If you spend time on social media, you might remember a while back when a news-helicopter video of a truck that had spilled empty kegs all over a Pennsylvania highway filled your newsfeed. No one was seriously injured in the crash. Some folks made jokes, others offered sympathy, and sharp-eyed viewers couldn’t help but notice the bold capital M followed by a blue star on what looked to be primarily sixtels.
In his office in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Ryan Gerczak, the plant manager for MicroStar Quality Services, watched the video and remarked to a colleague, “I’m assuming these are headed our way.”
Time Out for TLC
Kegs, no matter the size, are built to take a beating. They are tossed, rolled, pushed, pulled, and jostled around while being shuttled among breweries, distributor warehouses, and bars and restaurants, and then back again. As you’d expect, from time to time, a keg gets so beat up that it needs to be pulled out of rotation and given some TLC.
That’s where Gerczak and his team, housed inside a 110,000-square-foot building on Green Bay, come into play. The facility, once owned by Tosca but sold to MicroStar Logistics in 2015, is where all the kegs in need of repair come. It’s known as the MicroStar Quality Services division.
“This facility has been repairing kegs for nearly fifty years now, and we can fix nearly anything that isn’t frozen or expanded or [doesn’t have] a hole bigger than the end of a pencil,” Gerczak says. “[It’s] everything from damaged chimes [the rims on each end of a keg], crushed domes, body dents, and all those common things that happen during the normal wear and tear of a keg’s life.”
MicroStar has its own fleet of more than three million kegs that are used by craft breweries of all sizes and also works with large brewers such as MillerCoors and AB InBev. This fleet that MicroStar owns and manages has helped many brewers get draft beer to the marketplace without worrying about owning their own cooperage.
Still, there are personal touches that breweries can employ with their kegs, including painting and stickering or embossing their names onto the chime of the keg. At this facility in Wisconsin, all of those things can be added—or removed.
Receive, Repair, and Return
At the Green Bay facility, there are three repair lines where workers, some who have been with the company for almost forty years, work on equipment that brings kegs back into service. Of the three lines, two are outfitted for smaller kegs and one for half barrels. The equipment, as you might imagine, is proprietary technology, developed over decades of trial, error, and eventual success.
“Each keg type has different modifications, and there’s no Walmart for beer keg–repair equipment; everything is custom built by our crew and engineers,” says Gerczak. “The overall tenure of wealth of experience here is unique.”
It’s Old School know-how coupled with New World techniques.
A keg can find its way to Green Bay in a number of ways. Kegs owned by some of the world’s largest breweries have their own set of criteria that flag them for repair. In other cases, a keg will be singled out by a smaller brewer when it arrives at a brewery. MicroStar also has inspection facilities across the country, and kegs that come through those spots and are designated for a tune up are sent to the upper Midwest.
“The majority of kegs [that come to the facility] are repairable,” explains Gerczak who says that about 90 percent of the kegs that come through the door are sent back into service. “It’s a simple vessel, and kegs are designed to take abuse. So, if it’s body damage with dents, we can fix that; if it’s valve damage, we can rebuild those.”
At any given time, there are 200,000 kegs of various sizes at the Green Bay facility, meaning that if a fleet of kegs comes in for repair but a brewery needs some for immediate service, the company can meet their needs. Knowing that beer is the lifeblood of a brewery, Gerczak says the company “bends over backwards” for clients to make sure their needs are met.
Kegs are not just repaired, but also tested for durability in advance of use. The MicroStar facility in Green Bay tests other company’s kegs before they are put into service for their customers—everything from drop testing and top dome compression to chopping samples in half to make sure the metal thickness throughout the vessel meets the customer’s specifications.There is a wide range of testing criteria, says Gerczak.
That testing extends to insurance claims. The facility regularly works for insurance companies that need kegs inspected following accidents. Over the years, the workers have seen everything from fire damage to a trailer full of kegs that went off the road and became submerged in water. (In those cases, the kegs weren’t part of MicroStar’s fleet, says Dan Vorlage, the company’s vice president of marketing and business development.) “We test within the specifications supplied by our customer and provide a report with our findings,”Gerczak says.
Working around these industry workhorses, you get a real sense of the durability and craftsmanship that goes into each keg. “The beauty of kegs is that the average life is thirty years,” says Vorlage. “It’s by far the most sustainable delivery system; these things are the ultimate reusable container.”
So the next time you’re out and you cringe at the sound of the clatter of a keg hitting a cement floor or being dropped from a truck, know that it can take the abuse and that a dedicated team is standing by, ready to get it back into rotation should something truly go wrong. And know there is more to it than just beer dispense.
While it’s a great thrill for brewers to see their beer on tap at neighborhood bars and around the country, for Gerczak, when he visits a taproom, he takes a close look at the keg.
“One of the first things I look for is the repair stamp on top of the keg,” he says. “I’ll know when the last time it was at our facility, and it’s neat to see.”