Foam – Is It All In Our Heads?

Charlie "The Pope of Foam" Bamforth

Charlie “The Pope of Foam” Bamforth

Many people still greet beer foam with less than enthusiasm. I’ve seen bartenders spill foam—and beer—out of the glass to reduce the amount of head, and then hand me a glass with just a few sad bubbles floating on top. And while it’s true that almost no one wants to be served a glass of beer that’s mostly froth, the foam is a vital part of the beer experience.  But maybe in unexpected ways.

For Your Eyes Only

Official beer judges are trained to notice things like the thickness of the beer’s foam, its duration, color and the size of bubbles. Not all beers create thick heads, nor are they meant to. Higher alcohol beers will produce less foam, while wheat-heavy beers will produce more.  We are a visual species, and tend to taste first with our eyes. Without getting too detailed—and there are a lot of details out there— a study among beer-drinkers proved that the quality of the beer’s foam does affect a drinker’s opinion of the beer. But only if they can see the beer.

Wait. What?

Does Foam Matter? Survey Says No.

A study published in the Masters Brewers’ Association of America quarterly journal determined that the head on a beer had nothing to do with the drinker’s actual perception of aroma, taste, or mouthfeel. The study was conducted as such studies usually are: with an array of blindfolded volunteers tasting the same beers poured with and without a foamy head. The volunteers were then asked if they could tell the difference between the foam beer and no-foam beer, and at first the results seemed to fall in line with expectations. The judges were mostly able to tell which beer had been poured with a head and which hadn’t (the stout was the easiest to differentiate). But not by taste or aroma or mouthfeel. They could identify the foamy beer because they could feel the foam on their upper lip.

In the Eye of the Beholder

The Perfect Pour

The Perfect Pour

And to prove how important sight is to flavor perception, a later study on the Impact of the Appearance of Beer on its Perception used photographs of various beer lacings and heads to judge peoples’ opinion of the brews based on sight alone. They found that—cultural bias aside—people respond the best to a medium-sized head and a medium-amount of lacing. Unless you’re a woman, and then you also like a super-foamy head if it also creates really thick lacing.  Or Scottish, who don’t seem to care about either lacing or the beer’s head. A few people even had the misinterpretation that a nicely foamy beer is an indicator of a dirty glass. It is not. (But bubbles clinging to the sides of the glass is.)

Whether your jury is still out on foam’s true contributions, it does tell us a few things about the beer we’re about to enjoy. A nice head of foam is an indicator of a clean glass, for one thing, and higher alcohol beers tend to have less foam. But it looks like foam may not, after all, be as important as I thought. Maybe I should let that bartender pour it all off, next time…

Is it all in our head?

What’s your take on beer foam? Do you think foam adds to the beer experience, or would you prefer to have as little as possible? Let us know in the comments below!

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