Quality. It’s a word that means different things to different people. In fact, some folks have created entire careers out of it. In fields such as quality assurance and quality control, it is measurable; others view quality as something nebulous, an arbitrary means to choose certain products over others.

Matt Meadows, Brewers Association draft beer quality ambassador and director of field quality at New Belgium Brewing, is in the former. Amidst the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent state and local mandates for bars and taprooms to shut down, he says a prominent concern among beer producers and retailers has been how to properly shut down draft systems. Apprehensions and debates around draft quality prompted shutdown procedures released by beer industry organizations such as the BA; Meadows contributed to the BA recommendations for extended bar and restaurant shutdowns.

As taprooms and on-premise retailers reopen, brewers are taking several different approaches to reintroducing draft beer to their accounts and customers.

Shutting Down Amid Layoffs and Closures

“[The] biggest challenge was how quickly this all came on,” Meadows says. “Cleaning their draft system was the last thing [retailers] were thinking about.” The BA guidelines used for routine cleaning include cleaning draft lines every two weeks. For bars and taprooms unable to continue a normal two-week cleaning cycle, the recommendation is to leave clean rinse water packed in the lines, which proved unfeasible for some retailers due to tap water chemistry. (Meadows and the BA guidelines mention that specific brands of tubing are not compatible with chlorine found in tap water, which can cause permanent off flavors in beer and require tubing to be replaced.)

According to Neil Witte, Master Cicerone and owner of Craft Quality Solutions, there are 35 states in which draft line cleaning at retailers is the responsibility of distributors. This external responsibility is a stumbling block for some businesses, as distributors lacked the time and staff required to efficiently shut down systems as retailers closed within a relatively short period of time. With many distributors and draft cleaning companies facing layoffs, personnel have not been readily available to support the restarting of draft systems. Witte says this has resulted in post-shutdown line cleaning inconsistencies as well.

As business picks up again, draft technicians who are employed and have been tasked with preparing retailers for reopening are seeing “some pretty nasty stuff,” Meadows says. Furthermore, retailers are pushing back against the recommended two-week line cleaning frequency in states where draft cleaning is the responsibility of the retailer and not the distributor, citing cost as an issue at a time when many retailers are struggling to survive.

Keg Freshness and Expiration

Though draft systems can present serious issues when it comes to the quality of the beer in a glass, a bigger concern might be how long beer that is properly cared for is left sitting in kegs. According to Meadows and Witte, several retailers are receiving kegs from distributors that are close to the expiration date, or already expired. “There’s a lot of old beer out there right now,” Witte says. “In one case,” he says, “John Couture, owner of one of Kansas City’s premier beer bars, Bier Station, rejected a delivery of beer that was too close to expiration.”

Witte also cites issues noted with breweries extending date codes on kegs. Witte recently opened a business called TapStar to certify companies based on draft maintenance, beer freshness, and clean glassware. He says that of the six retailers he audited between late July and early August, five failed for expired kegs on tap. Meadows has also seen breweries extend best-buy dates on kegs. “It’s basically telling retailers it’s OK to sell old beer,” Meadows says.

To mitigate the risk of retailers and distributors selling expired product as a result of Covid-19 closures, New Belgium offers a freshness buyback agreement that offers distributors financial support in removing out-of-code kegs from retail accounts.

Of course, most small breweries do not have the resources to buy back beer that has passed its freshness date, especially now. According to Libby Crider, owner of 2nd Shift Brewing in St. Louis, her brewery dumped 100 kegs of beer due to bar and restaurant closures. Now, distributors are required to pre-order kegs from the brewery before the beer is packaged. Any amount that is not accounted for in pre-orders is packaged in cans. “There’s no presumption that that beer is always going to be readily available,” Crider says.

2nd Shift, like many breweries, has experimented with several different ways of serving draft beer during the pandemic. “We tried, for a while, selling a limited amount of pre-filled growlers, but we had some pushback from folks wanting to bring in their own growlers from home,” Crider says. The brewery was not comfortable filling growlers that it did not receive and sanitize in-house, “so we abandoned filling growlers pretty quickly,” she says.

Eventually, 2nd Shift settled on selling packaged beer exclusively, even if it meant smaller margins during the shutdown. “It was going back to our old business model,” Crider says.

Plastic Cup Half Full?

Chris O’Leary, a beer enthusiast in New York who recently returned from a road trip visiting breweries in the state, says there were multiple breweries, including Lake Placid Pub & Brewery in upstate New York, that were serving packaged beer exclusively, even though they’d reopened their taprooms.

“Everyone’s afraid to touch glassware,” O’Leary says, citing safety concerns among brewers he spoke to. Many breweries are serving draft beer out of plastic cups, if at all. (2nd Shift is doing this, too, for packaged beer sold on-premise.)

In New York as in St. Louis, things are still a long way from being as they were prior to pandemic shutdowns, while the industry navigates constant changes in city and state regulations concerning what service is allowable. Yet in the push to reopen, beer consumers and experts should demand that quality, as well as safety, not take a back seat. Addressing draft quality at bars, restaurants, and retailers will be paramount in making that happen.

O’Leary speaks for many when he says, “I think it’s more important than ever that your experience with a beverage be top-notch from the first time you taste it.”