Looking at the taps on a bar with a good beer selection can be a pleasurable experience even before you've had your first sip of beer. A number of craft breweries have, over the years, used their handles to accentuate their ethos. Oregon's Rogue offers a vast array of handles, some of which feature cartoonish figures that echo the labels found on their bottled beers. One of their handles, the bulk of which is filled with grain, makes a literally back-to-basics approach; that it’s visually distinctive doesn’t hurt, either. The tap handles from Michigan’s Bell's opt for a more restrained, classical approach: it's not flashy, but it’s also immediately recognizable. There's an elegance in seeing one of their handles at a bar: the clean lines echo the restrained, effective taste of many of the beers that the brewery makes.
A great tap handle might catch your eye. But can it actually sell a beer? Drew Horne would argue that it can. He's the general manager of Barcade in Jersey City, a bar featuring an impressive array of locally-brewed craft beer. As one example of a design that has effectively translated into pints sold, he cited the tap handles made by New Jersey Beer Company, which end in an outline of the state. "Since my location is based in Jersey City, we have a lot of people that will order their beers simply by saying, 'Hey I'll take that New Jersey beer' without even knowing what the beer is," he said. "Luckily most of their styles are very easy drinkers, so the lay craft beer person is rarely 'offended' by what they ordered."
From a bartending perspective, sometimes an overly-designed tap handle can backfire. Horne noted that certain trends in handle design can make pouring beers less efficient. "Some breweries take the skyscraper approach, where they go taller and taller in their battle for tap handle supremacy," he said. "What happens (at least for me when I'm pouring beers like a maniac on a weekend night) is they're so top heavy that when you pop the handle back to stop the flow, the momentum will then bring the handle forward again causing the faucet to pour precious, delicious beer down the spill."
When asked to point to one brewery whose tap handles constantly impress, Horne cited Delaware's Dogfish Head, pointing specifically to the designs for their Uber Rubix Cube and Shark Week handles. Looking at both, there's a good balance of the practical and proportional along with an immediately eye-catching design. For Horne, that Dogfish Head's tap handles would impress is no surprise. "[Dogfish Head] owner and founder Sam Calagione is well known in the beer world for his marketing expertise,” he said. “From his bottles and label art to his tap handles, everything is curated with the utmost detail."
The manufacturing and design of beer tap handles is an industry unto itself. Wisconsin’s AJS Tap Handles has been in business since the late 1980s, and General Manager Mark Steinhardt pointed out that they work with "pretty much everybody," from massive beer companies like Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors to craft breweries of all sizes. In a given year, he estimates that the number of handles that they make is "on the order of at least half a million."
Their work ranges from manufacturing based on a design supplied to them by a client to having their own in-house design department come up with something. When asked for a particularly notable craft beer design that AJS had worked on, one example that Steinhardt cited was their work for fellow Wisconsin company Stevens Point Brewery, which feature pointy-headed figures looking out from the taps, mugs in hand.
A different approach is taken by Oregon's Ninkasi Brewing Company, whose distinctive metal tap handles resemble little else you're likely to see in a bar That work is all done in-house: Ninkasi is the rare brewery that also incorporates a metal shop. Jazz Khalsa is Ninkasi's Metal Shop Design and Fabrication Specialist, and he pointed out that this dates back to Ninkasi's first days of having beer on tap, in 2006. According to Khalsa, the tap handles take around nine hours each to produce, with the caveat that "the majority of that is hands-free finishing."
"Our co-founder and founding brewer, Jamie Floyd, was most responsible" for the handles' design, Khalsa said. "His guidance was to make a tap handle with a bit more of a feminine aesthetic. This not only fits with the fact that our name, Ninkasi, is the ancient Sumerian Goddess of fermentation, but was also geared at stimulating a broader audience for the beers we were creating."
While a distinctive tap handle won’t change how a beer tastes, it can serve to show that a brewery has put plenty of thought into what they’re doing. The reverse is also true: a mediocre or offensive tap handle might make potential drinkers opt for something else. The craft of beer handles is as much a craft as anything in the process of making and selling beer. And, like a well-brewed ale or stout, the resulting rewards can delight far beyond the first impression.