The More You Know… Keeping It Clean

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February 1, 2018
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2018 GABF Week Events
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Chris Black and Chris Ewing cleaning ALL lines before GABF 2017

Chris Black and Chris Ewing cleaning ALL lines before GABF 2017

The More You Know

This month, marks my 35th Anniversary in the craft brewing industry. From the beginning I have always been interested in the pouring of draught beer. My first job was beertending at an early beer bar on 6th street in Austin, TX called Maggie Mae’s. When I started, Guinness had just become available on draught in TX. Every Sunday, I started breaking down the faucet & cleaning it. For those of you that have never taken apart a nitro faucet, all the beer is forced through 5 very small holes in a little disk. If the faucet isn’t cleaned regularly, it’s easy for it to clog. This was the beginning of my obsession with clean draught lines. For the next 13 years I drove forklifts, cleaned beer lines, delivered cases and kegs, & learned how to install draught systems from anyone that would let me help. I learned a lot.


When my brother & I got the chance to open the Falling Rock, we built our draught system ourselves with one overriding thought, we wanted it to be easy to maintain the highest quality standards for pouring beer we could. One of the main ways we did this was by designing our system so that the lines could be changed out on a regular basis. We located our beer cooler as close as we could to where the beer was to be poured, the ideal situation would be to poke holes in the side of the cooler (you see this a lot at beer-centric places, especially breweries). Unfortunately that would have meant the main floor of Falling Rock would have only sat about 40 people instead of 100, not particularly viable. So we did the next best thing & located the cooler directly below the bar, which added only about 8 feet to each beer line. Many places install a glycol system which allows the cooler to be far away from the bar, the up side is it opens up the possibilities in the design of the bar, the down side is all the beers will be the same, nearly frozen, temperature, and rarely are they designed with replacement in mind. Since our goal was to have ‘No Crap On Tap’ we weren’t worried about having the coldest beer in town. In the past 20 years, we have changed the lines out 6 times. For years, the standard line material (for shorter runs) was a poly-vinyl for longer runs a polyethylene (then a ‘glass-lined’ polyethylene). This last switch was to a new material that came out of the medical field manufactured by Eldon James, it feels more like a silicone & is very slick both inside & out. It has oxygen barrier & anti-microbial properties. It was recommended to me by some breweries that I trust (especially about draught quality), Sierra Nevada & New Belgium, who began evaluating it a few years ago. The up side is it pours beer beautifully, is a dream to pull through the lines through the cooler, seems to last longer before I see any changes in it, and doesn’t impart a taste to the beer. The downside is it is more expensive.


We are very serious about line cleaning, we push our distributors to maintain their lines on a regular schedule (this is a permitted service in CO) with GABF being a particular focus, every distributor was required to clean their lines the Friday or Monday before GABF. The standard for cleaning lines is that they be cleaned every 2 weeks with a caustic solution (gets rid of organic materials growing in the lines) and quarterly with an acid solution (gets rid of inorganic {mineral} deposits). In the past, when lines didn’t change out as often, this system worked out fairly well, but in today’s climate of rotating handles (at Falling Rock we have 92 handles, 20 of which rotate keg-to-keg, many bars have a much higher percentage of rotating taps, not a better or worse thing, just an ‘is’ thing) we found that things were slipping through the cracks, even when every distributor’s line cleaners (or for most distributors, their contracted line cleaning company) was doing their job perfectly. Let me give an example; on a Monday distributor 1 cleans their lines and the beer that is on line 20 belongs to distributor 2 so they don’t clean line 20 (totally what is supposed to happen), now we go to Tuesday when distributor 2 comes in to clean their lines but then line 20 has changed out to a beer carried by distributor 1 so it doesn’t get cleaned (once again, totally what is supposed to happen). We started tracking this and found lines going up to 6 weeks without being cleaned by the distributors (we do clean the lines ourselves when we switch over beers, but often we do not have the time to break everything down while the bar is open, plus the additional risk of using caustic then, too many opportunities for a mix up even when using lock out procedures {unfortunately this is from too many years of experience}).


Since Day one we’ve had a cleaning kit, for the last 12 years it’s been a wonderful 4-head stainless steel German tank that cost us nearly $500. The last time we changed out the lines we completed a goal of ours that we had been working on for a decade, we were able to make every bit of metal that the beer touches be Stainless Steel. When we opened 20 years ago this was virtually impossible both physically and financially. Stainless Steel faucets were over $40, the shanks that pass through the wall were a special order item mostly made to order at about $50, all the other pieces tail-pieces and nuts that make up the line (8 pieces/line at about $3 each), plus the couplers at $45-$50 each, all totaling nearly $200/line, today these items are mostly in stock, would run about $100/line and also of better grade stainless. In addition, 3 years ago we installed stainless steel adapters hooked up to fresh water in the cooler so when it’s time to flush out the cleaning solution out of the lines, we can tap into the adapter & rinse the lines. This cut the time to clean lines by 30%. Now we just needed to figure out a better way of getting them cleaned. I know, you’re thinking, why not just do it myself/ourselves. Now that would be my normal M.O. but, after 20 years in business, I’ve got enough jobs, and paying twice for things isn’t something I enjoy doing. You see, line cleaning is built into the cost of the keg and if we do it ourselves either I personally have to do it our I have to pay one of my employees to do it. What about doing it ourselves & charging it back to the distributors? We thought about this, but the extra headache of tracking, billing, etc just doesn’t excite me, plus some of the methods for paying might look suspicious to the liquor control types.


We came to the decision to contract with one third-party line cleaning company to do all of the lines & then let them deal with billing it to the different distributors, something that they were already set up to do. Luckily, we know some people like that. One of our regulars works for a line cleaning company that has contracts with a few chain restaurants in the area (as well as one of the distributors in CO) to clean all their lines. We switched over nearly 2 years ago, and couldn’t be happier. Every Monday morning, their employee shows up and cleans half the wall, they have a key & the alarm code. When I arrive they are usually starting to put things back together. By the time the kitchen and bartenders show up the line cleaning is done. Previously, the line cleaners were showing up on seemingly random schedules and were competing with my staff for space behind the bar, in the kitchen & in the cooler, it was a complete clusterf@ck. I’m glad we found a better way, a way that improves both quality of life & quality of beer. We all win. Sorry if you were expecting a rant, there’s definitely a few coming, but for now, let’s talk about this.

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