Diana Carlton is a writer for Micro Matic, a leader in beverage dispense solutions. Micro Matic designs and installs commercial draft beer systems in restaurants, bars, and venues across the nation. With initiatives like its Dispense Institute, Micro Matic is committed to supporting the highest standards of quality draft beer.
Everyone enjoys a good draft beer, but few people are aware of the amount of maintenance required to maintain a top-notch draft beer system. Any venue worth its glassware has a complex behind-the-scenes process for keeping its system clean and functional, to ensure that the beer coming out of the taps is just as tasty as the brewer intended. What follows here is an overview of the upkeep process needed to make sure that a beer line system remains in tip-top shape.
Every two weeks (at minimum) a draft beer system needs to be completely cleaned out to ensure that nothing contaminates the beer. The maintenance process has several steps. First, all the beer in the system needs to be flushed out using clean water. Next, the lines need to be cleaned with an appropriate chemical solution (either alkaline or acid based). For most commercial venues, this means using a line cleaning pump to circulate the chemical through the system for a minimum of 15 minutes. As the chemical works its way through the line system, the taps and keg couplers should also be individually washed as well. Finally, the lines need to be flushed out with clean water in order to remove the chemical solution, and the resulting water must be pH tested to make sure that all chemical residue has truly been removed. After all that, the beer can finally be returned to the lines.
What exactly are you worried about when cleaning? There are a number of icky things that can develop in a poorly maintained beer system, and all of them can affect the taste, smell, and color of the beer. A number of different kinds of bacteria can grow in beer systems, and though most of these bacteria are harmless, they can affect the quality of the beer that goes through the lines. In particular, bacteria can give beer an “off” taste, making it taste sour or vinegary, or giving it a smell of rotten eggs. In addition to bacteria, yeast and mold can invade the system, usually growing on faucets, keg couplers, and drains—all the parts of the system that are exposed to the air. Finally, beer stone—deposits of Calcium Oxalate that come from natural components inside the beer itself--can develop inside the lines. Though not specifically harmful, beer stone can block the beer lines and send flakes of nasty sediment into your otherwise perfect pint.
Though the process for cleaning beer lines is the same no matter what types of contaminants you’re cleaning for, the type of cleaner that you use will differ. Alkaline cleaners are used most commonly to get rid of mold, bacteria, and yeast, and acidic cleaners are best suited to dissolving beer stone. Each of these types of cleaner must be handled with care, using rubber gloves and protective eyewear. In some bars, the owners or the bartenders are responsible for cleaning the beer lines, and in other bars an outside service comes in to clean the system. Either way, the important thing is that the beer line system is appropriately maintained.
Beer line cleaning is an intense process, but the end results are worth it. So next time you’re at your favorite watering hole, raise your glass a little bit higher in acknowledgement of all the time and effort that went into making sure your pint tastes great.