There’s nothing like it.
The sun is ablaze in a cloudless sky, and you’re roaming the cobblestones streets on your way to meet your friends at a local pub in Prague. You can’t wait for that moment when you can ask the barman for an ice-cold, smooth, caramel-toned lager in a puppy-sized 500ml glass. Except, as you wait in anticipation as the barman pulls on the copper tap, pouring your beer, you’re suddenly surprised with over half a glass of bubbly white foam. What the heck?
Foam heads on beer is the pearl in every Czech barman’s oyster. Asking them to pour you less (as every Englishman has thought to do at least once while on holiday) and you’ll receive a stare down and a “ne” faster than it takes for the first dozen bubbles to pop on that massive foam head of yours. But there’s a method to this madness, and anyone who has lived in the Czech Republic long enough knows by now that foam means far more to us in Bohemia than the irritation it causes most of the rest of the world.
The staple pour of a standard half-litre of a light lager is called the Hladinka. While it usually settles as making up a quarter of your beer, the first time you’ll see your glass it’ll look like it makes up at least two-thirds of it. This kind of pour is believed to be the minimum balance between having enough foam, versus having enough beer.
Brewers and bartenders alike see the benefits of foam as threefold; it helps keep your beer carbonated longer (staying fresh for longer), it adds a different texture to your beer drinking (like the foam on a latte, meant to add creaminess and texture to your first sips). And finally, most importantly, it can utterly evolve the flavor of your beer into something almost unrecognizable from the untouched beer in the keg.
The first to explain is a no-brainer – as Pilsner Lagers are the crown jewel of refreshing light beers (especially during warm summer months), their carbonation needs to be long-lasting. The foam heads on beer serve as a kind of net, a cap on top that holds in the bubbles inside that pop, keeping the air in longer. For as long as you have foam on top, you know your beer won’t be affected in texture no matter how long it’s been sitting out.
The second is more debatable, as it is also custom for people to wait for the foam to subside before taking their first sip at local pubs. Passionate brewers can especially become disgruntled by this, because the foam itself on our local lagers is creamier and tastier than you find in other countries. The smoothness combined with subtle beer right below combines for a magical first step into your beer. So waiting for your foamhead to shrink would be a huge shame.
Finally, the most important reason for our large foam heads on beer comes from the developing flavor of the drink when it’s poured out into the glasses. Through aeration, the bubbles in the beer each carry small ingredients that were used while making the beer or produced as byproducts. So oils from the hops, sugars, proteins – these kinds of important ingredients cycle throughout your beer in the bubbles which pop at the top. As more bubbles pop, the more the flavor changes – and in our local lagers, we see this as the shift from a strong bitter taste to the more sweet, caramel malty-tones that create the unique finish to our beers. This process happens more fully when the foam heads are of proper size, meaning the larger the foam head, the more processed the flavor.
Curious to see how much of a difference this makes to your beer? While venturing outside to your local pub isn’t possible right now, you can go to your local potraviny and buy a few bottles of your favorite local beer. Then in four different glasses, you can pour one as Hladinka served as mentioned above, one with half the glass entirely filled with foam called Šnyt. And the last two will be one that is made up entirely of foam, called Mliko (with just the smallest sliver of beer at the bottom) and one without any foam at all called Čochtan. When you’ve poured them, let them sit for 5 to 10 minutes before testing them out. How do they taste? Let us know what your favorite pour is in the comments below!