Sunday, 7 January 2018

A note on beer skimmers

Many years before I ever visited the Netherlands I learned through reading that it was commonplace for bar staff there to pour Pils with a large head of foam, which was then decapitated with a large bladed implement resembling a palette knife.

I had thought this a peculiarly Dutch practice, but in recent years both Stella Artois and its competitor Heverlee have made a big thing of the ritual, emphasising a smooth, stylish skim with the knife as an essential part of the serve.

The last time I was in Belgium I observed bar staff using skimmers on the draught Leffe et al too. To me it gives a glass of beer an unnaturally smooth, plastic appearance.

I am not sure that I approve of it being used for beers beyond Pils, certainly not for the rocky head that forms on Belgian brown and abbey-type beers. In Germany it would never be used for Pils either, since in that country a tall crown of foam extending high above the rim of the glass is seen as a sign of a well-poured beer (although who knows whether that may change as corporations such as Heineken gain influence).

I was quite surprised to discover that such skimmers – “beer combs” in American English – were also used in the United States until about the 1950s, and when I tweeted about the subject my colleague Allan McLean mentioned that he remembered them being used in Edinburgh, presumably for cask beer.

In the US the story goes that these things fell out of use due to hygiene concerns, as the comb was left in a jug of stagnant water between uses.

A patent applied for in 1941 seems to confirm this theory:
Heretofore in the art where beer has been served over a bar it has been customary for the bartender to use a beer comb to scoop off the excess top foam of a glass or stein of beer. The bartender by custom then places the beer comb in a glass of stationary water until he needs to use the beer comb again for another service. It is apparent that where a glass is used that the water is stationary and in a comparatively short time becomes stale and mixed with some of the beer leavings which have been introduced into the glass from time to time. It is obvious that very soon after the glass has first been used that the water will be so sour and distasteful that it will not properly clean the beer comb but will on the other hand leave the beer comb in such a condition that when the comb is next used to scoop out the top of a beer glass that the comb will leave stale drippings on top of the latest glass of beer to the distaste of a patron. [Source]
I doubt the rather cumbersome-looking contraption which was intended to solve this problem was ever going to take off (even if it did also promise to prevent the unauthorised removal of the skimmer by a “frolicsome customer”). Perhaps people instead just got used to allowing a natural head of foam to form, which I have to say is also my preferred option.


  1. I've seen people do the same with Guinness too.

  2. I was certainly trained to skim half the head of a pint of Guinness with a knife, though only if it was pouring impractically high and some had to be slopped out. The idea being that the remaining stiff half spreads out to cover the pint.

    At a festival in Belgium a few months ago I saw a barmaid pour a beer, look around for a blade, become increasingly desperate as there was none to hand, and eventually use her finger. Probably not what they teach at the Heineken or Stella bar service academies.

    1. I have also seen an open-air event where the bar staff were faithfully skimming away the foam as prescribed by the brand managers, but have to say the practice loses any flair it might have when it is performed on floppy plastic cups.

  3. I've seen it being done at quite a few places here.I believe it is to give the impression that they've poured a "Hladínka".