Do Americans Like Foam?: The Unique Draft Beer Experience at Grid City Beer Works
When I first tried tried Grid City Beer Works' House Pilsner in April 2020, they were only selling beer to go due to the pandemic, and the canned version immediately caught my attention with its authentic old-world flavor. But it wasn't until months later when I bellied up to the bar and got a tour from Head Brewer Jeremy Gross that I realized the depth of that dedication to tradition. What the team at Grid City has done is provide a draft beer experience like nothing else in Utah, thanks to their elaborate and custom designed draft system. The key to this realization? A glass full of foam.
Let me back up. Long ago, in the Before Times of 2018, when international travel was still a thing, I was lucky enough to go on a beer-focused trip through Europe with my brother and dad. Our journey started in the Czech Republic, the beer-drinking-est nation in the world and home of Pilsner, arguably the most important beer style ever. The beer culture we encountered was both familiar and strange, full of idiosyncrasies that both baffled and charmed this American-trained brewer. Our first night there, my brother and I went out to walk the streets of Prague and found a student bar. We don't speak Czech, so my google translate app was working overtime in trying to decipher the menu before the impatient server returned.
The first thing we noticed was that the beer was cheap, unbelievably so at the equivalent of $0.40 for a half liter. But next we realized that despite the numerous items on the menu, there were only two kinds of beer on tap, a Svêtlý (light) and a Ĉerný (dark). What then, were all the other items and modifiers on the menu? Mlíko? Šnyt? Hladinka? A little internet searching revealed that it was not uncommon in Czech to order a glass half full, or even entirely full, of foam as a different way to appreciate the beer or to minimize consumption during long sessions. This was something we would find all throughout our time in Czech, a limited menu of beers, but several specialized ways to pour them, creating a range of unique drinking experiences.
Fast forward a scant 18 months and I'm finally getting to visit the bar at Salt Lake's newest brewery. Seeing that the two pilsners on the menu were being served from Czech-made side-pull Lukr faucets in three formats with varying amounts and textures of foam, I knew already what I'd be ordering. They call the more familiar standard pour a 'Crisp' and it's the equivalent of the Czech 'Hladinka,' being what you can expect from most any brewery or beer bar. But things get interesting when you order a 'Milk' pour; my first dimpled stein full to the brim of wet, aromatic pilsner foam and I was instantly transported back to that 'Mlíko' pour of Svêtlý in the streets of Prague. It's a special food or drink experience that can so fully recreate a memory like that. The 'Smooth' is similarly analogous to a Czech 'Šnyt' (or German 'Schnitt') where the glass is about half-full of foam, perfect for long sessions.
So rather than a long list of beers, this brewery focuses on only a few offerings, but served in a variety of ways, as authentically as possible. I sat down with Gross and Grid City President Justin Belliveau to learn more about this unique approach. “The inspiration comes from [Grid City CEO] Drew [Reynolds] and his beer drinking experience,” says Belliveau. “He asked, 'What if you served the same beer those three different ways rather than having a particular beer that's just on nitro, or just on cask?' We wanted to have that be a part of our program from day one.”
The draft system had to be custom designed in order to facilitate this idea, and it wasn't easy. The Lukr faucets themselves had to be modified once they were imported from Czech as the European tap threads wouldn't work with American hardware. “Our [House] Pilsner is authentic Czech–it's 100% Bohemian floor-malted pilsner malt, it's Czech hops, it's Czech yeast, it's natural carbonation, it's double decocted,” says Gross, “so we decided to go traditional the whole way, serving it on the Lukr faucets.” And this attention to detail is evident in the beer. The mouthfeel is round with an interesting depth of malt character, spicy noble hop presence and rich lager-yeast body. Of course, the experience varies a little depending on what pour you opt for. How do the faucets create these options? Gross explains it better than I could:
“There's a flow meter and an agitator and a screen at the bottom that helps to cause foam. You can barely crack it with a high flow and get 100% of that wet foam in the 'Milk' pour. Depending on how you adjust the flow meter and how you open the pour and how you pour the beer, you can get different densities of foam and different levels of CO2. So the 'Smooth' has less CO2 and a richer, thicker head that's supposed to stay on the beer and keep it from oxidation as you drink it. The 'Crisp' pour has less head and more CO2 because you're pouring faster, and that's more refreshing for when you're eating, so it refreshes your palate after every bite of food.”
The draft options don't end there either. All three of Grid City's standard ales are served cask conditioned and on nitro gas in addition to a standard CO2 pour. Given that nitro and cask service are generally British in origin, the standard ales were all made to be as British as possible as well. “We use British yeast and British malts,” relates Gross, “so they tend to be more malt-forward and that naturally lends themselves to nitro beers to cask beers.” In addition, Grid City's bar offers tasting flights to show off their system; you can order a single beer served all three ways, or all three beers served one way to compare and contrast.
So it sounds like a great experiment and educational experience, but are patrons responding to it? “Foam's bad in America!,” jokes Gross. But all you have to do is check out their Instagram presence to see loads of folks chugging a 'Milk' pour and enjoying the hell out of it, just like me. “We've had friends out of state ask us, 'why is everyone chugging milk at your bar?'” laughs Belliveau, “so there's that education piece. But it's become really popular.” And for good reason! Grid City is offering something you can't get anywhere else. “Part of that is about our draft laws in Utah,” laments Belliveau. “People don't really get excited about drinking draft beer in Utah, so we're trying to make it interesting!” So which combination of beer and pouring methodology is your favorite? You won't know until you try.