Problems with draft systems often occur at the most inconvenient times—during happy hour, for example, or a big game. Customers may be ordering beers by the pitcher when suddenly the taps stop pouring right. Being able to diagnose common draft system problems—such as whether a keg is empty, why the beer is coming out flat or extra foamy, or why it suddenly smells like buttered popcorn—is essential to running a successful bar business. So SevenFifty Daily asked beer professionals to pinpoint three of the most common problems associated with draft beer systems, how to figure out what’s causing the issue, and what to do to fix it.
Scenario One: The Beer Won’t Pour
A bartender flips open the tap handle and … nothing comes out. Is the keg empty? Not necessarily, but the gas tank might be. Matt Meadows, the director of field quality for New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, Colorado, and the Brewers Association’s draft beer quality ambassador, says that most American draft systems require a keg to be hooked up to a tank containing either straight carbon dioxide (CO2) or a device that blends CO2 and nitrogen. The gas supply preserves the brewer’s desired carbonation and pushes beer up the draft line into a faucet. If the brewer is using a blend, and the nitrogen content is too high, that may mean that too little CO2 is being used or that the pressure is too low, which can prevent beer from coming out of the tap—or cause the beer to pour flat.
Danny Olson, the draft tech manager at N.H. Scheppers Distributing in Columbia, Missouri, suggests checking the gas regulator gauge first to see if it shows any pressure. If it doesn’t, the tank is probably empty. If some pressure is in play, he says, use a screwdriver to turn the screw on the regulator clockwise to amp up the pressure by two pounds per square inch (PSI) until the beer flows freely. As Meadows explains, direct-draw systems that are “100 percent CO2 will typically be 12 to 14 PSI. Long-draw systems typically use a blend of 60 percent to 70 percent CO2, with the balance being nitrogen. Nitrogenated stouts should be pushed with 25 percent CO2 [and 75 percent nitrogen] and would be set at 35 PSI. Carbonated stouts would be the same as other ales.”
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If that fails, you may have a gauge that gives false readings. Olson says that if this is the case, it’s time for plan B. “The way we do this,” he says, “is by shutting off the valve on the tank, then we unhook the regulator from the tank, and we slowly open the valve on the tank to see if any gas releases. If no gas is discharged, then the tank is empty.”
If the tank does dispense gas, the keg itself might have mysteriously been emptied of beer. Make sure that the metal ball inside the coupler that connects the keg to the lines isn’t stuck in place and that you’re not missing any of the 3/4-inch neoprene washers that seal most of the coupler (also known as Sankey) connections. Alex Bokulich, the director of operations for Craft Concepts Group, a hospitality company in Philadelphia that includes Blume, Bru Craft & Wurst, and Finn McCools Ale House in its portfolio, says, “Sadly, something I’ve seen too many times over the past few years—and am likely to see again and again—is a washer missing from the beer line. Someone will tap the keg, go back to the bar, and nobody knows anything went wrong … until somebody goes into the walk-in [refrigerator] the next morning and half of the keg has drained onto the floor!”
Scenario Two: The Beer Is Foamy
According to Mark Edelson, the operations director for the Iron Hill Brewery + Restaurant chain based in Wilmington, Delaware, if the beer is pouring foamy, it might have gotten warm—a common predicament at outdoor festivals. If your system is a long draw (a draft tower that’s far from where the keg is stored), Edelson suggests checking to make sure the lines are refrigerated—or if sections of lines are unrefrigerated and creating “hot spots.” “Warm temperatures break CO2 gas out of beer,” he says, “and warm spots in the system cause foamy beer.”
Edelson recommends cooling the beer by putting more ice in the portable jockey-box beer dispenser if you’re off-site; if on-premise, adjust the glycol in the lines or the temperature in the cooler where you store your tapped kegs. If that fails, check the gas tank for low pressure. If you get a proper reading, Bokulich says you should check your connections. “A little chunk of debris where the Sankey couples to the keg,” he explains, “can create a faulty seal and the keg will spew foam.”
Scenario Three: The Beer Smells or Tastes Like Buttered Popcorn or Vinegar
New Belgium’s Meadows says that bad-smelling or off-tasting beer that didn’t arrive at the bar that way usually indicates the presence of bacteria, which probably means your draft lines need some cleaning. Most commonly, beer infected with bacteria from dirty lines contains either diacetyl, which smells and tastes of buttered popcorn or butterscotch, or acetobacter, which humans perceive as vinegar. Neither of these should make patrons ill, but a manager should toss the keg and make an appointment with a draft technician for some immediate maintenance.
Meadows says that numerous studies show an average growth in sales of 4 percent to 7 percent when establishments adopt more frequent cleaning cycles. “Line cleaning should take place a minimum of once every two weeks using an electric recirculation pump,” he says. “Proper chemicals are also a necessity. A strong concentration of sodium hydroxide should be used every two weeks, and an acid should be used once every three months.”
Faucets and couplers should also be disassembled and chemically cleaned at least every two weeks, as dirty faucet plugs can become a breeding ground for acetobacter. Staff members can do their share to prevent bacterial growth in and around the taps by ensuring that items like floor drains, spill trays, and bar rags are properly cleaned on a regular basis. As Meadows says, “Proper hygiene practices throughout a bar are better at preventing bacterial growth and the fruit flies bacteria attract than preventive system maintenance.”
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Tara Nurin is the beer and spirits contributor to Forbes, the drinks columnist for New Jersey Monthly, a cohost of the What’s on Tap TV show, and a writer for publications like Food & Wine, Wine Enthusiast, Vice Munchies, and VinePair. She is a BJCP-certified judge, teaches a for-credit university beer class, and leads beer seminars for institutions like the Smithsonian. The Camden, New Jersey, homeowner has won two first-place awards from the North American Guild of Beer Writers, founded the state’s first beer education group for women, and volunteers as the archivist for the Pink Boots Society.