Judging Beers by Tim Prendergast Vol. 13 – Cleaning the Lines

Tim Prendergast is a Certified Cicerone® and the Assistant Beer Director and Cellarman at Meridian Pint. Read Tim’s previous column on B.W. Rye #2 here.

It’s often a little difficult to explain to people exactly what it is that I do for a living. My title is Assistant Beer Director/Cellarman and when I tell people that, it is usually and understandably met with blank stares and statements like “Wait I had no idea there was such thing as a Beer Director, let alone Assistant Beer Director.” I often think that the first thought that many people have is to equate me with Dwight Schrute, “Wait is that like Assistant TO the Regional Manager?” Without delving into the details that are sure to bore most people, I usually find it most accurate to say that my job is to help ensure that beer gets to your glass exactly how the brewer intended.

This may seem like a relatively easy task, but there are many many details that need to be tended to and monitored on a consistent basis in order to serve beer exactly as it was intended to be served. This is especially true of draft beer. I’ll be the first to admit it’s not rocket science, but it’s also not easy as pie. Draft beer is a finicky thing. If a keg is as little as 1 degree too warm it can start to pour foamy. If the beer is served at a pressure that is one PSI too high or too low it can become overcarbonated or undercarbonated and start to pour foamy. That means the brewer of that beer is annoyed that their beer isn’t being served as it they intended it to be, the customer is annoyed because they have to wait longer for that beer to pour, the bartenders are DEFINITELY annoyed at you for slowing them up and the bar owner is angry because they never like seeing foam (read: money) being poured down the drain. I like my job and if I want to keep it and if I don’t want to irritate bartenders (never a good idea) it’s in my best interest to make sure the beer is pouring properly.

Continues after the jump.

While ensuring the proper dispense of beer is something I put a lot of effort into, another aspect of draft beer that takes up a lot of my time is cleaning. People often do not think of beer as a food product but it is, and should be treated as such. Things that the beer touches, from the keg room the kegs are stored in, to the lines and faucets that the beer travels through should all be kept very clean. Not only is beer a food product, it’s also quite literally a living thing. The vast majority of craft beer still has live yeast in the bottle or keg, there’s constantly evolving biological activity going on in your beer. There’s also residual sugar in that beer. Have you ever lazily left an half empty beer out on the counter for a day or two? If you have you know what it smells like when you eventually pour it out. It’s usually a rather unpleasant melange of sour aromas. Bacteria, wild yeast and other organisms in the air are to blame. Just as yeast eats sugar and produces alcohol as a byproduct, these bacteria eat sugar but produce sour flavors as byproducts.

The same organisms that get in to that bottle of beer also make their way into the draft lines at a bar. Many people can remember having a beer on tap they’ve enjoyed dozens of times and then at a different bar getting a glass of the same beer that’s sour and buttery tasting and all-in-all a bit off. It doesn;t taste like you remember it, it doesn’t taste like it should. That off-taste comes from a build-up of a couple harmless kinds of bacteria in the lines. Seriously, don’t panic they are harmless to humans, in fact some of them are the organisms that produce the characteristic tang in yogurt, other are the same ones that are used to ferment the sour beers of Belgium and the US that are becoming increasingly popular. Fun fact: Diacetyl, the same compound in dirty draft lines that makes your beer taste buttery is also the major ingredient in artificial movie theater butter.

It’s impossible to prevent the presence of these things in draft lines. Remember, there’s bacteria and yeast all around us every day. The only places on earth that are completely sterile and free of any bacteria or organisms are laboratories. Not even operating rooms are sterile environments, they’re just really really clean. Which is all you can do with draft systems, keep them really really clean. Virtually every beer industry publication and association will tell you that bars that want to prevent funny tasting beer have to clean their draft lines at LEAST once every two weeks. It’s a labor intensive process that involves flushing all of the beer out of the lines, using a pump to circulate a highly caustic chemical through the lines which destroys any organic material in the line, disassembling and cleaning all parts that touch the beer like faucets and keg couplers, reassembling everything, flushing the chemical out with water and then putting beer back in the lines.

Wait a minute, flushing beer out of the lines? Yes folks, to clean lines you must pour out the beer that’s in the lines. At Meridian Pint that’s a little over 4 pints per line. With 24 draft lines we’re talking close to a hundred pints of beer down the drain, at LEAST every two weeks. When a beer inexplicably starts to taste the slightest bit off we clean that line in advance of the scheduled two week cleaning. Whenever a bell rings an angel gets its wings, whenever a pint of beer is poured down the drain a brewer cries. That’s a hundred crying brewers, and that’s sad.

Waste is never cool, waste makes haste, waste makes things more expensive. So in an effort to curb the flow of brewers tears, conserve beer, and get you some awesome beer for a great price Meridian Pint has decided to declare a beermergency once a week. We clean half of our lines every Wednesday morning, that means in order to prevent beer from going down the drain it has to go into someones stomach. To make this happen we’ll be offering the beer on the 12 draft lines that will be cleaned the next day for $3 on Tuesday nights from 10pm until close. Yes, $3. We see this as a win-win for everyone. We save money, you get cheap beer, and everyone gets the comfort of knowing they’re drinking beer that tastes like the brewer intended from squeaky clean draft lines. Cheers!

15 Comment

  • better than calling it college night.

  • Typo – Right after the jump – While ensuring proper the proper dispense of beer if something I put a lot of effort into

  • Wait. So half of your beers will be $3 on Tuesdays? Is that right?

    • That’s mostly right. Starting on Tuesday Feb. 7th and continuing every Tuesday after that, half of our drafts will be $3 from 10pm until close or until the beer in that line is gone, whichever comes first.

  • Awesome write up, so many people have no idea what goes into making beer or making it taste good when it hits the glass. A couple good articles to follow could be on bottle storage (temp, shelf life, etc…), cellar storage, glass type/style.

  • This is great tireless work that takes place weekly or once every other week at many better beer bars. Thank you Tim and the work you do. Thank you MP for making it a win win for all of us better beer fans.

  • Really interesting. Thanks for fleshing (flushing?) this out. This is one reason out of many (such as I live around the corner) that Meridian Pint is my favorite restaurant in DC.

  • sunsquashed

    Sweet! Great idea for reducing waste and giving your customers some love. Methinks Tues. night at Meridian Pint may be a new habit.

  • Too bad you don’t have a septic system. The folks who pump out the septic tank at the vacation cabin suggest pouring some beer down the drain to feed the bacteria that process waste.

  • While the bacteria in the lines may be harmless, how about that ‘highly caustic chemical’ that’s pumped through the lines to clean them? Does water usually follow to clean the pints of that stuff out? Please please say yes!?

    • We most definitely flush the chemical out! I had mentioned it in the article but only briefly, sorry if that was confusing and potentially a cause for concern. To give a little more detail, the last step before putting beer back into the lines is to flush the caustic chemical out with water and use Ph test strips to ensure that the Ph matches that of the tap water indicating that all of the chemical has been removed from the lines.

  • austindc

    Woah, so cool! I had always wondered what made the beer taste buttery at Front Page. I look forward to responding to the next beermergency.

  • (Hicup) Thanks Bartender I will have another.

  • Tim. This Amandas Grandpa in Florence, Arizona.

    My brother Ralph and I operated a Teen Age Beer bar in Oshkosh,
    Wisconsin. We ONLY sold about 400 cases of BOTTLED Beer each week.

    I did Bartend at other bars and remember the man that cleaned out the lines.

    Granpa Louie

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