PHOTOGRAPHY BY SMALL POND DESIGN
“DRAFT BEER IS BREWER’S GOLD.”
That’s why the Old Corner Café in Naugatuck, CT, serves only the tapped stuff, says proprietor John Woermer. “It’s the best stuff they make,”Woermer explains. “It’s the same beer as in the tanks, and the wholesaler takes better care of it.”
It’s an opinion that many in the business of serving beer for a living share, quality being only one component. Woermer takes better care of it himself as well, and that’s his edge. “Bottled beer tastes the same everywhere,” he noted. “We have the very best draft beer. People travel for this beer.” Woermer said he uses a secret tap and line cleaning system that came with the Old Corner when he bought it, and there must be something to it: his beer is always top-rate, so fresh it sings in your mouth. Bottled beer never tasted that fresh.
I’ve talked to brewers who say the same thing. One put it quite memorably. “I spend hours brewing my beer,” he told me. “I send it to the tanks, and spend weeks carefully aging it to perfection. Then I send it through that wall to be bottled, and they f— it up in 30 seconds! Draft beer is like the beer in my tanks.” I haven’t talked to a brewer yet who doesn’t agree.
We live in a time of strange opposites. Draft beer is down to 10% or less of total sales, and yet bars with large draft systems are thriving: places with 30, 50, 100, even 200 taps are doing well. In Philadelphia, where I live, imported beers show up on draft that sometimes aren’t even available on draft in their own countries.
Even at America’s most renowned bottled beer bar, DC’s Brickskellar, where David Alexander manages over 1,000 different bottled beers, draft has a place. “We put in two state of the art lines that can handle anything,” Alexander said. “It’s a small setup, but it’s excellent. We try to present the best bottle selection out there, but a lot of beers are just not bottled. Brewers’ most unusual beers are almost always draft.”
LET A THOUSAND TAPS BLOOM
Whether it’s imports, craft brews, or old reliable Budweiser, draft beer can be a strong part of your sales, and can even be a drawing point. But it’s going to take some work, and a fair amount of money, to expand to a large number of draft beers.
The big issue, of course, is space: cold space. Kegs have to be kept in a cold box. The cold box has to be big enough to hold the kegs, the tapping system, and the stock of kegs for refills, plus enough room for you to move around. Then you’ve got to have space at the bar for all the taphandles, space through the walls for all the lines (twenty properly-insulated draft lines take up a lot of space), and space for the refrigeration equipment. And if you’re going to turn enough draft beer fast enough to make this all work, you’ll need space for a lot of customers.
If it’s that much work and money, why do it at all? I asked William Reed, partner in Standard Tap, the hottest beer bar in Philadelphia, why his bar serves beer only on draft. “Multiple reasons,” he began. He noted the freshness angle, and he should know: he was also a brewer at the Samuel Adams Brew House in Philly.
“The other reason is kinda funny,” Reed continued. “I used to go down to a bar and be hanging out, and having a good time. I’d see all the people drinking from bottles. Then at the end of the night there are four drums of empties out front. And it’s a travesty! It costs everybody more. That’s one of the things that really bugged me.” If you’re in a “green” area, pointing out that beer kegs are the ultimate recyclable container (the average stainless steel keg lasts 35 years in service!) might be just the spark your draft program needs.
Of course, I’m not urging you to drop bottles. In most bars, bottles continue to be a mainstay of sales. Even David Keene, at San Francisco’s famed Toronado beer bar, has a selection of over 100 bottled beers to go with his 46 taps, though his reasons are geared more to the connoisseur. “Eighty per cent of the list is Belgian beers,” he said. “Belgians store very well, they’re often bottle-conditioned. And some of them are simply better in the bottle than on draft.” He chuckled, and added another reason. “I’m fond of Belgian beers myself, too.”
Keene will flex his bottle menu to reflect the special beer themes he’ll run for a month, adding German beers in October, and bringing out special aged “vintages” for his Belgian month. That’s the way he makes sure that his bottle and draft lists complement each other, rather than compete with each other, which is the last thing you want to have happen. If a bottle list duplicates too much of what you have on draft, or is more attractive and interesting than your draft lines, you’re going to wind up with kegs that don’t empty, and there goes the freshness factor.
KEEP IT FRESH, MAKE IT MOVE
Mike Dixon, the cold box guru at Portland, ME’s Great Lost Bear pub, has computerized help on the freshness front. “If a keg is on fourteen days and we haven’t turned it over,” he said, “a red flag goes up on our spreadsheet. Then we put it on special for $2.50 a pint, and it’s gone in two days.”
Dixon’s not just keeping an eye on his own time, either. “We have to keep checking the kegs, the racking dates. Sometimes you get warehouse problems at the distributors, a keg will get stuck in the back, and not make it out of the warehouse until it’s been in there four or five months. We’ll send it back. We don’t want to be selling any bad beer at all.”
The usual methods to get customers to consume in a manner that you can manage still work as well. “It’s pretty remarkable how we go through draft,” Dixon said, and then laid out some reasons. “We do a promotion every week, with a brewer’s night.” That’s one of the Bear’s selling points: their 54 taps will usually have up to 36 Maine- and greater New England-based brewers’ beers. “We give away trinkets and gag gifts, the brewers get to talk to the people, and the people are into it.”
Let’s get back into the cold room for a while, and take a look at what makes a good draft system tick. There are three major components to a good system. You must put in good mechanicals: cold box, cooled and insulated lines, taps. You must establish a well-planned and executed gas system. Finally, you have to keep everything cleaned and maintained.
William Reed’s cold box at Standard Tap may be an extreme example, since Reed put it in himself; he had his reasons. “I am a tinkerer,” he admitted. “It’s some sort of motorhead background. I had to put a draft system in, and the salespeople I talked to didn’t impress me. So I learned it, and put the draft system in myself. We knew from the beginning that 60% of sales was going to be beer, and if you can’t get the draft system right, you’re in trouble.”
While installing the draft system without a contractor may be beyond most people, operators should at least make themselves very familiar with the technical aspects. Because otherwise, when something inevitably goes wrong at 11:00 on a Friday night, you’re going to be trying, probably inadequately, to describe a line fitting or a gas mixer setting on a cell phone to a guy who’s just been woken up by your frantic call.
COLD, COLD HEART
Cold boxes are pretty easy to understand. Taps should be easy to take apart and clean, and ideally they should be cooled and insulated right up to the point of dispense. But the lines are often a sticking point. They must be insulated, and if you’re lines that need to go further than right under the bar, they should be cooled as well.
Mike Dixon described the Great Lost Bear’s system. “We blow cold air all the way from the cold box to the serving point with fans, and the lines are wrapped in thick foam insulation. If you don’t have a long run, you can do it.” Dixon is lucky enough to have his box right beside the bar. “If it’s more than 20 feet, you have problems,” he noted. “You should be cooling the lines with glycol, and probably pushing them with beer gas.”
“Beer gas,” or “Guinness gas,” is the 75/25 carbon dioxide (CO2)/nitrogen (N2) mix used to pressurize Guinness and other nitrogenated stouts. It’s available in premixed tanks and has become popular in multitap operations. You can also blend your own with separate tanks and a blender, a method David Keene endorses, though he also has premix. “We have to have Guinness gas for the nitro beers,” he said. “Then I use a blender for the other beers, and straight CO2 for the highly carbonated beers like the pilsners. The blender works quite well, but some beers just don’t taste right with the mix, they taste too soft.”
Jeff Stanley, a draft expert from Kansas knows many things that can go wrong with a draft system, too. “Most systems overcarbonate beer as the keg empties. That makes it taste more bitter, kind of buzzy. Usually this is because the cooler’s set too low. At very cold temperatures beer will soak up more CO2.”
Flow rate is crucial to a busy bar; too slow, and you can’t serve people promptly, too fast and you’ve got wild beer splattering all over. “A gallon a minute is industry-standard,” Stanley said, “but unless the servers are experienced that’s too fast. They’ll be scared to open the tap all the way, and they’ll get a lot of foam.”
One thing operators must be firm about: only people who know what they’re doing should be allowed to change the gas pressure settings. Chances are slim that pressure settings are screwing up a draft line in the short term, and changing settings may upset the whole system.
The last and most important thing about draft beer is cleanliness and maintenance. While most distributors will still clean taplines, not all do, and with further consolidation among wholesalers you can expect the service to dwindle, not expand. Most multi-tap bars go to cleaning the taps themselves.
David Keene of Toronado does. “I find that with 46 taps,” he pointed out, “keeping track of when who’s cleaned what is too much trouble, so we do our own. Every two weeks we clean everything, lines, taps, fittings. In an ideal world I’d want to clean every week. But I figure we already drop about $7000 worth of beer at retail prices a year, emptying the lines for cleaning. That’s why when I go to bars with long lines, I know they’re not cleaning the lines. But if you get over the mentality that you’re wasting beer, people will seek out your bar for the fresh beer.”
Mike Dixon of Great Lost Bear feels the same way. “We do it ourselves,” he said. “The distributors are allowed to, but we decided we should do it ourselves. We can do preventive maintenance that way, too: check for loose clamps, old seals, the things that always break on Friday nights. The distributors are good sources for parts. We use the cleaning cans: you take the hoses off the kegs, hook them up to the cans, run the caustic [solution] through, then rinse. We also take apart the taps and brush the beerstone out. It doesn’t make sense to clean the lines and forget that! It’s harmless, but it can make a beer very bitter.”
Keep it cold, keep it under proper pressure, and keep it clean. Keep a good mix of beers on, or just keep your customers’ favorites. You don’t have to have 50 taps: you can have an outstanding selection on just ten. Plan, and get processes in place that everyone understands, and you can start mining brewer’s gold.
Lew Bryson follows the beer world as managing editor of Malt Advocate.
Why should you use beer gas in non-nitrogenated beers? I asked Jeff Stanley, a draft expert from Kansas (Jeff’s so excited about draft beer he’s got his own website for bar-owners, brewers, and at-home draft systems: http://www.angelfire.com/ks2/beer/draft.html. He explained that keeping the beer moving through long tap lines is a tough job.
Try as you may, the tap lines are almost always warmer than the keg in the coldbox. “Say the keg is at 34 degrees,” Stanley began, “and the lines are at 42 degrees: there’s an 8 degree difference. When the beer hits the line at 42 degrees, the CO2 comes out of solution, and bubbles of gas form in the line.” Yet if you try to keep it in solution by boosting the CO2 pressure, you get harshly overcarbonated beer.
That’s where the nitrogen comes in. It acts as an extra, non-absorbed push on the beer. “Imagine pressurizing the keg to 10 psi [pounds per square inch] with CO2,” Stanley explained, “and then boosting it to the balance point [where the gas will stay in solution] for the warmest part of the system with nitrogen. The partial pressure of CO2 in the headspace of the keg acts the same under higher blended pressures.”
This idea of “partial pressures” is hard to get at first. It’s all keyed on the fact that beer doesn’t really “want” to absorb nitrogen. So if you pressurize a keg to 10 psi with CO2, the beer will carbonate that much and no more. If you then pump in 20 psi pressure of nitrogen, it will push down on the beer that much harder, but it doesn’t push the CO2 any harder into the beer. It stays at the same carbonation, and because of the extra pressure from the nitrogen it doesn’t gas out in the warmer lines.