When the new taproom for the Czech brewery Pivovar Hostomice opened in central Prague’s Petrská neighborhood a couple of years ago, no one knew how much things were going to change. For years, the location had been occupied by a grimy, grouchy-old-man pub that served Kozel, a middlebrow industrial Lager, and though I live nearby, I never bothered visiting after an initial peek. But a few days after the spot was taken over by its new owners, I stopped by and quickly spotted two very good signs. One, that one of the pub’s first guests was a writer for a Pivni.info, a Czech-language beer blog. And two, that as part of its renovation, Hostomice had installed a set of traditional side-pull faucets to pour its old-school Czech Lagers.
They were visible from the front door, a series of taps with horizontal handles, and because they were still new their brass fittings gleamed inside the dimly lit front room. The rest of the pub was just like it had been before, with its historic patina of 70-plus years of hard riding. The only real standouts were the taps, which the newly hired bartenders seemed to be still figuring out. Using side-pull faucets is almost always a two-handed operation, with one hand holding the glass while the other adjusts the flow accordingly, with each degree of the handle’s turn increasing the rate of dispense. Compared to the simple taps the pub had used in its previous, grouchy-old-man incarnation, the side-pull taps were a reassuring indication that the new owners actually cared about beer.
Like most aspects of Czech beer culture, side-pull (also called “side-pour”) faucets are relatively unknown by outsiders. But even outside Central Europe, a number of pubs that care about quality Lagers have adopted them in recent years, hailing their importance as part of a proper Lager pour. In Ottawa, Central Bierhaus pours its Pilsners and Dunkels from a fleet of side-pull faucets. In greater New York, beer halls like Radegast, Pilsener Haus, and Pier A all have side-pull faucets. In Portland, Oregon, the award-winning, Lager-focused Wayfinder Beer installed side-pulls when it opened in 2016.
“When you start a new project you get a chance to plant your flags about what is important to you,” says Charlie Devereux, one of Wayfinder’s founders. “One of the flags I wanted to plant was that we were serious about Lager beer, that we wanted to do it right, and that we were willing to invest in a method that would be interesting, but that more importantly would deliver a beer that we wanted to pour and to be served.”
For Wayfinder, that meant embracing several aspects of Central European pub culture, including heavy glassware marked with pouring lines on the side and a tapping-station sink filled with cold water to keep those glasses clean, wet, and cold until needed. It also meant side-pull faucets, which Devereux had noticed on his research trip to Germany and the Czech Republic a few years earlier.
“My first impression of the side-pull taps was that they did a great job of approximating what the gravity pours were doing,” he tells GBH. “I really liked the character and the quality of beer that way. It seemed like that this was a good way to get a good pour with a good foam, and do it fast and do it repeatedly, without having to yank a keg up onto the bar.”
As part of his research, Devereux had recorded videos in various Central European pubs and taprooms. When he watched those clips back home, he realized that one aspect of tapping Lager there was completely different from what many Americans believed.
“It was fascinating to me that they could pour half-liters that fast,” he says. “It’s very different than the urban myth back here, you know, the ‘seven-minute pour.’ I taped a guy, and he filled three beers in 11 seconds. And the guy at Na Parkánu was doing something similar.”
Na Parkánu is the flagship pub for Pilsner Urquell in the brewery’s hometown of Pilsen, Czech Republic, and it’s worth noting that side-pull taps are used in all of Pilsner Urquell’s high-end European tank bars, which serve an unpasteurized version of the classic pale Lager from massive tanks instead of standard kegs. Stateside, side-pull faucets are also used for many important Pilsner Urquell accounts, often sitting next to the traditional beer taps pouring American craft beers.
Bryan Panzica is a national rep for Pilsner Urquell in the U.S. who installs side-pull faucets and trains bar staff to use them on a daily basis. (He got his job after coming in second, by just one point, in the international finals of a Pilsner Urquell tapping competition in the Czech Republic.) I ask him to describe the difference between a traditional beer tap in the States and side-pull faucet from the Czech Republic.
“An American faucet is an on-off switch. It’s either on or it’s off. That’s it,” Panzica responds. “The side-pour faucet is more like a dimmer switch. You can get various degrees of foam. If you open the faucet 15 degrees, you’ll get straight foam, but if you open it 90 degrees, you get straight beer.”
Despite the visible differences on the exterior, the main difference is inside: side-pull taps are built around what is known as a ball valve, instead of the “plunger” type of valve in traditional beer founts. The tap itself is actually longer and hangs lower, and is intended to be submerged into the beer as it flows into the glass. In addition, a small screen inside the side-pull faucet helps to create foam.
“Inside, you have a screen that is basically a micro-screen,” Panzica explains. “You’re talking about foam going through a screen that produces an even denser foam. It’s the equivalent of cappuccino foam—it’s dense and wet. It will last anywhere from three to seven minutes, depending on the temperature of the room, and it’s protecting the beer the entire time.”
As I saw at the Hostomice pub, bar owners note that side-pull taps can be difficult for staff to use at first. In Salem, Massachusetts, Chris Lohring installed side-pull taps for his Czech-style Lagers at the Notch Brewing taproom.
“We wasted so much beer learning how to pour beer on these taps,” Lohring said. “The only way you can get good at pouring beer on these faucets is to do it repeatedly.”
The normal method of using side-pull faucets, Panzica notes, is almost the exact opposite of how beer is normally poured.
“Here in the United States, we put the beer in first and put the foam in second, on top of it,” Panzica said. “With this faucet, we put the foam in first and then pour the beer in second, underneath the foam cap.”
Normally, sticking a beer tap directly into a beer is a big no-no.
“There’s a dense, creamy head that’s meant to have the tap submerged in it. Which is just weird for us, you know?” Lohring says. “We’re taught over and over not to do that, that it’s not sanitary. But these taps are meant to do that. They’re easily removable and you can sanitize them.”
Because of the denseness of the foam and the measure line for the beer on the side of the glass, rather than at the top, accurately pouring the right volume can also be difficult.
“We have Czech half-liter mugs, which have a line on the side for the measurement,” Lohring said. “So you want to leave a good finger of foam, sometimes two, because the beer is going to settle up right to that line.”
But bar staff aren’t the only ones who need training with side-pull faucets. Customers who aren’t used to European-style Lager pours also need education.
“Nowadays, we’ve got our staff doing exactly what we want, and sometimes the customer looks at it and says, ‘Can I get this filled all the way up to the top?’” Lohring says. “And that’s when the fun starts, the conversation. Because you get to explain to the customer where the measure line is and how much volume is actually in the glass.”
Some 3,000 miles away in Oregon, Devereux recounts a similar experience. “The idea of a pour line [on a glass] is kind of a novel concept,” he says. “This is the Wild West. That does not exist here.”
In addition to the volume marked on the side of the glass, the role of foam is something that a lot of outsiders don’t get, especially in the era of the Iceman Pour. Panzica says that a thick layer of foam protects a glass of good Lager from oxidation. Devereux believes that foam actually enhances the taste and texture.
“I think what Lagers are doing benefit more from it,” he says. “It accentuates the creamy, velvety characteristics that are really part and parcel of the clean and delicious malt, and that kind of richness without being heavy. That’s a good way to describe good foam. That’s the key to making great Lager beer—that elusive textural experience. Good foam is just icing on the cake.”
That’s not to say that side-pull faucets are for everyone. A foam-generating side-pull is obviously impractical for growler fills, and probably not the ideal dispense for styles like IPAs and Pale Ales. One additional aspect is availability. At Wayfinder in Oregan, Devereux searched until he found side-pulls available at small, a regional distributor, Tap Your Keg in Washington State. At Notch, Lohring imported his own side-pull faucets from the main Czech manufacturer, Lukr.
But before you decide to add a couple to your kegerator, know that each tap usually costs $200 or more—more than five times as much as a normal beer tap with a plunger valve.
“In the U.S., a standard faucet starts at $25,” Devereux says. “The Belgian ones, which have flow control and all that, are maybe $70-100. So these are easily the most expensive taps that I know of.”
Like decoction mashing, ordering beers by their Balling (or Plato) numbers, and the easy-to-pronounce blend of pale and dark beers known as řezané pivo, side-pull taps remain one of the quirky aspects that make Czech beer culture what it is today. That’s not to say that all of the best Czech pubs always have side-pull faucets, or that you can’t get a decent Lager pour from a standard beer tap. They’re almost never used at beer festivals, for example, and even some of the best pubs in Prague, like Pivovarský Klub, don’t have them. When I drove out to the town of Hostomice to visit Pivovar Hostomice last month, I asked owner and brewer Štěpán Kříž about the side-pull faucets he’d installed in his pub in Prague, and he said he didn’t know if they really made much difference, but that they looked nice.
With brass, chrome or stainless fittings and wide, horizontal handles—fitted with oak or even porcelain—they certainly do look cool. But beyond the mere form, brewers like Lohring back their function.
“It was probably the Golden Tiger,” he says, referring to the great Pilsner Urquell tank pub in Prague when I ask him where he first saw them in action. “I sat and watched that guy pour beer after beer. One thing was just the coolness factor of the tap. And the other was the functionality, the way the tap creates that thick foam on top. And then drinking through that foam.”
He pauses for a second.
“You can’t recreate that pour with any other tap.”