Clean Beer? You “clean” a fish and wash your vegetables, but how clean is the draft beer you drink?

In the words of Brian Wiggs, Dark Horse Brewing Co. Marshall, MI, “Brewing is 10% chemistry and 90% janitorial”. This statement will ring true for any brewer whether they are a homebrewer or Brewmaster. Keeping your equipment and brewing space clean is the first thing you learn. If you’ve ever taken a brewery tour you’ll notice how amazingly clean and tidy the brew house is. Gary S. Nicholas, Quality Assurance & Control with Bell’s Brewery, Inc Kalamazoo, MI spoke about what the kegs at Bell’s are in store for when they make it to the brewery: “They go through a multi-step cleaning & sanitizing process prior to each fill. We also conduct additional pre-cleaning for kegs that have been out in the market for unusually long periods. We go one step further, slowly cycling through our entire keg inventory and completely disassembling the keg spear valve assemblies, replacing worn parts, and visually inspecting the interior….any kegs that fail a cleaning/filling cycle are set aside for detailed inspection.” What needs to be cleaned out of these kegs? “Typically, you’ll see infiltration of a wide variety of aerobic microorganisms (acetic acid-producing bacteria, wild yeasts, etc.) and anaerobes(A type of bacterium that does not require air or oxygen to live). Over time, these will form a bio-film, a mass of slime that is very resistant to simple flushing techniques.”: said Nicholas.

Hmmm…. Bacteria? What are these organisms and are they affecting my beer? “[Acetobacter] has a long history of safe use in the fermentation industry for the production of acetic acid from alcohol.” (Source) “Both Lactobacillus (Lacto) and Pediococcus (Pedio) are bacteria; they are not yeast like Brettanomyces or Saccharomyces. One of the major flavor developments of Pedio is the production of diacetyl (butter flavor & butterscotch).” (Source) There isn’t a health risk that you should be scared of with these bacteria, but they can give a beer an off flavor. Also there is Calcium Oxalate, also know as “Beer Stone. “Beer stone will build up and eventually flake off on the inside of the beer tubing if the system is not properly maintained. High amounts of beer stone may also have a negative effect on taste. These flakes are often grey or brown in color.” (Source)

“I think people forget that alcohol is essentially a food and like all food, if not properly prepared and stored, it can harbor microorganisms that are not good for human health.”, said Rebecca Allen, Alcohol Tobacco and Other Drugs (ATOD) Health Educator at Olin Health Center, Michigan State University. At the restaurant/bar side of the equation there are cleaning services to help keep entire draft systems clean. In some states draft system cleaning is mandated, some even let distributors pay for the cleaning or do it for the client, but here in Michigan it is up to the restaurant owner to “maintain the draft system in a sanitary fashion”, which is vague at best. With this standard, a County Health Department Agent may or may not know what to look at or what to look for. “I met a health inspector once and we were both waiting outside a restaurant to be unlocked and I was talking with her and she had no idea, she said ‘I’ll shine a light on the draft system’ that’s what she did. She said ‘I’ll look at it, visual inspection’”: said Greg Jenkins of Capitol Draft Service. If the Health Department isn’t looking at these draft systems that begs the question: Are all restaurants/bars/stadiums cleaning their draft systems?

Not a single person wants to be on record about any establishment that doesn’t have their draft system cleaned. But here are some common quotes from bar/restaurant owners that obviously don’t: “We pour too much beer for our draft lines to get dirty” or “We hardly pour any draft beer at all, so our lines are clean…”, does that make any sense? It’s almost like saying that because we have so many customers drinking from our glasses; we don’t need to wash them. Now no one is drinking with his or her mouth on the taps themselves, but trying to say that a draft system just doesn’t need to be taken care of is ludicrous.

Capitol Draft Service, Lansing, MI owner Alec Mull has been in the beer business for 20 years now. Starting as a homebrewer he was fortunate enough to work in many different locations and jobs with beer, from working at Beer Gear in Lansing to Bell’s and now he also works as Production Manager at Founder’s Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids, MI. “I had an epiphany, ‘Oh my god, people actually make beer!’ and I wanted to be one of those people.”, Alec said thinking back to his beginnings in the beer industry. In 2004 Alec noticed an opportunity to focus on another side of the beer business “…a huge opportunity, in an area that wasn’t getting enough attention! Because we were getting kegs back, at Bell’s, and all the batches would test out fine and everything was great, but these beers were just bad in these kegs and it was because of these draft systems that the beer was coming into contact with. Because we started seeing kegs back from the same locations. So I realized, people need to clean these draft systems.”

“Your draft system can’t make your beer better, but it can make it a heck of a lot worse.”, said Alec. The two most common ways to clean draft systems are, the “soak method” and the “circulation method”. The soak method runs one way through the draft system and is know to be less effective than the circulation method. The circulation method runs bi-directional through the draft system, breaking up beer stone where bacteria can hide. Now there are some systems that you can’t use the circulation method on such as systems with beer pumps, which inhibit liquid to flow in the opposite direction. But the most important parts to clean of a draft system are the faucets and couplers. That is where the growth starts. Bacteria can run up stream from the tap head into the beer lines and if your kegs share the same cooler space as food products, the couplers can get all sorts of growth on them.

The chemical cleaners that Capitol Draft uses are: chlorinated potassium hydroxide (cph), which is an astringent caustic cleaner that is used first to break apart the beer stone and kill the live bacteria, a foaming acid sanitizer that sterilizes the system, and sometimes Capitol Draft will use a nitric acid on a system that might need something stronger than the cph. Coming into contact with beer neutralizes these chemicals. Before these chemicals are pushed through the system the lines must be drained of all standing beer. Between each chemical, a pure water wash is sent through, as contact between the acid and cph also neutralizes the chemicals. Finishing with an ice water wash helps to cool the system back down to serving temperature and flush out the acid sanitizer.

“When a bar/restaurant cleans their lines (or has them cleaned), to make sure they are cleaning everything from tap to faucet.  If a company comes in and hooks up a re-circulating pump to clean lines, make sure they are taking apart both the tavern head (sankey, hoff stevens, euro, etc) and the faucet that the beer is dispensed from.  Beer faucets especially get a lot of physical build-up inside the parts.  It is the last thing the beer touches before going into the glass so it won’t matter how clean the line is if it still has to be poured through a dirty faucet.”, said Eric Briggeman, Headbrewer for Rochester Mills Beer Company, Rochester, MI. The time that the draft service takes is also a good indicator as well. The beer lines are the cleanest part of the draft system, but taking apart the faucet and cleaning the couplers- that’s what needs special attention.

What can the bar/restaurant owner do to help keep the draft system clean? “ If you make one investment in your draft system, (it should be) stainless steel faucets”: said Alec. Brass faucets are cheaper, but they also tend to attract more growth and contain small amounts of lead. Jim Brown, owner of Happy Tappy Draft Beer Service Bay City, MI sites, “Too infrequent cleaning, unbalanced systems causing excessive waste… excessive sanitizer on glasses (that can cause) off aromas.” as being things for owners to watch out for. Also making sure the company that you hire to clean your system is doing what you’re paying them for. It should take about 90 minutes on average to clean a system. That involves taking apart and using pipe brushes to clean the inside and outside of the faucets and cleaning the couplers. Part of servicing a draft system is also checking for gas leaks and any flow problems. Breweries suggest that a draft system be cleaned about every two weeks; on most systems that maybe overkill. Being on an eighteen-day or three week schedule may be more beneficial in cleanliness, cost and saving on wasted product.

When beer systems are cleaned there is a small amount of beer waste. Any waste of beer is sad, but in the name of cleanliness I can look the other way. The amount of waste is totally up to the run of the draft lines; how far it is from the keg cooler to the bar. The bar owner might want to factor that into the price. That should be a minimal expense seeing as draft beer can cost as little as $.03 per ounce and draft beer mark up at a restaurant is on average 70% or higher. The upsides of having the beer system cleaned, the beer taste’s better. Usually tasting better means selling more. Also with a good draft service company they should be checking for gas leaks as well as pressure settings. Both of these save money and cut down on wasted beer. If the gas pressure is set too high on the system, the beer poured will tend to foam more causing profits to pour down the drain. Your draft service company should be keeping track of keg cooler and glycol system temperatures as well.

Making an effort at keeping faucets and couplers clean should be part of daily schedule at any place where draft beer is served. But use caution, “The other thing to keep in mind is that if bartenders use any kind of cleaners or metal polishes on or around draft towers, make sure that they keep any rags or spray residue away from the beer faucets.  I had a situation once where we couldn’t figure out where a metallic taste was coming from in a certain beer.  It tasted fine coming out of the bright tank…  The line had very recently been cleaned…  We came to find out that the bartenders were using metal polish on the draft towers and polishing the faucets also.  So we had to take all the faucets apart and clean them with proper chemicals and rinse them before putting them back together.  This one may be a rare case, but important nonetheless”: said Briggeman.

Serving clean and safe products should be the practice of every establishment, whether food or drink. You can get in contact with draft service professionals through your local beer distributor, or call either Capitol Draft at (517) 648-2496 if you’re in the greater Lansing, MI area or Happy Tappy at (989) 233-2221 if you’re in the Mt.Pleasant to North Detroit area.

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