Last month, the UK's first tank beer bar opened in London. Dispensing beer directly into the glass from specialised tanks, "tank beer" is seen by many brewers as the only way to ensure freshness.
All photos by Stephanie Galea.
Happily, not the type of tank gurgling away in your loft (or the far less pleasant one attached to your drainage system), but tank beer.
Tank beer is all about freshness: beer that's as close to brewery fidelity as possible. As the name suggests, the drink is dispensed into your glass from specialised tanks, engineered to preserve integrity. Last month, the UK's first dedicated tank bar launched in east London's Hackney Wick, courtesy of independent microbrewery Howling Hops.
"You can have a fresh bottle of lager but I think a tank beer takes you onto another experience altogether," says Adrian Tierney-Jones, journalist and beer writer. "For me, tank beer is a good way of experiencing the beer at source, as it should be served. It really dances on your palate. There's a crispness, a sprightliness, and it's really refreshing. You feel like you're closer to the brewery than you are with a bottle or draught."
Rather than any tinkering with the brewing itself, this freshness comes down to how the finished product is transported to the pub and served. Basically, as soon as the beer is ready, it is transferred to the tank it's served from. From the brewer's works to your palate, it's delivered as swiftly as possible and with minimal interference.
Tank beer is the nearest thing the beer world has to organic farming, free from chemical meddling or treatments, and therein lies the magic.
Most of us have grown accustomed to beer as long-life liquid, snapped up from supermarket shelves, and stocked as long as needed. Indeed, mass-produced brands are pasteurised to ensure longevity, flash boiled at 73 degrees Celsius for kegs and tunnel heated at 60 degrees Celsius for bottles and cans. This performs the valuable task of eliminating bacteria but also, some would argue, takes a wrecking ball to the beer's flavour profile, giving it a "cooked" taste.
The craft brew comparison needs little fanfare. Suffice to say, it's driven by principles of purity and authenticity, and is a bit like placing a barista-made beverage next to instant coffee.
"At the end of the day, beer is a living product and needs to be drunk as fresh as possible," argues Tierney-Jones. "With something like a lager, the fresher it is the more nuances you get from it."
To this end, tank beer is arguably at the pinnacle of the craft ethos. In Howling Hops' case, the brewery is located at the same premises in which customers are served, allowing for a true single source approach. Once the beer has been fermented, each batch is funnelled directly into one of the ten chrome tanks standing majestically behind the bar itself, each emblazoned with a distinct logo.
The transmission is carefully controlled so there's no contact with the elements, and total taste fidelity is nailed: no pasteurisation, no chemical packaging, and minimal transport time (just a couple of hours between brewery and bar).
As Tim , one of the brewers at Howling Hops, explains, proximity makes all the difference.
"The thing that makes it tank beer is that we brewers are so close to the final product," he says. "Bars and clubs are buying from someone else, and the extra steps inbetween affect the beer. This approach is as fresh as possible. It's made right here and you're drinking it 15 metres away."
The day I visit Tim also happens to be one of sweltering, suffocating heat—the hottest summer day in a generation (or thereabouts). Stepping from the merciless sun into the bar's shaded, mess-hall-meets-warehouse interior feels like something from a post-industrial Western. But sampling the tank brews changes that, transporting me to the cathartic last scene of Ice Cold in Alex.
As you'd hope, all the beer tastes exceptionally fresh.
We kick off with the Rye Wit, the levity and sweetness of which is a perfect foil to the heatwave. The Smoked Porter is less suited, with notes of bacon and chocolate teasing the tastebuds but the Black XX is reminiscent of cold cappuccino (in a good way).
There are one or two misfires, notably the Pale Ale Custom Deluxe, which tastes bland and predictable despite its exotic branding. But the appeal of tank beer is plain to see, even if you're not a brewing connoisseur. There's an undeniable vivacity to Howling Hops' tanked products. Almost every beer I taste genuinely refreshes before offering up its own array of flavours.
Alongside the quality of the booze, a tank bar is worth the visit for the vessels themselves. A gimmick, you might argue, but one that looks pretty cool and provides a kind of visual representation of the single-source, handcrafted philosophy underpinning the whole operation
While tank beer is proving popular this summer, the trend remains a slow-burner in the UK. Meantime Brewing Company and a number of brewpubs have embraced the concept, but we're still a long way from the likes of the Czech Republic, where tankovna (tank bars) are two-a-penny.
The slow uptake may be due to a psychological hangover from the 1970s. As described in detail in several beer blogs, tank beer was commonplace in some parts of Britain during that era, but was a very different animal to the bespoke version we're seeing today.
Far from being a way to ensure the pedigree of your pints, old-school tanks were about shifting product at scale, letting breweries deliver large quantities of low-grade keg to pubs in a single sweep. This would gradually "mature" into a drinker's worst nightmare, and longstanding associations with stagnant tanks from the dark ages of beer may put people off, even today.
In fact, drinkers may yet have to remain vigilant. Brewing industry rumours suggest that some larger operators are looking to cash in on the tank trend, with an evil plot to disguise inferior brews as tank-fresh and foist these clones on the unsuspecting market.
The good news is, it may be easy to spot the difference. Doing tank beer properly is a labour of love (as the overheated brewers of Howling Hops testify). It requires rigorous planning and logistical know-how, even by craft brewing standards.
For this reason, the trend may stay small-scale and continue to favour dedicated producers.
"If you're a big operation I don't really see how it would benefit you, because the cost of logistics would just be silly," explains beer writer Pete Brown. "I don't think this will become the next big thing, I think it'll definitely be something niche. It's one part of the craft beer wave we're riding at the moment; for me it's one step up from being a brew pub."
Indeed, for Tim at Howling Hops, more tank brew pubs should be the next phase of the craft movement.
"This style of dispense only works if you're making and serving something on site," he says. "It's a labour of love but the end result is worth it. It makes sense to eat local, drink local, and support local. With that, we'll get more brew pubs and better products."