Draft beer is that which is drawn from a large container, such as a keg. Draft beer systems can handle anywhere from 1 to more than 200 different beer varieties, depending on the type and model.

istock 479300102Today, a wider variety of keg types get used with draft beer systems due to the prevalence of microbrews and skinny quarter barrels. Operators also use these systems to dispense cocktails, kombucha, cold-brew coffee and even wine. Operators can situate kegs directly underneath beer towers or utilize beer lines running hundreds of feet from the walk-in cooler.

The type and size of draft beer system depends on how many beers will be on tap, the distance between the bar and kegs/cooler, and if beer will be dispensed with nitrogen. Kegs typically last 90 days and can be easily changed in and out of draft beer systems.

Types of Systems

Operators can choose from three basic types of commercial draft beer systems. The direct-draw type stores kegs in a refrigerated keg box under the counter or bar. This type provides a simple, retrofittable and often cost-effective alternative to long-draw systems.

Air-cooled or short-draw systems use the already cold air inside the beer cooler to maintain proper beer temperature all the way to the faucet. Kegerators serve as one of the simpler draft beer system options for bars. These easy-to-install, simple-to-use systems store the beer below the tap and have shorter lines, typically 25 feet in length. However, kegerators tend to be more common at low-end bars due to their affordable price, six-tap limit and the walk-in cooler space required for storing kegs. Also, because smaller keg sizes are utilized with air-cooled systems, operators need to change these more often.

Remote- or glycol-cooled draft beer systems can transport beer up to 500 feet from the keg or container to the tap. The unit’s lines are cooled to keep beer at optimum temperatures during travel. These systems require gas mixers since they cannot use straight CO2 like the direct-draw type. Nitrogenized kegs or stouts can utilize a pre-blended system that mixes 75 percent nitrogen with 25 percent CO2, while lagers and ales are best served by a ratio of 60 to 70 percent CO2 and 30 to 40 percent nitrogen.

Applications

With craft beer popularity on the rise, many bars use 12-tap units instead of kegerators to accommodate a larger variety of offerings. Operators can store beer kegs for these more comprehensive systems in a remote walk-in cooler, which helps save space in the bar area.

Twelve-tap units come in a direct-draw configuration with shorter runs and air-cooled systems or remote/glycolcooled systems, which require a tower.

There are options available to help ensure an efficient, quality pour while minimizing waste. For use with less expensive draft beer systems, per-line pressure regulators are set up in zones to help prevent excessive beer foaming. These allow bar operators to adjust the pressure for each line individually, rather than for the entire zone. Turbo taps are longer than the traditional type and extend to the bottom of a beer glass for faster pouring. Operators commonly use these in high-volume applications. Foam on Beer Prevention (FOB) systems help minimize beer waste when changing beers on tap. These systems work well with longer or remote units as FOBs prevent the line from filling with foam, which wastes product. The downside is that FOB systems can be challenging to use.

Draft beer systems offer regular tops or club tops, the latter of which holds and chills mugs.

Purchasing Factors

Operators commonly use draft beer systems to maintain or chill beer to a specific temperature while transporting the brew when they cannot locate the keg directly at the bar.

The main factor operators should consider when purchasing a draft beer system is where they plan to store the kegs in relation to the beer taps. “This will determine what kind of system (direct-draw, air-cooled or glycol-cooled) they will need based on the distance from the kegs to the taps,” says Emalee Austerman, project coordinator at Camacho Associates, an Atlanta-based foodservice consulting firm. “Direct-draw systems run directly through the cooler wall to the taps, while air-cooled systems can run up to 25 feet and glycol systems can run up to 500 feet.”

According to Austerman, manufacturers always work to perfect their beer systems’ ability to maintain or chill beer to the ideal temperature from the keg to the tap, whether that be 10, 100 or 500 feet. “This helps reduce beer waste from excess foam when employees serve the beer, which can save the operator significant money over time.”

With draft beer systems, the operator must consider how the beer lines reach the taps. In the case of an air-cooled or glycol system, the operator will need to run the beer conduit either overhead or through the slab using pull boxes. “This requires coordination with electrical, plumbing and HVAC items to avoid conflicts,” says Austerman.

All the various beer systems have their place. When considering the different options, operators need to take into account their specific space requirements (keg and tap locations, routing options, etc.) to determine which option best suits their needs.

Operators should ensure they know the actual routing distance for the beer lines to ensure the proper sizing of the draft beer system. “It could be a direct distance of only 20 feet from the kegs to the taps, but once you factor in the distance to go up and overhead, plus the radius of the conduit sweeps, it could be more like 30 to 40 feet,” says Austerman. “Making sure the system is sized properly ensures that the beer arrives at the tap at the ideal temperature. Also, the draft beer system is an investment that needs to be maintained and cleaned on a regular basis to ensure quality.”

Keeping It Clean

The maintenance and cleaning procedures for draft beer systems depends on the type of system, including whether the refrigeration is self-contained or remote. “With keg boxes, bar operators need to be aware of CO2 pressure, rotate stock and not leave kegs in the cooler too long,” says Drew Beaty, who handles fleet and inventory at 
Nashville, Tenn.-based A Head for Profits.

To ensure an operator is ready to pour a perfect pint, service agents check the set pressure and clean the lines every two weeks. Service agents also use acid line cleaners and dissolve any sediment the system collects on a quarterly basis.

Service agents also break down beer faucets and check for leaks, which can agitate the beer and create a poor pour. “One of the biggest signs service is needed, no matter what type of system, from long-draw to keg box or through the wall, are pressure problems that cause over-carbonated beer or temperature issues with beer too hot or cold that cause excess foam,” says Beaty. “Also, shanks where faucets are connected can sometimes get warm air between the wall and agitate beer between the cold keg and faucet.”

Also, if a system uses CO2 cylinders and the coupler is engaged longer than 10 to 12 days, the beer will absorb excess gas. “When beer is poured after being coupled for too long, it will be over-carbonated,” says Beaty. “Bar operators who don’t pour a lot of beer or rotate stock should uncouple the kegs during opening and/or closing.”

Service agents recommend a preventative maintenance contract for through-the-wall beer draft systems. “Because beer can get warm where the shank is, and due to the length of travel — plus shadow boxes extend the length from the faucet or shank to the beer hose — we have ways to ensure product stays cool,” says Beaty.

Glycol units have trunk lines with beer lines inside, and the glycol pump circulates antifreeze to keep beer cold in the line. If the keg is 40 feet from the point of pour, depending on the size of the beer line, there can be 10 to 15 pints of beer in a trunk line. This will warm up without use of a glycol unit.

“Because the glycol system ensures the perfect pour, we come in and check the temperature of the glycol bath, make sure the pump is running and the temperature is correct,” says Beaty. “A bar operator can lose product quickly, and throwing beer down the sink is like throwing money down the sink.”

Properly maintained draft beer systems can last indefinitely since keg box and polymer lines are inexpensive to replace. Trunk lines last between 10 and 15 years when properly maintained. Faucets and internal workings of draft systems, depending on the materials, are durable. Bars typically have chrome-plated brass fixtures that can show wear and tear. These eventually need replacement.

“We will replace parts of these systems, like washers, levers and plungers that see a lot of friction and need replacing on a regular basis,” says Beaty. “A stainless-steel through-the-wall system can last forever or the life cycle of a bar, but draft beer systems require maintenance by a qualified service agent every two weeks.”