think about expanding this concept to include some type of decoration or symbol identifying you as the brewer. It could be your initials or your name, for instance. Decorate the caps with colored permanent markers or even stamp them using a quick-drying ink designed for non-porous surfaces. This is the type used by grocery stores many years ago (it doesn’t smear when it dries). This type of ink is available at (or can be ordered through) most office-supply shops.

Decorating the Bottle

A nicely decorated bottle gives your guests another opportunity to compliment you and your beer. There are quite a few ways to decorate a bottle to make it unique and worthy of flattery.

The most obvious is to use an interesting label design. Commercial beer companies have been doing this for many years. Take a tip from their lead and try your hand at designing your own beer label. Think about how the label should look. Should it be round, square, rectangular, oval, or some unusual mixture of shapes? Remember, the trickier the label shape, the more work it will be to cut it out.

The next step is to design the basic format for the label. What the title should be, where it is located, any graphics, and the colors that will be used for the whole thing. Remember, you don’t necessarily have to make everything exactly straight. At least one beverage brand, Cutty Sark scotch, purposely makes its label look as if it were hand written.

You can use computer software, such as drawing programs and even programs designed specifically to create homebrew labels, to help you make that perfect label with a minimum of effort. This approach lets you take advantage of any graphics you have available or that you can create. This can help you produce interesting labels quickly, but that is not the only way to make beer labels. You can create some exceptional beer label designs by drawing them and using a photocopier.

What about color? That wasn’t a problem when you were young, so why should it be a problem now? Be creative and use whatever you have: crayons, markers, colored pencils, highlighters. Highlighters are  especially good because they allow the underlying drawings to come through clearly while giving nice color emphasis.

Regardless of how you make your labels, you still have to attach them to the bottle somehow. Glue stick is very handy. The labels stick well and come off easily in warm water. Rubber cement also sticks well but doesn’t come off the empty bottles quite as easily and is a bit messier to apply. The standard white glue or paste isn’t recommended. The labels have a tendency to fall off the bottle once the glue has dried.

Another way to attach your paper label is to dip the label in milk and stick it to the bottle. This holds the bottle well and peels off easily when soaked in water. The down side to using this technique is that any water-soluble ink used on the label may run.

So let’s say you are more artistic than most, and you decide that you want to have a limited set of truly unique bottles. Now is the time to consider hand-painted bottles. You can use acrylic paints to decorate the bottles with any design you can think of. Just treat the bottles as your canvas. However, you can’t expect your masterpiece to make it through too many cleanings and reuses. So these hand-painted treasures would probably become single-use bottles.

Pour Your Brew

Be sure that whatever vessel you serve your beer in is clean and free of soap film. Soap residue in a glass will kill your beer’s head. Residue from other beverages will sometimes do the same. Many brewers have glasses that they only use for beer.

You could use all matching glasses and mugs, or you could go for the “each is different” approach. The drinking vessel definitely contributes to the pleasure of the entire beer-drinking experience.

Glasses come in a wide variety of different shapes and sizes. You could go with the traditional glasses for the particular beer style you will be serving or with one of the traditional pub serving glasses. Remember, the size and shape of the glass affect the perceived aroma and thus the taste.

The traditional glass shapes emphasize the desirable characteristics while downplaying the less desirable ones for the particular beer style. For example the traditional pilsner glass is shaped rather like an ice cream cone. This shape tends to concentrate the flavor and carbonation right to the spot you are sipping. On the other hand a weizen glass allows a foamy head to rise, which is captured and held for as long as possible. Using a snifter-like Duvel glass would place heavy emphasis on the hoppy aromas of the beer while downplaying the malty flavors.

Or you could go with something less traditional, such as serving your homebrew from a wine glass. Wine glasses also come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. The use of wine glasses could give the whole beer-drinking experience a high-class flair. Also, since wine glasses are usually made to emphasize the wine’s aroma or “nose,” you would get more of the beer’s nose when it is served in a wine glass.

Another choice is to use a ceramic beer mug or even a beer stein. Some say the difference between a mug and a stein is the same as the difference between a vase and a vaahz — how much you paid for it. Beer steins can be plain or hand painted with intricate designs or nature scenes. Beer steins are most appropriate for German-style beers.

One of the advantages of serving beer in a ceramic mug or stein is that the beer will stay cold longer. A stein also creates more of a European or even a medieval attitude while you are drinking your beer, like the Knights of the Round Table toasting King Arthur. The beer steins with the lids you open with your thumb can be particularly fun.

Other Things To Consider

When serving your beer, consider the entire atmosphere of the get- together. Will it take place in the kitchen, around a poker table, or in the living room? Is the beer sampling going to be the main attraction or just another one of the scheduled events for the gathering? The answers to these questions can be used to help set the mood by suggesting the appropriate lighting and decoration of the place.

This should include the way you display the bottles, glasses, mugs, steins, and everything else. Do you have it all sitting out on the table or stashed back in the fridge? You could put the first round out so that the rest can be kept cold in the fridge, but the choice is yours.

Let’s say you want to go for a medieval setting. Try serving your homebrew from the largest bottles you can find. Then use brown paper handwritten labels with torn edges and all the writing in uppercase (with the occasional backward character or an extra final “e”). The beer would be poured into decorated steins or ceramic mugs. Use of candles for lighting would also be nice to keep the mood medieval.

Or if you want to simulate a more formal atmosphere, try clear bottles and wine or even champagne glasses to serve the beer. The labels should be colorful, maybe with a touch of gold or silver paint around the edges. It could become a complete high-class affair with bright lights and tablecloths, coasters, and little sandwiches.

Be creative and have fun. After all, you’re serving it to your friends. You know how to impress them the best.

Issue: May 1997