I think I speak for most people who work in bars, restaurants, or brewery taprooms when I say it’s been a long five months. The shutdown has hurt, and it continues to do so. But as things reopen—whether earlier this summer, later this year, or beyond—there’s a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, however scary that might still be. There is promise, but we still have many hurdles to overcome.
One of the biggest hurdles for those of us who are draft-beer retailers is going to be quality.
That may seem dramatic, but if you look at all the factors converging in this moment, it’s hard to deny. These are desperate times for retailers. Little to no income for two or three months has put many in a precarious financial situation. With social-distance rules limiting capacity, reopening isn't quite the shot in the arm most need—at least not in the near term. Customers are returning, but not in the numbers to which we’re all accustomed. Consider the beer drinker’s situation: With so much uncertainty remaining around coronavirus spread, a lot of people are justifiably hesitant to return at all right now. Meanwhile, many have been out of work or have had income slashed, so they won’t have much extra spending money. So, when they do take that risk to go out and spend a little, they’re being very selective about where they go. There is little tolerance for bad beer.
When every customer counts more than ever, losing them to poor quality could be devastating. In 20 years of working with draft beer, I can’t remember a time when quality was more important. And right now, the biggest factor in draft-beer quality is going to be how the draft system was shut down and how it's restarted.
First: How Was It Shut Down?
With bars and taprooms starting to reopen, most draft-system questions will naturally revolve around restart. But in order to properly restart, it’s important to first understand how the system was shut down to begin with. There was some variance in those shutdown methods because industry guidance differed in key ways, depending on the organization that provided it. I worked with the Brewers Association Draught Quality Subcommittee, the group that wrote the Draught Beer Quality Manual, in developing our own set of recommendations. Ours, like the others, begin by recommending a full cleaning, as should normally be performed every two weeks as part of regular maintenance. From there, the differences emerge.
After cleaning the system, the BA recommendations offer two different paths. One is to leave the lines packed with water. This method comes with several required steps. For one, the water needs to be dechlorinated because with extended exposure, some tubing can absorb free chlorine from tap water and flavor-stain the lines. Another requirement is, for glycol-chilled systems, to turn the glycol chiller temperature up above freezing. This is to prevent water from freezing in the lines. The last requirement is to continue to clean the lines monthly. Microorganisms still grow in water, after all, albeit slower than in beer.
The other option we present is to leave beer packed in the lines. Although this comes with fewer requirements, in this way it means a bit more work: The lines still need to be cleaned every two weeks.
Other recommendations I’ve seen include blowing the water out of the lines. This can work well and doesn’t require any glycol-chiller setting changes. It is important to note, however, that you can’t ever really blow all the liquid out of a draft line. Because of this, you still needed to use dechlorinated water, and you still need to clean the lines every month.
One last variation on how to store the lines is to pack them with a light sanitizer solution. I don’t recommend doing this. I understand the attraction, as it would inhibit microbial growth and possibly eliminate the need for line cleaning. However, the potential for flavor-staining your tubing with sanitizer flavors is too great to take the risk. Flavor-staining can lead very quickly to difficult system recovery or even more expensive draft line replacement.
The finishing steps in shutting down the system involve shutting down the gas system to prevent dangerous CO2 leaks and leaving couplers untapped and clean, hanging off the ground. All of these shutdown steps, if followed properly, should make startup a fairly simple process.
Keep in mind, if you’re still shut down and you haven’t taken the right steps to shut down your system, it’s not too late! Clean it now, and shut it down correctly, even if you expect to open up soon. You’ll be glad you took the extra steps, even if it came a little late.
As with shutdown, the startup process begins with system cleaning, but this time it should be a strong one. A 3 percent caustic solution should be used instead of the regular 2 percent. After you rinse, cleaning should continue with an acid solution to combat beer stone (the caustic is for attacking biological matter). Consider extending the 15- to 20-minute cleaning time for the caustic and the acid, especially if the system wasn’t shut down correctly or wasn’t maintained properly during shutdown.
It’s also very important at this stage to pay attention to any signs of potential issues. Look for unusually dirty cleaning solution as it comes out of the lines. Pay close attention to not just the couplers and faucets to make sure they’re clean, but also to Foam on Beer (FOB) devices and other cooler equipment as well. Now is the time to take those extra steps to ensure that the system is clean and healthy.
To that end, not having beer on tap is also an opportunity to make some fine-tuning adjustments to the system, where needed. Inspect flexible vinyl tubing in walk-in coolers. Is it discolored? If so, it needs to be replaced. Analyze the balance of your system. Pressure, temperature, and gas-blend percentage work together in harmony to keep your beer carbonated and tasting great. There are tools available, such as McDantim’s EasyBlend app or calculations in the Draught Beer Quality Manual, that can help you figure out your ideal settings for your particular system.
The rest of the startup process involves simply resetting the glycol chiller to its standard range of 28–31°F (-2–-0.5°C), if that had been adjusted for shutdown, and then turning the gas back on.
Tapping & Tasting
Now you have some decisions to make about tapping kegs.
At this point, tapping partial kegs should be out of the question. They will in almost all instances not be good anymore. Full kegs are a different question. As I write this, there’s still a lot of uncertainty about how bars and restaurants will deal with full kegs. It’s likely that they’ll be removed and replaced with fresh beer. But kegs sitting at the brewery for taproom service or distribution are a different story. Brewers should stick to their guns with regard to date coding. If you thought the beer was only good for three months before shutdown, that shouldn’t change after shutdown. Resist the temptation to relax your quality standards. Extending date coding to reduce excess inventory might be tempting financially, but you’re putting your brewery’s reputation on the line by selling lower-quality beer.
Finally, closely monitor your draft system and your beer quality. Taste the beer not just when you pull it through the first time, but taste it multiple times, on subsequent days. Excessive microbial growth may not be immediately apparent. Sometimes the beer needs to sit in the line for a day or more before it starts to exhibit infection-related off-flavors. So, get that first pull in the morning before service starts, and look for the telltale signs of age—dull, muddled flavors, or butter (diacetyl) and/or sour (lactic acid) flavors. These are more likely to pop up if the system wasn’t properly maintained during shutdown. Other things to look for could be chlorine flavors, if the system was packed with tap water. If the system had sanitizer in it, watch for those flavors. Now is the time to start paying close attention to what’s happening at the tap.
Beer is for enjoyment. But it’s also critical to the success and well-being of thousands of businesses and the people they employ. Quality is a critical part of that. I’ll be taking these measures when I assist bar, restaurant, and taproom operators with startup, and every other operator should be implementing these measures, too. Your business depends on it.