ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
A pointy headed professor, a hand-painted heron, a steel fist rising in the air - these are all works of American art, but you don't go to a museum to see them. You go to your local bar or craft brewery. They are tap handles. The business of creating these handles has expanded along with the growth of the craft beer industry. Bonnie Petrie of member station WUWM brings us this report.
BONNIE PETRIE, BYLINE: Austin Voelker is at Stubby's GastroGrub in Milwaukee, enjoying a pint of beer. He's surveying the bar's 53 taps. Each one has a unique handle reflective of the brewery and the brew competing to catch his eye.
AUSTIN VOELKER: Something that kind of stands out, that kind of represents the beer itself and has a unique look to it, looks interesting and kind of funny.
PETRIE: That's exactly what Mark Steinhardt likes to hear. He's the general manager at AJS Tap Handle Company in Random Lake, Wis. It's one of the nation's largest manufacturers of tap handles.
MARK STEINHARDT: And I'll often - if I'm in a bar with a friend or family, they'll say, so how many of those did you make? And I'll say, well, we made three quarters of those tap handles. We made this one, that one, this one, that one. Oh, that's really cool. So it's a fun experience.
PETRIE: Going to a bar for a tap handle crater is like going to a gallery opening for a painter. After all, tap handles are little works of art.
Inside the factory at AJS Tap Handle Company, a worker uses a table saw to cut planks of wood. Some handles are carved. Others are molded out of enamel, polyurethane or metal and are often hand painted. AJS's clients include biggies like Coors. But when pushed to choose his personal favorite, he settles on a vaguely menacing cone-head - Professor Point for Steven's Point Brewery in Wisconsin.
STEINHARDT: It's a fun handle, very labor intensive, very cool looking tap handle in my opinion. They use him as part of the tap handle and part of their logo.
PETRIE: The number of craft breweries in the U.S. has more than doubled in the last five years. Lucy Saunders writes about beer for Cheers! magazine, and she says if a new brewery wants to distinguish itself, well, it needs to make a quality brew.
LUCY SAUNDERS: But I do think that a tap handle that's well designed will be something that people respond to. What's that? That's new, haven't seen that before. What's the story behind that one?
PETRIE: Back at Stubby's, owner Bradley Todd says customers often choose a beer based on an attention-grabbing tap handle.
BRADLEY TODD: People definitely judge a book by its cover 'cause it just sparks a conversation about it, and that alone can entice somebody to drink that beer.
PETRIE: AJS's Mark Steinhardt says a snazzy tap handle is important for a beer to stand out along a crowded line of craft brews, but it's just one part of the branding.
STEINHARDT: We like to think that the tap handle will sell the first beer for the brewery. Of course then it's up to the beer itself to sell the second beer.
PETRIE: AJS is expanding its factory to keep up with the nation's tap handle demand. They already sell a half million tap handles a year and don't expect it to slow down. For NPR News, I'm Bonnie Petrie in Milwaukee.