Maybe you’ve seen them bubbling up on your Instagram feed, those beer glasses full of milky white foam. Perhaps you’ve asked yourself, “But, where’s the beer?” Or, “What on earth is a ‘milktube?’” And while this latest craze in the American craft beer scene might inspire a lot of questions for the uninitiated, it’s one that’s decidedly worth diving into. Here’s everything you need to know about the mlíko pour, and why it should be the first thing you order when you can find it.
“Mlíko means ‘milk’ in Czech,” says Pilsner Urquell senior trade brewmaster Kamil Růžek. “It’s named because it’s a glass filled with wet beer foam, with a very small bit of beer at the bottom, so it really does look just like a glass of creamy milk.”
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Růžek calls the mlíko “certainly the most extreme” of three classic Czech beer pours, which include the hladinka and the šnyt. The hladinka is about 75 percent beer, 25 percent foam; the šnyt is a little more foam than beer. Pilsner Urquell keeps all three alive with its explainers and marketing, but it’s the hladinka and the šnyt you’re more likely to actually see at Czech pubs, says Prague-based beer writer and author (and VinePair columnist) Evan Rail. “The mlíko is a little more of a party trick,” he says.
All three pours are possible because of the Czech Republic’s famed LUKR faucets. Standard taps operate in a binary open/closed manner; LUKR faucets are side-pull designs. They have a ball valve and micro-screen that aerates the beer as it’s poured. For different pours, the bartender opens the tap to varying degrees.
“For the perfect mlíko, the tap is opened only slightly, creating a beer foam to fill the glass with,” says Růžek. A small amount of the foam settles to become beer but otherwise it’s a nice, creamy, dense pour.”
“In beer cultures such as the United States and England, the beer is poured first and then the foam is allowed to form on the top of the beer,” Blair says. “In Czech beer service utilizing a side pour faucet, however, the foam is poured first and then the beer is poured underneath the cap of foam.”
Růžek says the mlíko has been a tradition since 1842, originating as a dessert serve or “an elegant drink for women who weren’t big beer drinkers in … Czech pubs in the 19th and 20th centuries.”
Mike Stein, a historian, writer, brewer, and president of Lost Lagers beverage consultancy, speculates on the mlíko with some more context, noting Pilsner Urquell is known to make only one beer, a pale lager. But Rail’s research uncovered a time when that lager was made in three different strengths. This was 1907, not too long after the mlíko had become traditional.
“Is it possible the mlíko came about as a way to differentiate one product three ways?” Stein asks, reasoning that part of the mlíko’s appeal is that one can experience the same beer in a whole new way.
“I tend to think of [the mlíko] as a beer for certain occasions (after the bill was paid, a nightcap on the way home, sure), but the beer for women who didn’t like beer?” says Stein. “Seems sketchy to me.”
Alas, there could be more to the mlíko’s origin story we just don’t know, whether it was a treat for the ladies or the promise of a different experience for the same beer. Viewpoints also vary when it comes to the mlíko’s journey from the early 20th century to today.
Růžek says that this pour has remained “a huge part of the Czechs’ famous beer history and culture, never something that’s been forgotten,” but that it’s indeed one of the more unusual pours. Perhaps that’s why, as Rail notes, you won’t see a bar lined with mlíko pours in Czech pubs today. One might think mlíkos are more common among Czech drinkers based on Pilsner Urquell’s starry-eyed mlíko musings, but Rail says, “The vast majority of people actively engaged in beer culture [in the Czech Republic] have not heard of the mlíko pour, or do not think it is very important.”
The mlíko undoubtedly has value as a key piece of Czech beer history, thanks to its LUKR and Pilsner Urquell links. But if it’s not commonly on tap in Czech bars, why are we talking about it, and why are we seeing this trend grow in the United States?
The Mlíko Revival
How did the mlíko fall from its status of a traditional Pilsner Urquell pour to being largely forgotten by Czech drinkers as the 20th century carried on? “The Nazi occupation of Bohemia and Moravia definitely put a damper on the nature of Czech beer culture,” says Stein. Perhaps such a novelty began to feel superfluous.
Any small return the mlíkos made in the Czech Republic could be credited to Tomáš Karpíšek, according to Rail. The restaurant group founder opened a mini-chain of pubs around Prague called Lokal, and started serving mlíkos. “Maybe one out of every five beers there is a mlíko,” Rail says, “mostly for tourists.”
The mlíko is new to American craft beer lovers, though, and it’s a trend on the rise. This owes to rising Czech beer interest here and the subsequent influx of LUKR faucets. Industry darlings like Notch Brewing in Salem, Mass., have turned craft enthusiasts onto the simple perfection of a Czech-style pilsner. Seeking authenticity, brewers endeavor to do right by the Czech brewers who inspire them with the proper setup. That means pouring Czech-style beers out of Czech-style faucets. So for the first time, LUKR is doing gangbuster business in the States. It’s a natural next step for American breweries, beer bars, and bottle shops to go even further into the Czech beer experience, really showing what these LUKR taps can do. The most extreme, fun, novel, and Instagrammable LUKR flex is, of course, the mlíko, so of course that’s what’s taking off here — it’s the American way.
“Nobody had LUKRs before,” says Human Robot co-founder Jake Atkinson. “When we opened in 2020 we were the second in Pennsylvania — Stick City in Pittsburgh was the first, I believe — and the first in Philadelphia to have a LUKR faucet. You couldn’t just go online and buy them. We reached out to an old friend, Mike Fava, now of Novare Res in Maine, to help us source them. …Now you can buy them online from LUKR and get them in a week, so there are more LUKRs in general now.”
Like many American breweries and beer bars responding to a blossoming clamor for traditional European styles, Brent Hernandez wanted to bring the unique experience to his Orlando bar Redlight Redlight.
“In 2018 there was a wave of breweries doing ‘slow pour’ pilsners,” Hernandez says. “It was after GABF and everyone went to Bierstadt Lagerhaus and tried to replicate what they’re doing. … We had an old Pilsner Urquell side pull faucet we had gotten around 2012 so we decided to try it out.” In 2019, Hernandez spent time in Plzeň, Liberec, and Frýdlant exploring Czech breweries. Czech traditions increasingly infiltrated service at Redlight Redlight. Hernandez says it started with the hladinka but they “Americanized” it at first. “We offered our Czech lager in a ‘smooth pour’ or ‘crisp pour,’ ‘smooth’ being a true hladinka and ‘crisp’ [being the beer poured] straight into the mug.” Then came mlíkos, as “milko” pours. The bar offers small samples called “nips,” 12-ounce pours in stange glasses called “tubes,” and dimpled-mug pours. One server even came up with the “Mlíko Bomb,” dropping a shot of mead in.
True to American craft beer form, breweries and beer bars have been putting their own spin on mlíkos. That’s how a Human Robot tee emblazoned with “milktubes” became one of the hottest pieces of merch in beer.
“A milktube is just a mlíko pour into a stange or kölsch glass,” Atkinson says. One night after chugging too many full-size mlíkos, we thought it might be funner and easier to do it in a 10-ounce kölsch stange rather than a 22-ounce mug. … It’s akin to taking a shot without the drunken part. … It stuck and basically every person who comes into the taproom starts out with ‘a tube’ or four.” Noting the milktube’s Instagrammability, Atkinson adds, “Everyone loves getting a full kranz tray of milktubes for the table and seeing who can chug it the fastest.”
On that note, to chug or not to chug? What is a mlíko actually like? American brewers and publicans are personalizing the experience, but what is the experience to start with?
Embrace the Foam
Considering a mlíko pour is indeed a glass of beer foam, it might fly in the face of everything a casual drinker knows about beer. One might overhear a bar patron served with a mlíko respond incredulously, “This is all foam! I can’t drink this!”, as this writer here has witnessed. After all, the Cicerone Certification Program tests prospective beer experts on how to troubleshoot overly foamy beer. So, why is your local beer bar now trying to market a glass-of-foam experience to you?
The foam you don’t want is what gushes forth from a traditional open-and-shut beer faucet because the beer’s temperature is off, the applied pressure to the draft system is wrong, or the lines are dirty, for example. The foam you do want is a crowning cloud of beautiful, concentrated beer aroma, formed by the beer’s own ingredients. From the aroma and mouthfeel to the aesthetic value, foam is considered crucial in varying amounts for different beer styles — one inch on average is standard, Jess Baker told Kate Bernot for this beer head guide.
“The two biggest components of beer foam are proteins from the malts used to brew the beer and the iso-alpha acids from the hops,” Blair says. “The malt proteins in the finished beer are hydrophobic and seek to escape the beer liquid. … They seek out carbon dioxide (carbonation) and effectively hitchhike to the surface of the beer. Once at the surface, the malt proteins form protective layers around the carbonation bubbles, helping with foam retention.”
Within that foam lives a prolonged burst of the beer’s aroma. That’s why for certain styles like German hefeweizens and Belgian witbiers, even two inches is most desirable. A mlíko, then, is all that delicious aroma packed into a mug, intended to be downed in one (or two) fell swoops, riffing on the foam’s appeal with a unique textural experience. The fleeting nature of the mlíko’s consumption factors in, too.
“Many descriptions of how mlíko pours impact the flavor and aroma of the beer focus on the creaminess and sweetness of the foam’s flavor as well as the enhanced malt character,” Blair says. “Additionally, bitterness is said to be less pronounced than what one would find in the same beer poured a different way.” The way those malt proteins and hop iso-alpha acids interact? That occurs over time within the beer foam rather than the beer liquid, Blair explains. So because the mlíko is to be downed quickly, the foam has lower perceived bitterness than the same beer would if poured with the more typical three parts liquid, one part foam.
The aesthetics are valuable, too — not just for the ‘Gram but for the beholder at the bar.
“Visually, just like eating, we drink with our eyes first,” says Christa Sobier, certified cicerone and proprietor of Brooklyn’s bottle shop and bar Beer Witch. “Seeing the foam and the color changes the aesthetic experience before you even take a sip.”
Taking into account all that intriguing beer character manipulation, American beer purveyors are also updating the mlíko by using it beyond the lager. At Beer Witch, they pour dark milds, best bitters, brown ales — “and they’ve all tasted amazing,” Sobier says. Atkinson says Human Robot also mlíkos its darker Czech lagers, noting it brings out their chocolate notes, becoming “almost dessert-like.” Stein says a Florida brewer he spoke with had his own Czech-style dark lager as a mlíko that looked more like hot chocolate than beer — the brewer deemed it “phenomenal.”
Conversation starter, social media bait, Czech beer culture celebration, beer education (the latter of which Sobier considers a motivation for offering things like mlíko at Beer Witch) — the mlíko definitely has enough going for it that it stands to keep growing in U.S. beer. The investment of LUKR taps might keep mlíkos from being at every corner taproom, and like anything else in fickle American craft beer, it probably won’t be huge forever. So, if you see a mlíko, grab it for a new beer experience. Even if you’re unsure of whether you’ll like it — just consider Atkinson’s guidance.
“Do you like to have fun? Good, try this.”