Product Knowledge Guide: Beer Dispensing Equipment

While draft beer has been a constant fixture at most bars and restaurants, the craft beer renaissance is placing a greater emphasis on this equipment.

iStock 000017224195LargeAs a result, there has been an influx of new features and technology to accommodate foodservice operators’ growing list of beer offerings. Beer dispensing equipment efficiently supplies drafts in conjunction with refrigeration equipment that keeps beverage temperatures at the optimum 36 degrees F during storage and between 38 degrees F and 40 degrees F while serving.

Direct vs. Remote Systems

In terms of the type of equipment available, operators can choose from two options. The first type, direct draw, is a simple, self-contained system with between one and four doors, in addition to a dispensing tower and beer taps on top. These are typically located behind the bar, so they require a dedicated spot, and accommodate between one and five standard size half-barrel kegs. Because there is limited storage space for beer, direct draw units are geared for operations with fewer beer selections. Also with these units, beer kegs need to be changed out more often.

The growing popularity of brewers supplying beer in one-sixth size (also called skinny) kegs makes it easier for establishments to offer more diverse beer selections. With a smaller diameter of about 9 inches, as many as 4 skinny kegs can fit into one door of a direct draw cooler compared to 1 standard keg.

Larger operations and those with more extensive bar service are best served by remote beer dispensing systems. Unlike direct draw, these units house the beer in a dedicated walk-in cooler, which is not directly adjacent to the serving area. Insulated trunk lines installed in the floor or ceiling carry the beer from the containers in the cooler directly to the tap. The number of lines varies, depending on the different types of draft beer being served and includes separate glycol lines that are used to circulate chilled glycol through the bundle to keep it cold. A separate refrigeration unit, called a line chiller or power pack, chills a bath of glycol and includes a pump to circulate the glycol through the line set. Because kegs can run in a series with these units, these don’t have to be changed out as often as direct draw systems.

With a remote draw system, it is critical to maintain balance between the pressure and temperature or the beer can become over-carbonated and foamy. The CO2 exchange during drafting also must remain consistent or beer can become flat over time. As a rule, any air taken out of a keg must be replaced. Also, the distance between the keg and tap determine how much pressure needs to be applied to get the beer to properly tap. During installation, calculations need to be made in terms of the length of the lines and power pack size to achieve the optimum balance.

While direct draw systems are less complicated in terms of setup, these take up additional space in the bar area. Remote draw dispensers are more comprehensive in terms of the equipment required and logistics with installing, in addition to being more costly. The benefits with this type are that valuable space behind the bar is preserved and operators can accommodate more extensive beer offerings.

Recent Developments

With the advent of microbreweries and extensive varieties of craft beer, there have been a number of recent developments in the beer dispensing equipment category. At least one manufacturer offers a remote draw system with separate beer line chillers that are at two different temperatures. This is optimal for operations serving colder domestic brews along with craft beers or lagers best served warmer so as not to lose the flavor characteristics.

The varieties of beer towers, which include specialty units from Europe, are on the rise. A properly designed remote draft beer tower must be well insulated and include a method for circulating the glycol through the head to chill the beer faucets. Beer faucets naturally get warm since they are external to the beer tower, so these must be kept cold in order to prevent foaming.

There are many different varieties of beer towers and some have special features intended to help merchandise the beer. Iced beer towers are one of the new varieties. These units are solid metal with no insulation, which allows the circulating glycol to chill the tower to the point where humidity in the air creates an ice coating on the tower. Some operators feel this coating creates a visual appeal and can help increase purchases.

Service Q&A with Jeff Grunewald, manager at Stuever & Sons, Addison, Ill.

FE&S: What are the most common service calls for beer dispensing systems?

JG: Our most common service calls are complaints about foamy beer. This typically happens when staff members try to adjust regulators after running out of CO2, thinking there is more gas available. This causes issues with the system, since the gas needs to be set by a professional and not altered.

FE&S: What are the key maintenance requirements for beer dispensing systems?

JG: Direct draw systems, with kegs right below that utilize air-cooled refrigeration units, need to be cleaned weekly. With remote dispensing units’ glycol systems, the current city liquor commissions’ regulations state cleaning is required every two weeks, but this will change to weekly. Operators who don’t adhere to this schedule can be subject to hefty fines. In most cases, beer distributors come in to clean the lines when replacing the kegs. If we are called in for this job, we’ll also check the system to make sure all components are operating properly.

FE&S: How can operators ensure beer quality is maintained with these units?

JG: With the popularity of craft beer, there are more systems with vinyl, rubber or plastic lines that include stainless steel barriers. This prevents the transfer of beer flavors if varieties are being switched out. There is typically a 6-foot drop line in the cooler that needs replacing when beer types are changed.

FE&S: What are the issues associated with temperature fluctuations?

JG: The goal is to maintain beer temperatures between 35 degrees F and 38 degrees F at the tap, with domestic beer served colder at 35 degrees F and microbrews closer to 38 degrees F. If serving both, 38 degrees F is a perfect medium for all beer types. Glycol units should be set at about 30 degrees F. Operators can temp their beer daily, checking the beer at the tap, cooler temperature and glycol temperature. If drafts are coming out of the tap warm, this means something is off with the glycol temperature. Excessively foamy beer also may indicate the temperature is off, the gas pressure isn’t accurate or the wrong gas is being used. The warmer the beer, the greater the CO2 breakout. Beer needs to be cold enough to hold the CO2, which breaks out when the temperature is over 40 degrees F. This causes excess foaming. Beer should have a ¾- to 1-inch head, otherwise operators are losing profits by wasting product.

Beer Dispensing System Considerations

When choosing a beer dispensing system, it helps to be educated on how the different types operate, cost considerations and maintenance musts. Here, James Whiffen, president at Fountainhead Foodservice Group, a foodservice equipment contractor based out of Burlington, Mass., provides a consultant’s viewpoint on the category.

  • There used to be an average of six to eight different beers running through the lines, but with the popularity of microbrews, today there can be dozens. There is more profit in draft beer than bottled beer, because there is less handling and labor involved.
  • Beer dispensing systems have come a long way in terms of design. There are new technologies that have enhanced the continuity of product from keg to faucet. For example, chilled faucets reduce foam, which is straight profit going down the drain.
  • Although direct draw units can accommodate up to four kegs per unit, these systems require more handling than remote draw systems.
  • Remote systems offer increased flexibility in terms of the number of beers an operation can offer at one time, but also require a greater initial investment. Still, these systems tend to pay for themselves over time.
  • Beer pumping with remote systems is a matter of logistics. Lines can be pumped either up or down, depending on the configuration of the system. The power pack that drives the system interprets how it works.
  • In new installations, a heavy-duty floor is needed in the walk-in to handle the weight of the kegs. Beer also should be stored in designated coolers, and not with food, to ensure temperatures stay consistent and product quality is not compromised.
  • Lines on remote draw systems need to be kept clean or nasty buildup can occur and impact the product’s taste.
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