Draught Lines 101: know your business
Hi there. Haven’t seen y’all in a while, as my wife, dog and myself just moved to our brand new apartment in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn (we only moved from the Upper West Side of Manhattan). It wasn’t a far move, but as most of you have experienced, moving is the absolute worst. It’s just horrible in every way, including the pressure it puts on your bank account.
Nonetheless, we love the new neighborhood and I’m feeling inspired enough to write a rather detailed post on an urgent, and fixable, challenge we continue to address in the beer industry…dirty, gross, disgusting, vile, outrageously nasty draught lines and what you can do to fix it. I’ve written about this before here. And I’ve podcasted about it here. It’s still a massive problem. Simply put, the situation of fixing the shrinking beer category starts here.
A systemic problem doesn’t lend itself to quick fixes, clever remarks, or short-term thinking. Our country’s current political polarization is a prime example. Climate change is another. Systemic problems mean that everyone has a part to play in the solution, rather than a single party or small subset of parties. They’re gnarly, and messy, and mean.
Dirty draught lines are a systemic problem. There’s no excuse for it, but frustratingly, there are multiple parties on the hook that need to come to a comprehensive solution on the issue. You might say “But Chris…this is just the retailers fault..the onus is on them to solve this problem and maintain their draught lines”. In its most basic interpretation, you’d be right, but put into context, the entire industry needs to pitch in to address the issue more aggressively and make draught line cleaning a required best practice to serve beer on draught to the public. Breweries, Wholesaler, Retailers…and yes, consumers most of all.
Before I get too far, I mentioned these resources on my last post about quality best practices, but you must learn them and love them if you’re a beer professional in 2018:
The Brewers Association's Draught Beer Quality Manual - This is the bible for anyone needing a refresher on all best practices associated with serving draught beer. Learn it, love it, know it.
Micromatic, which is the world's largest draught equipment manufacturer, runs a very helpful series of courses on draught systems, quality, etc. If you're in the business, studying for Cicerone, or just want to get better, then you should take one of them.
That only thing that matters
Before we talk about the systemic issues, let’s get down to brass tacks. If you’re a retailer, and your customer has a bad pint of beer at your establishment due to an issue with your draught system, one of these things will happen:
They won’t notice that it’s off and they’ll order another one. They’ll have a blissful smile pasted on their face because they really needed a beer and you provided it. This is the the least likely scenario.
They won’t be able to directly tell you why it’s off, but they will realize they’re having a suboptimal experience in short order. You cannot BS people, and regardless of their expertise in beer, they’ll realize they’re not having a very good pint of beer at some point. They’re unlikely to order another beer, and while they might switch to wine/spirits for their second/ third round during that visit, they’re unlikely to return as often as you’d like, if at all. This is the most likely scenario.
They immediately notice that it tastes bad, or looks bad, and they say something to whomever’s tending bar. They ask for a different beer, which also tastes off, because the issue isn’t with the keg of beer, but rather your draught system. They never come back, and your bar/restaurant slowly get a reputation for poor quality and you lose incremental sales. This is slightly less likely, but it happens every day.
Truth #1 - If you serve beer through a draught system and sell it to people for 7 bucks a pint without taking care of your equipment, you’re disrespecting your customer, and you will slowly lose a lot of money over time. Your customer’s consumption patterns are the only things that matters to you as a business, and there’s no shortcut, and no other way of doing it…focusing on draught quality makes you a lot of money…not focusing on it makes you go out of business.
Draught line cleaning, in terms of policy-oriented solutions, is in an abysmal state in this country. There has been absolutely no legislation put forward (that I can find) on a national level that standardizes or even starts the ball rolling on requisite safety standards for draught cleanliness, cleaning frequency, or inspection standards. Every city has inspection standards for food (they’re quite rigorous in NYC, for example, and there’s almost 25,000 restaurants in this city), yet they’re conspicuously absent for beer.
Here’s a fun fact: Beer is food. Beer is a culinary product. Beer should be treated the exact same way as food in terms of its potential to harbor bacteria, germs, and all the other little creatures that can make you sick. The first step to making things work on a national level, as we’ve learned countless times in this country, is a policy-oriented approach that standardizes the way we approach draught quality and (forgive the pun) sets the bar. Best practices take time to put in place, but we must start with a fundamental understanding that bad draught quality is bad business, and while it probably won’t kill the customer, it will still cause quite a few problems.
(From the BA’s manual directly) - “Many states require regular draught line cleaning, but all too often the methods used fall short of what is needed to actually maintain draught quality.” This, coupled with a complete lack of consistent enforcement mechanisms, cleaning standards, or oversight, means there’s frustratingly little transparency in the beer industry around these practices. It’s a fundamental flaw with beer in the United States. Here’s what we know:
Black States = Distributors are legally obligated to clean draught lines.
Red States = Distributors are not legally obligated to clean draught lines.
A message to our country’s beer wholesalers
I wrote this piece on the mounting pressure being felt by wholesalers in this country, and while it’s easy to point fingers, I want to stress a few key points as someone who both loves our middle tier and works with them very consistently to help flesh out business strategy:
Quality education for your entire team is critical and invaluable to your business growth. Every single person who works for your distributorship needs to be, at the minimum, very good at draught quality and draught systems.
The single biggest pain point isn’t actually the education, but the enforcement of this knowledge at point of purchase. I have seen many wholesaler reps that I’ve worked with in market drink a bad pint of beer with me sitting right next to them and not say a word. I know it’s difficult to do that without thinking you’re going to damage a relationship with the account, but understand that if you don’t do it, no one else will. You need to be the draught police in most circumstances, and odds are the account will thank you for your focus on their business.
Truth #2 - Regardless of who is legally obligated to clean your draught lines, you are obligated to keep them crystal clean as a business owner. Even when a policy-oriented solution is presented on a national level, it’s your beer and your accountability to your customer. If your distributor is obligated to clean your lines, keep them honest and make sure they’re doing it regularly. Don’t let them skimp, miss dates, or do a poor quality job.
Keep reading to find out why it’s actually worth it (big time) to stay on top of it.
Let’s do some math
A draught system’s only job is to get beer from the keg to the glass with the goal of serving the customer a beer as the brewer intended. That’s it. If it’s not doing that job perfectly, it’s costing you money.
In fact…it’s costing you a LOT of money, for many different reasons. Check out a few hypotheticals below (this is just two examples..there are a LOT of other scenarios that could play out negatively here).
Scenario #1 - Your draught system isn’t dialed in properly and warm, foamy beer is a small but consistent issue. As a side note, temperature is the cause of roughly 93.567% of dispense issues in a draught system.
Number of Draught Lines - 20
You have to pour off the first two pints of beer of the day from a quarter of your taps on a given day to get the beer flowing clear. So that’s 10 pints of foam to get the beer flowing correctly. Each pint is worth $6.50 to you.
10 pints at $6.50 a pint = $65 of profit per day down the drain. If you’re open 7 days a week, that’s $455 a week. If you’re open year round…
$23,660 in lost profit annually from a small foaming issue. This foaming issue was caused by a hot spot in your trunk line…which means your glycol system isn’t working properly.
Scenario #2 - You clean your draught lines once a month. This isn’t frequent enough, and bacteria/yeast/beer stone slowly build up in your beer lines, barrier tubing, and hardware, which shortens the life of your draught systems and forces you to replace parts much sooner than you needed to had you maintained it properly. New Draught systems, with labor, can cost from $10,000 to $30,000 to replace, depending on the size.
Number of Draught Lines - 20
Not only can the build-up cause foaming issues, it slowly affects the flavor of your beer until you’ve reached the point of no return. In this scenario, let’s be modest and pretend that every 5th customer notices something wrong with their beer, has an underwhelming experience, and doesn’t order another beer.
If you’re a beer focused restaurant that pours 500 beers a day from your draught system (given that some days are busier than others), and every 5th customer doesn’t get a second round, that ranges from 50-100 beers that don’t get sold per day. Now…your customer might, at that point, switch to a higher margin spirits-based beverage for that trip, but odds are they aren’t coming back any time soon. It’s about the experience. They had a mediocre experience and they will not forget it.
(50 beers at $6.50 a beer) x (5 days a week) = $1,625/week
($1,625/week) x (50 weeks you’re open)…
$81,250 in annual lost profit due to bad beer because of dirty draught lines.
How much does it cost to maintain my system?
Short answer = Very little on balance.
Finding a consistent, high quality line cleaning service is oddly difficult in this country…stay tuned to The Brew Enthusiast for a solution to this issue shortly. Aside from that, your average draught company/line cleaning company will charge you roughly $10 bucks/draught line for a cleaning. Let’s do some more math.
Number of Draught Lines - 20
(20 Draught Lines) x ($10/line) x (26 cleanings…which is a cleaning every two weeks)…
$5,200 annual expense to keep your draught lines perfect. If you have more lines, it’s more expensive, but you probably sell more beer…so it’s even more worth it.
If you’ve got a brand new draught system that you maintain perfectly, that puppy should last 15-20 years at a minimum with only very basic maintenance needed to keep it working perfectly. If you do not keep up with the maintenance, you will have to gut renovate the entire thing a lot sooner, which will cost you at least $10,000 in most scenarios. That’s a completely unnecessary expense. You see where we’re going with this?
All together now
Everyone loses when you pour bad beer. Breweries make less money, and distributors make less money, and you make less money as a retailer, and the customer has to drink sh$tty beer that wasn’t how the brewer intended you to drink it…and then the ENTIRE beer industry suffers because we lose them as a drinker. Beer is wonderful, spectacular, incredibly delicious beverage and everyone should enjoy it. Beer is best enjoyed in the right glassware on draught…always. Draught quality best practices are a long term investment with massive returns. Please take the time to focus on the value drivers for your business, and right now, beer quality is the lowest hanging fruit we have.