Draft Operations: A perfect pint starts with well-maintained lines

“What do you have on draft?” It wasn’t so long ago that simple and straightforward question yielded a simple and straightforward answer from a bartender or server – but no more. Now the answer would most likely be in the form of a litany of draft brew options.

You don’t have to look much further than intriguing and clever beer tap handles to see a new trend has definitely taken shape, and it’s not relegated to upscale restaurants and bars. Call it the tyranny of choice as the burgeoning beer market – domestic, craft and imported – tempts us to explore expanding draft selections and keeps us amused in the process. But everyone in draft beer production, from breweries to bar operators, agrees that delivering that great glass of beer is work.

The upkeep of draft equipment figures prominently in the flavor of the beer, so it requires routine maintenance. Beer lines must be cleaned on a regular basis, optimal temperature must be maintained and gas mixtures must be regulated or it shows in the glass.

So who takes care of those pesky details that assure a good glass of draft is delivered? While the specifics of a line-cleaning regimen can vary from state to state, no state provision specifies how often lines should be cleaned or monitors the line maintenance in Missouri, said Mike Schler, deputy supervisor of the Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control. But state and city health departments that perform routine inspections of bars pass on any concerns about the cleanliness of the bar area to local or state officials. “[But] the individual breweries are so strict about cleaning the lines, they’re monitoring that on a routine basis,” Schler added.

Schalfly Beer’s lines are cleaned every two weeks by draft technicians through wholesalers, said Mitch Turner, brand manager for the Saint Louis Brewery, maker of Schlafly Beer. Lines are flushed from the spigots to the beer kegs with chemicals to kill any bacteria, not because bacteria in the lines pose major health threats, but, Turner said, because they can “alter the flavor of the beer.”

In Illinois, line-cleaning is handled through independent companies and spot-checked by the Illinois Liquor Control Commission, said Gary Drnjevic, whose company, Expert Beer Lines, serves 44 Metro East bars. He said his process is typical of most line maintenance. “We use a chemical available from the beer distributors and run that through the lines,” Drnjevic said. “We take the faucets apart and clean them with hot water, put them back together and rinse with cold water so the beer doesn’t foam.”

Schlafly representatives also perform audits regularly, Turner said, selecting random draft accounts once per quarter from which to collect beer samples for analysis. Those audits help detect not only line contamination, he said, but carbonation problems – either undercarbonation or overcarbonation –
or other issues such as improper serving temperatures. “We can make recommendations to correct those issues,” he said.

The goal, Turner said, is to assure “every glass of beer tastes exactly as it did inside the tanks at the brewery.”

Beer companies also help educate bars and restaurants in an effort to ensure consistent quality. St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch Cos. offers advice to retailers on storage and serving techniques, as well as “the ritual of pouring the ‘perfect’ draft beer,” said Rosanne Leake, director of draft sales and technology. Training can also include “guidance on maintaining optimum beer temperature and pure carbon dioxide pressure.”

But before a single pint is poured, retailers have other decisions to make: whether to use a glycol-cooled draft system, which maintains a constant temperature, instead of the more common air-cooled system, or to use a blend of nitrogen and carbon dioxide in lieu of straight carbon dioxide pressure. And sometimes to expand its draft options, a bar may have to expand its coolers.

Is it all worth it? Pepe Vantreece, operations manager at Growlers Pub, with locations in Creve Coeur and Sunset Hills, said a good glass of beer is well worth the work required to maintain a quality draft system. “My opinion is you can really enjoy the aromas of the beer in a good draft that are hard to detect in a bottled beer,” he said.

Vantreece said that the nitrogen and carbon dioxide systems at Growlers help “with the proper pour” of some beers, namely Guinness stout, which is one of more than 32 draft beers offered, along with 99 different bottled beers. The emphasis at Growlers, he said, is on pairing a diverse food menu with a sizable beer selection that undergoes constant scrutiny and updating.

“We change [the beer menu] every six months faithfully,” Vantreece said. “What we add is based solely on the results of our beer tasting – we invite members of our beer club to try different beers and we pick the beers with the best scores.”

At The Dubliner, patrons can sample 11 different draft beers predominately from Ireland and Europe that complement the Downtown gastropub’s Irish cuisine. What makes the draft selection different at The Dubliner, though, is the way the draft beer is delivered through an intricate system.

“First, we use a blend of 25 percent nitrogen and 75 percent carbon dioxide,” said John McDowell, bar manager and partner at The Dubliner, which opened last fall. “Guinness foams too much with straight carbon dioxide.”

The Dubliner’s draft system, McDowell pointed out, is a glycol-cooled system instead of air-cooled, where the glycol is kept at a constant 26 degrees. A mechanism in the cooler also eliminates foam when a keg runs out of beer by shutting off the keg before it empties, all of which, he said, “enhances the draft beer experience.”

It was owner Shawn Jacobs’ vision during the advent of the craft beer movement to prepare Cicero’s for a growing number of draft beers with a custom-made walk-in cooler, said general manager Karen McVicker. When the restaurant moved to its present University City location in 1996, the cooler was added, and today Cicero’s offers a prodigious selection of 52 beers on tap through a draft system that is also glycol-cooled.

“Originally, we had 48 [different draft beers] and then we added another tree for lambic beer,” she said, referring to the selection of Belgian beer often flavored with fruit. With so many taps, Cicero’s is able to accommodate new and seasonal beer, as well.

A movement to make room for diverse drafts can be seen in smaller restaurants and pubs, too. In Edwardsville, Bigelo’s Bistro co-owner Mark Pruitt responds to “more eclectic beer customers,” a niche he attributed possibly to the town’s college atmosphere and to his staff at the American restaurant, who keep up with the flourishing beer market. “We seat 65 people with the bar,” said co-owner Jeff Thomas. “We only have two towers, but we constantly rotate seasonal beers. It’s what the customers here expect.”

The key to keeping the selection fresh seems to be listening to customer suggestions. “Some people are just ahead of the game, especially with the seasonal beers, and they want to know what’s next and when we’ll have it,” Thomas added.

Friday’s South, in Belleville and Collinsville, offers 12 draft beers. Co-owner Eric Kent said the selection was tightly edited to provide a range of options but with a Midwestern focus. “I could easily have 20 draft beers,” he said, “but we just decided on a variety – three wheat beers, a stout, a couple of pilsners, pale ale, nut brown ale and an organic right now. We have regional representation, too, with [Goose Island] Honker’s Ale out of Chicago, Schlafly from St. Louis, Boulevard from Kansas City and Bud Light from St. Louis.”

At Friday’s South, though, there’s always a little room on the tower for seasonal beers, a trend that Kent said has pervaded the market. “I think people – especially the college crowd –
are really tasting beer and comparing the different flavors, not just gulping it down, that’s what has changed.”