When you first sit down at a bar, it’s likely that the first thing you do is scan what’s on tap. Personally, I look for something new before settling for something I’ve tried before. The attractiveness of the tap handle is a big factor in my decision. I’ve ordered many a beer based solely on the marker’s look. For example, the first time I had an Oak Barrel Stout, it was because the big barrel handle caught my eye. From a marketing standpoint, these tap handles are quite powerful — it’s a last-ditch effort to make you buy their beer. The colorful markers, however, weren’t always advertising gimmicks.
After Prohibition was lifted, it was fairly common for bars to advertise a certain beer, but pour customers a different, lower-quality one. Once the government got hold of this news, they passed a law requiring bars to identify the beers served on tap. This led to breweries creating ball knobs with their logos as tap markers.
Soon, breweries began to realize the marketing potential for these handles and started crafting bigger, more attractive ones.
Outside of a beer mascot here and a baseball bat there, the period between WWII and the late ’80s was relatively uninspired tap-handle wise. The markers mainly got bigger and more colorful. And just when it appeared that bars would be littlered with bright red Budweiser handles, the craft beer movement of the early ’90s came along and changed everything. The reason for this is quite simple. Unable to compete with the advertising money spent by the macrobrewers, the microbrewers had to stand out where it mattered most: the point of purchase. Now, thanks to those early pioneers, we see giant pencils, steaming locomotives, and even President Obama.
With more and more craft beers popping up every day, the need for them to differentiate themselves will remain, and so will unique tap handles.