Draft beer programs promise profits–and problems–that can make or break a bar. Here’s how to create a winning program.
Barry Carter, VP for store support,
Dave & Buster’s, rear, with corporate beverage manager Jesse Trautmann, says proper troubleshooting keeps draft programs flowing smoothly.
by Cheryl Ursin
In these malty times, as consumers increase their knowledge about the quality and variety of beers, more and more restaurant and bar operators are signing up for the draft. These operators are not only striving to offer customers good draft beer–fresh, cold and served with a proper head–but are also increasing the range of styles and brands they offer.
For the giant, 233-unit casual dining chain Bennigan’s, which has completely revamped its beer program over the past few years, expanding their draft business took colossal effort. Changing from an average selection of about 15 beers with only a few on tap, to over 100 beers with up to 40 drafts, brought in gold along with the golden flow. “We’ve seen a significant increase in our beer sales,” reports Tom Benson, vice president of marketing for the chain.
Yet tapping this market is more than a matter of just tapping kegs. To implement its new beer program, called Copper Clover, Bennigan’s had to make a significant investment in new equipment, reportedly $5,000 to $50,000 per unit. Much of this was for the new draft systems.
All operators, regardless of how many draft beers they offer, must be able to satisfy today’s knowledgeable brew customer, arguably savvier about beer than in any previous time and more likely to notice flaws in their draft beer. Since most common problems develop once the beer begins moving through the operator’s restaurant draft system, it has become more important than ever to choose the right draft equipment and maintain it properly.
When selecting a draft beer system, experts say, on-premise operators must consider a number of factors: their establishment’s design, the bar’s location in the operation, the optimum number and type of draft beers to offer, the expected sales volume for each beer, how their draft beer program might change in the future and even an interior temperature estimate for the hottest days of the year.
THREE TO MAKE READY
Basically, three types of draft systems are in current use. The direct-draw, also known as a keg box or jockey box, is the simplest, cheapest and also the most limited. In a direct-draw system, the kegs are stored in a small cooler beneath the bar. Refrigerated air from the cooler is blown over the beer lines to keep the beer cold as it travels from keg to faucet.
The disadvantages of a direct-draw system stems from the keg’s location: with so much valuable, behind-the-bar space dedicated to draft beer, the operator is limited to carrying only as many as can fit there, and such simple maintenance as replacing a keg must be done at–and over–the bar.
Long-draw systems, also called remote-draw or glycol systems, allow the kegs to be stored in a back room. With the long-draw, beer lines run from the back-house stored and chilled kegs to the bar. The beer lines are kept cold by glycol, a food-grade anti-freeze, pumped through tubes wrapped around the beer lines. The long-draw system can be configured to bring the beer hundreds of feet, or even from one floor of a building to another. Indeed, Multiplex, a long-draw equipment specialist headquartered in Ballwin, MO, has installed a system for a river-boat casino, bringing beer onto the boat from a cooler stored on an adjacent barge and then delivering it to bars on four different decks.
The primary advantages of a long-draw system come from its location. Such a system allows operators to have more beers on tap than a direct-draw system would. Also, kegs can be set up in a series that keeps popular beers from ever going off-line. And bringing in full kegs and taking out empties occurs out of the customer’s sight rather than right at the bar.
Some operators, especially those who carry a great number of beers on tap such as Rock Bottom Restaurants, Inc., employ a third option by designing each location so the back bar and the beer cooler share a wall. Shanks installed at the wall bring the beer directly to the tap.
Gary Foreman, vice president of concept development for Rock Bottom, prefers that set-up for the company’s Old Chicago concept, a 40-location chain of casual restaurants, each of which has 30 beers on tap. Foreman points out that the cooler wall can actually become part of the look of the restaurant. In some Old Chicago locations, for example, windows in the cooler wall allow customers to see the kegs.
SUCH A GAS
Operators also have several options to consider when it comes to choosing the type of gas used to propel the beer through their draft system. The original and still popular option combines carbon dioxide with compressed air. Experts point out, however, that using an air compressor has serious drawbacks. Drawing air for compression from inside the bar or restaurant can introduce odors and even contaminants, such as mildew and dust, to the beer, which results in off-flavors. Oxygen also affects the flavor of beer.
“Our suggestion is get rid of your air compressor if you can,” says Phil Blavat, national draft sales manager for Miller Brewing.
Perhaps the most common choice of gas is now pure carbon dioxide (CO2). A natural component of beer, the introduction of more carbon dioxide will not affect its flavor. In some circumstances, however–such as when used in a very long remote-draw system or one that puts the beer under extra-high pressure to propel it vertically–the use of pure carbon dioxide can result in overcarbonated beer.
“The way to overcome that is to use a mix of carbon dioxide and nitrogen,” says Mark Youngquist, director of brewing operations for the 29 Rock Bottom, Walnut and Chophouse Breweries brewery-restaurants owned by Rock Bottom Restaurants, Inc. This mix of gases, usually 75% nitrogen and 25% carbon dioxide, is known as “beer gas” or “blended gas.” Nitrogen is less likely to be absorbed than carbon dioxide and will not affect the flavor of the beer.
Different types of beer respond differently to the gas options. “Stouts are more apt to hang onto the CO2,” says Youngquist, “which is why these beers are generally used with a nitrogen mix.”
Like most operators, however, Youngquist does not find it practical to use different combinations of gases on the various beers served on tap in one draft system. At the Rock Bottom brewery restaurants, therefore, beer gas is used on all brews.
Youngquist is currently installing nitrogen generators, devices that pull nitrogen out of the air, in the operations under his control. While these devices eliminate the need to buy nitrogen, they are only now becoming a cost-efficient option, operators say. Milwaukee-based Perlick, one of the biggest draft equipment companies, has just introduced a unit, priced at $2,650, in the last year.
Many operators swear by the foam protector. The protectors, also known as beer fobs or empty-beer detectors, cost about $40 and are installed on or above the tavernhead, or tapping device, of each keg and automatically shuts off the flow of beer when the keg is empty (They can also be used on kegs in a series). By shutting off the flow, a foam protector prevents the beer line from filling with gas and eliminates wasting beer once a new keg is tapped.
“You’re not spraying a guest with beer, which I’ve seen happen, and you’re saving the beer in the line,” Old Chicago’s Foreman says. One manufacturer estimates that using a beer fob saves an average of one pitcher of beer per keg when used on a typical long-draw system.
Whatever draft system you use, stringent maintenance procedures are key. Generally, the beer lines and faucets need to be cleaned at least once every two weeks. Whether cleaned by the operator, beer distributor or an outside company (and some states require that an outside company be used), the process includes filling the lines with a special cleaning solution and then flushing them with cold water. Faucets must be disassembled and scrubbed, their parts soaked and sanitized.
This cleaning regimen rids the system of a yeast build-up, which can affect the taste of the beer and also eliminates a calcium build-up called beer stone. At the Rock Bottoms, where six to eight beers are generally kept on tap, the entire cleaning process takes from three to four hours.
In addition to this routine cleaning, Barry Carter, vice president of store support for Dave & Buster’s, suggests that operators also have a monthly maintenance agreement with their equipment company. “They can check the equipment, the pressure readings, the recycling pumps, the glycol levels,” says Carter, whose chain of entertainment complexes totals 15% of its annual beverage sales with draft beer.
Dave Taylor, spokesman for Coors, also suggests using your beer distributor’s expertise. All Coors distributors, for instance, are required to have a full-time draft specialist on staff, who attends special training sessions at Coors every three years.
Miller’s Blavat considers the care of an operation’s beer glasses to be nearly as important as draft systems, pointing out that his company has produced three separate videos on the topic. Operators agree. Old Chicago’s Foreman says, “Beer-clean glasses are a huge deal, especially when it comes to foam retention.”
Beer-clean glasses are those that have been cleaned with a non-oil detergent. “If you use a regular dishwashing liquid, you’ll end up with beer that looks like a urine specimen,” says Blavat, who also advises that if an operator uses an automatic glass-washer, it should be reserved for glasses only. “It’s a cardinal sin to put the pizza pans in with the glasses,” he says. “They’ll look clean, but they won’t be.”
TROUBLE AT THE TAP
Though regular maintenance can eliminate most potential problems, operators should be well-versed with their system’s operation in order to solve common problems. Dave & Buster’s Carter, for example, has just put together a sheet of trouble-shooting tips for his chain’s bar managers.
Like many operators, Carter stresses looking for the simple solutions first. “The first thing I tell them is to make sure the equipment is plugged in–and if it is, that the breakers are on,” he says. “Ninety percent of the time that you pay for a guy to come in and look at bar equipment, he’ll end up telling you something like that.”
The most common problem with draft beer is too much foam. And the most common cause, according to Miller’s Blavat, is temperature; the beer is simply too warm. “Maybe the cooler isn’t cold enough, or it’s old and the door is worn out,” Blavat says.
According to most experts, kegs ideally should be stored in a cooler dedicated to beer and set at 36