Anyone who’s worked in a fast-food restaurant or movie theater knows the fountain soda myth: Colas pumped fresh on site taste better than ones from the bottle or can. A similar belief exists in beer. Ask any beer lover, and they’ll tell you there’s something special about a beer poured fresh from the tap. In some cases, maybe beer really does taste better from the tap — but only if the draft lines are clean.
In many cases, they are not. Like the sticky syrup sludge and fruit fly brigade that swarms soda fountains, neglected draft beer dispensing systems are prone to pests of their own, namely microbes, proteins, and mineral deposits that can degrade even the best beer’s flavor.
Now the industry is aiming to change that. The Brewers Association recently appointed its first draft beer quality ambassadors, Matt Meadows of New Belgium Brewing and Neil Witte of Craft Quality Solutions, formerly of Duvel USA. Meadows and Witte travel the country promoting best practices for preserving beer flavor, aroma, and quality, presenting at conferences and visiting beer wholesale and retail locations to demonstrate proper draft system maintenance, from the time the liquid leaves the brewery to the moment it reaches the consumer.
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Brewers that distribute their own beer might let certain accounts fizzle out when they’ve seen — or worse, heard — that their beers don’t taste right at those locations. But awareness about clean beer systems is relatively rare, especially among those most affected, beer drinkers.
Angela Steil, Advanced Cicerone, manager of education at Murray’s Cheese in New York, and former draft dispense technician and bar manager at locations throughout Grand Rapids and Chicago, believes it’s time for beer drinkers to learn the importance of clean draft lines, and demand the draft beer experience they deserve.
“If you really, truly want to taste beer the way that it was intended, or the way that the brewer made it, you have to pay attention,” Steil says. “It doesn’t matter if you have the best beer in the world; if it’s put through shitty lines, you are going to get shit beer.”
A good draft technician will tell you that squeaky clean lines are as important to beer’s flavor as its ingredients.
“Beer is essentially a living product that is going to continue giving off flavors and characteristics if you don’t properly look after it,” Steil says.
Best practices for draft quality management include biweekly cleanings, recirculating caustic solution through the entire system using an electric pump, and ensuring that solution is cleared out properly by performing a pH test.
Beer destined for a tap starts in a tank or barrel, after which it is kegged, loaded onto a truck, and sent out for delivery. Once a keg rolls across the threshold of a bar or restaurant, its fate is in the hands of the bar owner. How that beer is treated from the time it leaves the keg and fills your glass is the determining factor of whether that beer will taste good.
Ideally, when beer arrives at a bar or restaurant, it is swiftly stored in a walk-in cooler where it awaits its turn to get tapped. Next, it gets hooked up to polyvinyl tubing via a piece called a coupler, which allows the beer to flow with carbon dioxide to the faucet and, ultimately, your glass. This is where things can get fouled up.
Does This Look Infected?
At many beer bars, draft technicians are hired on a regular basis — ideally, about every two weeks at minimum — to ensure that draft systems are spick and span and functioning properly. A draft system that’s neglected will give perceptible cues. These are obvious to a draft technician or brewer, not to mention anyone drinking the beer, if it’s bad enough, but are not necessarily apparent to bartenders.
A beer that’s been through unclean draft lines or taps may have a slightly sour, vinegary flavor due to acetic acid, and a buttery flavor from a chemical called diacetyl (the very same used to flavor microwavable popcorn). Those “off -flavors” result from beer material building up inside the plastic tubing, and beer-spoiling bacteria growing and producing those aroma- and flavor-changing compounds. These deposits begin building up within a matter of days.
An infection is “very, very obvious” to the naked eye. To see what it looks like, visit any draft technician’s Instagram account (like this one, @fortheloveofgrain) or draft company “wall of shame.” Casual drinkers might notice something tastes a little “off” but not know why (or that it’s the bar’s fault, not the brewer’s).
“People don’t exactly know why, but they just know that they don’t like a beer somewhere,” Steil says. It even gets past the beer geeks. “There are very well-known beer bars in New York that I worked at or checked out, and I’m appalled at how incredibly disgusting [their systems] are,” she says. “And no one knows.”
Steil recalls cleaning the lines at a Chicago sports stadium: “It was insane what we saw in there,” she says. “The lines are so incredibly old, pieces of the barrier tubing that the beer flows through had been yanked up … I mean, what if you started swallowing plastic?”
Fortunately, this rarely happens, and the only signs a customer might experience are a stale-tasting beer and a headache. But this is also precisely the problem.
“That’s the scariest and hardest part,” Steil says. “Because [dirty] beer doesn’t kill you or make you terribly sick, there is no regulation in most states.”
A disappointing experience for the drinker could mean a devastating blow to the brewer, which either loses customers or an account if it discovers its beer isn’t treated right. Meanwhile, the venue owner gets off scot-free. Or so they think.
‘Money Down the Drain … Literally’
Behind the bar — and inside the walk-in — a draft infection can’t hide. Eventually, it will affect a bar’s beer sales, one way or another.
“You’ll see [the line] start getting very bloated,” Steil says, describing the residue as “straight-up yellow-brown gunk. It’s just horrifying to look at.” That “gunk” creates turbulence in the lines, causing the beer to pour foamy.
According to BetterBeer.com, a draft specialist for the hospitality industry, the average bar loses $12,000 per year in foamy beer. Another draft beer specialist, Perfect Pour, found that 20 percent of each keg is wasted on average.
“It’s money going down the drain, literally,” Steil says. Between foam and foul flavors, “people don’t want to come back [to] drink [the] beer.”
Before It’s in the Glass, Ask
Bottom line? More drinkers should be concerned about the cleanliness of their beer, and should speak up when they suspect otherwise.
“I always take a peek at whatever draft tower I’m about to drink out of,” Steil says. She does this to check for signs of infection, like a moldy faucet.
After that, ask questions: “Who did your line cleaning? Did they just do it? Did they do it properly?” The server may not always have the answers, but as a paying customer, it shouldn’t be out of bounds to raise the issue, Steil says. After all, a diner wouldn’t be expected to eat off a dirty plate and leave happy.
To do her part, Steil plans to host a draft dispense system class at Murray’s Cheese in New York to help servers address these issues. But “at the end of the day,” she says, “it’s up to us consumers. This is the fight I’ve been fighting for years.”