The Importance of Cleaning Your Draft Beer Components
The craft beer industry is exploding. Consider these statistics from the Brewer’s Association. As of 2016, there were 5,005 breweries in the United States, with 99 percent being small and independent. Amid an otherwise struggling domestic beer market, small craft brewers experienced an 8 percent growth in 2016.
Additionally, the same study notes that choice is important to craft beer drinkers. Sixty-five percent noted that variety is an important part of why they drink craft beer, and 63 percent of craft beer drinkers noted that they make beer selections based on food pairings.
In other words, the palates of American beer drinkers are becoming more sophisticated, while consumers are simultaneously demanding more variety. It’s no wonder, then, that bar and restaurant owners are rushing to install sophisticated and extensive beer tap systems. Patrons are no longer satisfied with a handful of macrobrew taps. They want to be able to choose between hoppy IPAs, malty lagers and crisp wheat beers. And they expect each beer to taste exactly as it was intended, served expertly.
As bar and restaurant owners, therefore, it is crucial that you familiarize yourself with the best practices surrounding the cleaning of commercial draft beer systems. Even the slightest contamination can drastically reduce the quality of the beers you serve, leaving customers dissatisfied. And considering the rapid growth of craft beer service, there’s a good chance a dissatisfied customer will go find a different barstool.
So that’s why, as beverage service and commercial draft beer system specialists, we’re putting together this guide on cleaning draft beer parts and systems. Within, you’ll find all you need to ensure every beer you pour is perfect.
Why Cleaning Beer Draft Systems Is So Important
Before we get to the "how," let’s talk about the "why."
Among sophisticated beer drinkers, you may occasionally hear talk of “infected lines.” It’s a gross phrase to describe a problem that causes equally gross-tasting beer.
But what are infected lines?
One of the challenges of serving beer, especially increasingly experimental microbrews, is that beer is alive. Beer is produced by adding yeast to fermentable sugars extracted from brewed grains. That yeast eats the sugar and converts it into alcohol. However, even after the beer is done brewing, those yeasts continue to live.
To ensure the beer they bottle, can or keg is consistent no matter where it is shipped around the world, large breweries will often use certain processes to kill the yeast. However, microbrewers often opt to let their yeast live. When served properly, living yeast gives their beer more character and more interesting flavor. However, over time, that yeast will build up in keg lines that serve the beer.
Furthermore, while beer producers do everything in their power to ensure outside microbes don’t come into contact with beer during kegging and shipping, the service process will inevitably introduce microbes and molds. While they are harmless and go unnoticed in freshly served beer, they can multiply in keg lines, fed by the sugars left behind by the beer.
Thus, this combination of yeasts and microbes can multiply in keg lines, and, if not cleaned out, cause a line to become infected. While an infected line is usually not a health issue, it is a quality-control issue. Infected lines impart off-flavors on beer, such as vinegar, or even cause the beer to smell of rotten eggs. Needless to say, these are not qualities beer drinkers are seeking.
There are other solids that can build up in keg lines. Known as “beer stone,” these solids are harmless, but as they build up, they will flake off and then be served in a poured beer. While they are less impactful on the flavor of the beer, they are unappetizing when seen floating in a glass.
Only regular line and draft cleaning can prevent such unsavory quality-control issues.
Brewers Weigh In
We’ve been talking a lot about how customers are concerned about clean lines. However, craft brewers are also invested in making sure your lines are clean.
That’s because they know craft beer drinkers often choose to try new beers that are being served on tap, rather than in a bottle. If they are at a bar and they are trying a new beer, and that beer is being served through lines that need to be cleaned, they may associate those off-flavors with the beer, and not the bar. In other words, poor restaurant quality control hurts their brand as much as the restaurant’s.
That’s why many brewers are pushing cleanliness standards as a means of ensuring their sales don’t get hurt by a restaurant failing at properly cleaning draught parts and components. In many ways, brewers are setting the standard for best practices in cleaning draft beer systems.
There are a few approaches to cleaning frequency.
First, you need to determine what type of keg service system you have in place. Cleaning frequency best practices vary depending on the type of system. If you have a long draw beer dispensing system — in which the lines connecting the taps to the kegs are 25 feet or longer — experts recommend you clean your lines weekly. Similarly, if you have a high-volume beer tap system for your bar, you should be cleaning it weekly. Long lines have more surface area, meaning there is more area for microbes to reproduce. High-volume systems introduce more microbes simply by pushing more beer through the system.
However, if you have a direct draw beer dispensing system with shorter lines and you are serving less volume, then at a minimum, you should be cleaning your lines every two weeks. That being said, there is no harm in cleaning more frequently, and many bars and restaurants, regardless of size, opt for weekly line cleanings.
On the other hand, with the rise of boutique beer service, some owners are choosing to clean their lines every time they tap a new keg. This is, of course, more time-consuming and will result in a significant period in which a certain beer will be unavailable while the lines are being cleaned. Therefore, it may not necessarily be feasible for every bar owner to take this approach. If you have a high-volume service, you may not be able to afford the downtime. However, if you have sophisticated customers, they may actually appreciate a more careful approach and therefore be happy to wait while the bartender cleans out the lines.
Pressurized vs. Re-Circulating Cleaning
Cleaning lines requires flushing with cleaning chemicals. However, there are two different approaches to flushing those chemicals.
Traditionally, the chemicals have been pressurized and sent through the lines from the keg to the tap. This is efficient and quick, and does a great job with shorter lines.
However, the standard pressurized approach sometimes struggles to clean long draw systems fully. Re-circulating cleaning, rather than pushing the chemicals from one end to the other, uses a pump that pushes and pulls the chemicals continually, causing a more turbulent flow. This makes the chemicals more effective in the middle of long lines. That being said, the process is somewhat more involved, and therefore may not be worth the hassle on smaller systems.
To make sure all beer-tainting microbes and yeasts are eliminated, lines need to be cleaned with specialty chemicals.
Depending on what your cleaning needs are, you may need to use acidic chemicals or caustic chemicals. Acidic chemicals eliminate mineral buildup, such as beer stone. Caustic chemicals eliminate proteins, microbes and molds from the lines.
Unfortunately, both types of chemicals are incredibly harsh and need to be handled very carefully.
Regardless of what chemicals you choose to use, you must follow the directions to the letter. This includes strictly adhering to the recommended concentration levels.
Furthermore, you should always wear both eye and hand protection when handling these chemicals.
While you may be tempted to work through cleaning procedures quickly, the consequences of doing so could be severe, including painful chemical burns that could cause serious damage to hands, eyes and other parts of your body that come into contact with the solution.
Finally, never mix both acidic and caustic chemicals in an ill-conceived attempt to save time. Doing so would first and foremost increase the risk of injury. However, it will also render both chemicals less effective, meaning that while you may have hoped to save time, you would have actually wasted time.
Regardless of what type of cleaning chemical you are using, you should follow three simple steps when cleaning draught parts and keg lines.
You need to start by flushing any remaining beer within your keg lines. Do this by pushing clean water through your lines and opening up the tap on the service side. At first, you will see a mixture of beer and water flowing through the tap. Continue to run the tap until the water runs clear.
Removing beer from the lines will ensure the chemicals will be able to contact the surface of your lines and clean the residue that remains.
Next, you want to introduce the chemicals to the line. If you are using pressurized cleaning, you need to keep the taps closed and allow the chemicals to remain in the lines while pressurized for at least 10 minutes. If you are using the re-circulating method, the chemicals won’t remain in the line, but instead will circulate back and forth. However, you still want to keep the taps closed and let the circulation process work for 10 minutes or more.
Remember, when adding the chemicals, you need to strictly adhere to the concentration recommendations as stated by the chemicals’ manufacturer. Failure to do so could either make the concentration dangerously high —risking damage to both you and your system — or it could make the solution too diluted, thus making it ineffective.
Further, most manufacturers have a recommended solution temperature. Follow these instructions as well, as certain chemical solutions may be less effective at certain temperatures.
Finally, you want to flush the lines with water again, this time to remove the chemical solution. Because cleaning chemicals may not look much different than water, we recommend using a pH tester to ensure no chemicals remain. Regardless of what chemical you are using, the water flowing out of the tap should return to a neutral pH before reattaching the beer lines.
Once you have cleared out the cleaning solution, just reattach your keg line and run beer through the tap until any remained water has been eliminated.
Keeping Taps and Beer Service Clean
While clean lines are your main concern with beer service systems, you also need to take time to make sure your faucets, taps and service glasses are clean.
Again, as beer drinkers become more sophisticated, they are on the lookout for service cleanliness issues. They are watching more closely than ever before as you pull the tap handle and serve their beer. They are spending time looking at the beer as it sits in the glass, not only because they want to admire the color, lacing or foam, but also because they are looking for telltale signs of cleanliness.
One thing, in particular, is the way carbonation bubbles adhere to the inside of the glass. Those bubbles adhere because the inside of the glass is oily or contains soap residue. While many people may miss this detail and down their beer like nothing is amiss, sophisticated drinkers are often bold enough to send such a glass back.
Furthermore, keep in mind that with the rise of social media, drinkers often take pictures of their beer and post them on their various social accounts. If the glass isn’t clean, they may indicate it and even tag your establishment, thus giving you some bad media exposure.
So while poorly cleaned keg lines have a profound influence on the taste of the beer you serve, don’t neglect other regular cleaning that might give you equally bad optics.
Trusting High-Quality Beer Service Solutions
Finally, one of the best ways to make sure the beer you serve is of the highest quality is to invest in an equally high-quality beer service solution.
While even the best beer service system requires regular cleaning — we haven’t invented the self-cleaning system yet! — higher-quality systems can better withstand regular, rigorous cleaning. That means, when all the cleaning is done, you will still have a system in like-new condition!
Here at Perlick, we specialize in the highest-quality, most durable and easy-to-clean bar and beer service equipment. Attractive stainless steel finishes are hard-wearing and easy to clean. Top-of-the-line components ensure every pour is perfect.
So if you are looking to upgrade your bar service, are installing a bar in a new restaurant or are simply looking to make a change to the way you serve beer in your establishment, contact us today!