From simple open/close valves to ornate sculptures of purpose behind the bar to garish points of advertisement, beer taps and the handles that run them are important features to the modern beer drinker.
Different Types of Draught Beer Tap Handles
The original draught beer - or draft beer as it's sometimes spelled - tap was nothing more than a simple device to control the flow of beer from a cask. Similar taps are still used today - simple open/close valves that are common at cask ale beer festivals and in many pubs. Casks have a hole at the lowest point at one end when they are laid on their side. The tap is twisted or pressed to open the valve, gravity takes over and the beer flows. Simple enough, right?
Many bars are set up differently with the casks under the bar or in a cellar. In these cases, with the cask being below where it is dispensed, gravity cannot drive the beer. A beer engine, which is basically a simple pump, does the work. Long beer tap handles are attached to the beer engine. When they are pulled the pump pushes the beer out of the dispenser and into the glass. When the handles are pushed back the engine draws more beer - often about half a pint - through a tube attached to the cask.
Easily the most common beer tap these days is the pressurized tap. These are supplied with beer from a keg and run by applied pressurized gas to the keg forcing the beer out. When the beer tap handles on this system are pulled they open a valve. Because the beer is under pressure in the keg it is pushed out of the dispenser.
"Cask conditioned" means that an ale was naturally carbonated in the cask. Cask conditioned ales tend to be less carbonated than kegged or bottled beers Whether they are dispensed through a gravity run valve or a beer engine no additional gas is introduced so the final product is far less fizzy.
Pressurized taps result in fizzier beer because they use pressurized gas to push beer from the keg to the bar. During this process some of the gas is inevitably absorbed by the beer. Naturally, more pressure means more gas and more gas means more fizz. Too much gas results in beers that are all head and too little means the beer will seem flat or might not properly come out of the tap.
The type of gas used also affects the beer. Many bars use CO2 only which produces a pretty standard pint of fizzy beer. Sometimes a carbon dioxide and nitrogen mix is used. Nitrogen is less easily absorbed resulting in a less fizzy beer with a thick, creamy head. This gas mixture, sometimes called "nitro," is popular with darker ales, especially stouts.
Beer Tap Handles as Art
Where tap handles were once simply objects of function they are now serious marketing tools for breweries. As such they need to catch the customer's eye and clearly communicate which brewery and beer they dispense.
Tall, ornate and sometimes garish tap handles are familiar objects in bars and pubs today. They are brightly colored and eye catching; sometimes shaped to represent another object that, however peripherally, is associated with the beer. Anhueser-Busch, based in St. Louis, Missouri, has used a miniature baseball bat for their tap handle as a way to celebrate their association with the local baseball team. Goose Island's beer is often available via a tap handle in the shape of a goose's head and Woodchuck cider's tap handles feature a small woodchuck carved into the top of the handle.
These more fantastic handles tend to be exclusive to pressurized tap systems. Real or cask ale beer engine handles are generally a more uniform lot. Although there are variations, the handles are usually long, straight and easy to grip. Tradition and practicality dictate that they remain unchanged; there is actual work involved in bringing the beer up from the cask as the operator has to apply some amount of pressure to the handle therefore wild or oddly shaped sculpture handles would be impractical. However beer clips are used to identify and market the beer available. These tend to be understated when compared to some of the handles described above but they effectively serve the same function. They are of different sizes and shapes, usually colorful and eye catching.