Pressure Gauges – A Chat with Atlantic

So – I had a call from Atlantic. They’d had a read of my previous post. (Go on, go read it.)

Atlantic are a major installer of cellar kit in the south east and are responsible for some of the installs I’ve been having a grumble about. I had a conversation with a chap there who was remarkably civil in his defence of what they do. (Considering the scathing tone in what I wrote regarding UK cellar installs.)[1]

Amongst many points[2] discussed one seems key:

Atlantic do not fit gauges on regulators because the gauges on UK[3] regulators are crap. (Not a direct quote, but it captures the gist of things.)

Now… better gauges _are_ available, but they’re not the standard, and if it comes down to a choice between no gauges and gauges that are unreliable they’d rather leave the gauges out. Completely understandable – and I see where they’re coming from. It is a proper conundrum.

The better gauges? Very few folk getting quotes for installs want to pay more than whatever the rock-bottom pricing option is… BrewDog will, and the odd one or two other outfits in London. But elsewhere it comes down to offering a higher quote for a job that a competitor will simply undercut by offering cheaper “equivalent” equipment. (A comparison of £4000 versus £9000 was given, albeit I doubt that can be entirely about the gauges!)

Thing is, whilst I understand all that, I still don’t see this as being a “craft beer” quality of install. And I don’t believe a one-size-fits-all approach to PSI is “craft beer” ready.

I understand where Atlantic are coming from on this however and it sheds a lot of light on the situation.

Two other points are integral to thinking about keg pressures:

  1. The install without cooling for the kegs is fundamentally not “craft beer ready” either. I dislike seeing kegs as high as 12C, let alone ambient. This instability of temperature adds another variable that causes further requirements for pressure adjustments. The best I can do is not deliver too much beer at once, so such a place has only the kegs on plus limited reserves. (And ideally convince them to put kegs in some sort of cooler.)
  2. Many breweries basically haven’t a goddamn clue. They can’t even tell us what their vol CO2 levels are. This is a persistent problem, as per my “Summer of Fob” post. I’ve come across some seriously dangerous kegs.

In my view the way forward is three-fold:

  1. Breweries need to get their technical shit together and move away from this “craft beer” is “random WTF oh whoops!” beer… get vol CO2 _right_ for the beer you’re brewing, don’t keg it when there is plenty more secondary to go, stick the target vol CO2 on the keg label. If you can’t do that then bloody well sterilise it, before one of your kegs kills somebody.
  2. Breweries/Distrib/Pubs need to get their storage shit together. I’ve a 4C coldstore for keg now – in an effort to fight over-carbonation. Breweries ought to have the same. “Live” beers, especially ones with wilder yeasts, will almost certainly be able to attenuate further in the keg. Pubs are in a harder place here and the simple answer is: DON’T BLOODY STOCKPILE “CRAFT KEG” IN YOUR WARM (12C) CELLAR FOR WEEKS! (They do it just to bulk-order and save a few bob.)
  3. Breweries/Distrib need to be a _lot_ more hands-on, and a _lot_ more supportive. Standards need to be set for cellar installs, and guidance and support in using the kit needs to be offered. (If the UCB can do anything this might be it… not piss farting about trying to define and “protect” daft terminology.)

Step 3 is part of what I am trying to do with Jolly Good Beer. I’m not bloody DHL-for-beer – I don’t just lob kegs at you. Hell – I can check that your pressure gauges are not too far out and replace them if they are. I definitely will be now that I know they’re considered so unreliable. (My US ones are still reading fine and they get carted all over the shop rather than just being stuck to a wall.)

Anyway… there’s always food for thought available. My take on this is that leaving the gauges out because the standard gauges aren’t good enough is not good enough. But that’s perhaps not a role that Atlantic ought to be taking – unless the customer is willing to shell out for a fully supported system. I’m happy to, and able to, test pressures and help get beer pouring – breweries ought to be the same. And more than that, the vast majority of publicans need more knowledge and information, something we in the business of putting beer in their pubs should also be providing.

It’s what’s best for the beer.


[1] I’ve always thought the Atlantic installs look really well put together. And when I hear folk are getting Atlantic in I’ve said: ah, they do nice installs – just make sure you get pressure gauges. (And some subsequently have.)

[2] We also discussed and agreed that KeyKegs are great for getting around a huge part of the whole carbonation problem. All you need is “enough” pressure to keep whatever carbonation is in there in solution. Of course this would be easier if breweries weren’t so frequently over-carbing kegs. I’m so/so on KeyKegs – I think this is a strong point in their favour. But I still see a “proper” steel keg as the best option. Robust and reusable… but top-pressure becomes much more important with them. The problem with temperatures was also agreed on.

[3] It does make me wonder about the US kit a bit. The ganged Micromatic regulators I buy work out at a good price. They’re the “premium” model. Although they still have the usual non-liquid-filled gauges. I’ve always tested mine against reference pressure and never had a problem aside from a recent pair that seemed to have been damanged in transport.

Keg Beer Pressure in the UK

Regulators with gauges

I am heard to say, with increasing frequency:

The UK is a decade behind the US in keg beer dispense.

Yesterday an American friend of mine responded to this with a scoffing “… at least.” Maybe I should start saying it is decades.

This comes to the fore more and more often lately as I deal with customers who’ve had “craft keg” installs that are, frankly, not fit for purpose. There are multiple factors to this and multiple “WTFs” I’ve seen in installs. But this post will focus on pressure.

I am not a “qualified” cellar-build person. I’ve pondered doing the course but I gather it is basically just a how-to-plug-the-bits-together, that’ll be £1000 please, here-have-a-certificate. The only qualifications I can claim are practical experience, a hell of a lot of research & reading, building bars, getting many varied keg beers pouring, and – probably most important – a sufficient background in physics. (I’m not talking physics major or anything, but I studied some physics through to university level and gas behaviours, flow, dissolvability, etc, are all fundamentals.) I’ve spoken to qualified cellar installers and, so far, not met one who knows anything about vols of dissolved CO₂ in beer. I guess you don’t need it if you’re always setting up to serve unchanging Foster’s et al in a 12°C cellar to standard parameters. (Cellar/keg temperature is another issue… deserving of a large post of its own.)

Everything changes drastically when it comes to “craft beer”. It’s not all just pasteurised lager with a “standard” 2.2 vol CO₂ (or whatever it is) – suitable for a one-size-fits-all sort of configuration. It is *part* of the definition of some beer styles that they are at certain carbonation levels, and your top-pressure should be set accordingly. And then there’s KeyKegs, another ballpark – another game – entirely. If you have just one “craft” line for keg you’ll probably find yourself switching between KeyKegs and top-pressure kegs. (One reason many UK craft brewers are keen on KeyKegs is that it is less likely that crap cellar installs will cause their beer to be served under- or over-carbonated, KeyKeg basically eliminates one piece of fine-tuning at the pub end of things.)

What this boils down to is: every beer line should have a dedicated secondary regulator, and every secondary regulator should have a pressure gauge on it. (And the primary should have an out-side gauge allowing a safe maximum line pressure to be set (<50 PSI, <45 for Pet*cough*crap*cough*ainers) – albeit this can be set once at install and the gauge not needed. But the gauges aren’t an expensive upgrade and it is a useful bit of info when debugging cellar issues if you don’t have a pressure checking gauge handy.)

KeyKeg dispense flow chartTo add some credibility I’ll point you somewhere else at this juncture, go have a look at what Magic Rock, one of the UK’s top modern breweries, have to say about KeyKeg dispense: KeyKegs, differences & dispense issues…

So – what happens when you want to follow Magic Rock’s advice and have no gauges? You’re buggered is what. I’d not touch the thing, as you have no idea what the pressures are you could well take it past the safe limit.

But say you do take the risk and nudge it up a bit. That keg runs out. You want to put a normally carbed top-pressure keg on, you switch couplers, connect up. Over the next 2 days that beer gets increasingly carbonated and the last third basically pours foam. Bugger.

IF THERE ARE NO GAUGES SIMPLY DO NOT EVER TOUCH THE REGULATORS.

Jolly Good Beer wall

Jolly Good Beer wall

Folk in the US with these “Flux Capacitor” setups aren’t spending all their money for shits and giggles. The kit on display is normally in the cellar/coldroom – putting it on display is a bit of marketing really – but the reasoning behind it is to highlight that these things are actually important & the bar takes it seriously. Albeit it does concern me a little, pressures should not need fiddling with – pressure should be set suitably for beer being plugged into the line and then that stays the same until you’re done. I think that functionally the kit is better off in the coldroom. But hey, it makes a good talking-point. This inspired me to put regulators on the front of my own mobile bar. (Although there are other good practical reasons for that, the front of the bar is easy to get to compared to the back through a stack of kegs and tangle of lines.)

Shiny new "craft keg" install... wot?! No gauges?!

Shiny new “craft keg” install… wot?! No gauges?!

In this calendar year I’ve come across 5, *FIVE*, new keg installs that had no pressure gauges on the regulators. THREE of these were done after I told the folk getting the installs to ensure they had pressure gauges on their regulators. In the most recent case I was multiply-insistent. But on the day these professionals were adamant this was not needed… and in the end: no gauges. One of the 1st kegs put on the system was a KeyKeg, which was triggering the fob detector, and needed the pressure increased. Yet these professionals told the customer that my advice to them was wrong, that I didn’t know what I was talking about. (Oh, and this setup has kegs at ambient temp… *grumble* … but this means even more need for pressure adjustments! More chance of fobbing.)

So… in an attempt to basically explain that the professionals don’t have a sodding clue: here are some guidelines for the different kegs out there…

KEYKEG (and other bag-in-container type pressurised kegs)

Slimline KeyKegs stack nicely.

Slimline KeyKegs

The great thing about KeyKeg is you cannot screw up the carbonation of the beer with top-pressure. Hell, you can use compressed air and save on the cost of food grade CO₂. (It’s up to the brewery to screw up carbonation, it does happen, too often… usually to the over-carbonated side… in which case KeyKegs can be vented.)

I can offer no better advice on KeyKeg to what Magic Rock have published. So pop along to their website to get the low-down on this topic.

The only addition I would make is that I tend to run KeyKeg at 35 PSI by default, and this works in almost all cases. If needed I will increase pressure up to 45 PSI. If you need more than 45 PSI then your beer is either over-carbonated or the keg is too warm. (And KeyKegs are rated for a maximum of 51 PSI… NEVER EXCEED THIS!)

TOP PRESSURE KEGS

Top-pressure kegs

Top-pressure kegs

This is where the real problem with some of these keg installs lies.

In light of hitting issues so frequently I have derived my own CO₂ pressure chart. As you do. De-rusting some of the old physics in my head in the process… the key differences between this and most other charts I can find are a) it is in Celsius and b) goes above 10°C… given UK cellars are often at 12°C this is somewhat essential. (Oh, and events, ah good old craft beer events, they’re another ballgame entirely.)

The 12°C cellar makes us in the UK a bit of an outlier really, here’s guidelines for cellaring Schneider Weisse: Draught Beer Guide – note that their pressure chart maxes out at 7.5°C… well, if you want to set the correct pressure for Schneider Weisse in a UK cellar look up 12°C against 3.5 vol CO₂ here:

(Oh, and I’d double-chill the Schneider Weisse… ever wonder why UK pubs have such a nightmare of a time pouring this stuff?)

But wait, there’s more! There is stuff all information online regarding mixed gas. The prevalent use of 60/40 mixed gas in the UK is what I call “the great beer flattener” – systems seem often configured just to provide dispense pressure with no mind to carbonation level. You need quite high a pressure to get 60/40 dispense working perfectly for well carbed beers in a 12°C cellar. If you’re using plastic kegs then I would highly recommend against 60/40 gas as most kegs are rated to about 50 PSI and I personally limit them to 45 PSI. Pressurised plastic beer containers have caused injury. This chart was a bugger to derive, all I could find online was an Draught Beer Quality guideline update that is worked out for a maximum temperature of 4.4°C… in the UK? Hah! So I had to get my head around partial pressures to adjust the pressure formula, to give us:

(Any “peer review” of this would be much appreciated.)

It should be kept in mind that if you smash through kegs in 2 days then carbonation isn’t going to change much and pressure is a lot less of a matter. You may even get by with plain N2 if you’re draining kegs fast enough (NOT RECOMMENDED!) and I’ve heard of some setups using compressed air like at GBBF (REALLY NOT RECOMMENDED!!). However it is my observation that in your typical multi-tap bar kegs can linger on a line for a week or so. This is not ideal… but it makes using correct top-pressure an essential part of the beer quality formula.

In the US there is this thing called “Certified Cicerone“, it is sort of an industry qualification. And it isn’t trivial like the UK’s BIIAB ABCQ. I’m planning on doing the Cicerone exam when the opportunity arises and understanding pressures is a part of the syllabus [PDF].  (I’m a “Certified Beer Server… but that’s just an online multiple-choice test.) In fact in my opinion one of the best things BrewDog is doing for keg beer in the UK is putting many of their staff through Cicerone training and qualification. (Some of these staff are leaving BrewDog and spreading through the industry – taking their knowledge with them, this is great for everyone.)

The DraughtQuality.org website – a resource created by the US Brewers Association – is also a mine of technical information. (And key to the Cicerone syllabus.) This PDF for example is a much better overview of carbonation than my own ramblings: Understanding Dispense Gas [PDF]

Have I presented enough evidence to make it clear why being able to set the pressure level of your gas is essential if you want to serve different & varied keg beers through a beer line?

If not… what do you think. Why not?


Jolly Good Beer – putting the science in dispense!

Or maybe: Jolly Good Beer – putting the SENSE in dispense! ;)

#1: Do not exceed rated keg pressures…

Summer of Fob

50 PSI in KeyKeg

50 PSI in KeyKeg

Keg… in summer… in the UK… it is a fucking pain in the backside. Currently I am having a “summer of fob”. (“Fobbing” is what happens when a beer is too foamy to serve, “foam on beer”, there are several ways fobbing can occur – carb level, temp, flow rate…)

Keg is quickly becoming core to my distribution business. In fact I’m slowly moving to less and less cask volume and considering dropping cask entirely so I can focus more on keg and packaged beers. But there’s a problem with keg – I’m getting higher ullage rates, and an ullage is effectively eliminated sales volume, work done for nothing – and that hurts my small business. It strains relationships with pubs and breweries too. I’m sat here as the middle-man copping the flack from either side.

There are key problems that I believe the UK beer industry MUST solve:

  1. Breweries should not be releasing beers that will gain over 1 vol of CO2 outside of the brewery. Let alone 2 or 3 vols! Surely? Is that reasonable? I’ve handled kegs that are up at 6 vol CO2 (in steel thankfully) and had a KeyKeg at 4 vol CO2 recently. That is on the verge of a KeyKeg’s maximum PSI rating at room temperature. If that 6 vol CO2 beer was in KeyKeg it could very well explode at cellar temperature. If breweries do this it’ll only be a matter of time before a serious injury occurs. That could be in the brewery, could be in distribution, could be in the pub…
  2. Distribution should be keeping kegs cool. This is unpasteurised unfiltered beer folks, it _will_ continue to attenuate somewhat. If you leave your kegs lying around for a week at 20C in summer they’ll probably gain some CO2 and thus result in fobbing. Causing issues at the pub, causing bad vibes, ullaged kegs, and hassles for both distribution and the brewery. I have a 10C coldstore and I’m not happy with that, but many “craft” distributors don’t have a coldstore at all. Hell, too many _breweries_ in the UK don’t. My own goal is to have a 4C-max coldstore for keg and packaged beer products. Some think me a fool… perhaps I am. It certainly isn’t currently a competitive advantage in a market where pubs will do anything to save a fiver.
  3. Pubs need to learn more about keg beer. The BII ABCQ is pretty much a waste of time, someone interested in their job & beer quality will already know _more_. We need a UK-tailored equivalent to Cicerone. Not just that – but pubs need to _not_ buy 2+ months worth of keg stock at once and then leave it in their 12C cellar. See above point: it _will_ attenuate further, the CO2 will increase, you _will_ have more issues with fobby beer. Ideally I’d love to see pubs with keg cellars below 6C… I’m dreamin’ now… Not every beer will have it in it to go far enough to cause problems, but some will. Just do not buy and store kegs for this long unless you can keep them cold. That’s just plain good practice regardless.

I don’t think a pub ought to have to worry about knowing how to vent kegs to reduce CO2 levels – but whilst the above 3 problems remain unsolved the best alternative I can think of is that pubs need to learn how to do this. Yet the current status in the UK is that most don’t even know how to manage within-acceptable-bounds cases with pressure and flow control. The highest level of UK cellar training is the BII ABCQ and, frankly, it is barely even what I would consider sufficient as a  “new-joiner briefing” in a serious bar or pub. It’s crap, it’s designed for Wetherspoons and similar bar chains that have standardised products and support contracts.

I have _NEVER_ come across a keg I cannot get pouring. That 60 PSI steel keg I mentioned worked just fine after some venting, and the beer was actually pretty awesome. KeyKegs are even easier to vent.

Now… how do we fix this? <troll>Pasteurise all the keg beer?</troll>

</braindump>

(I have views on the lack of refrigeration in UK beer retail too… that’s one for another time though.)

Gross Profit – why £6 is a good price for a pint of Gamma Ray

Ich habe Pläne große Pläne” – Rammstein, Stein um Stein

No no, wrong take on “gross” – this is definitely not about making an obscene amount of profit… I’m writing about “gross profit” as in “GP” – a term often heard when industry folk are talking about beer prices. I have written about GP before, with a focus on the role of the distributor in pricing – in this post I focus more on the pub and the beer. The motivation comes from recently having had £4.50 pints of Beavertown Gamma Ray being compared to £3.00 pints of £60-per-firkin bitter as if the Beavertown ought to be closer to the £3.00. As it stands £4.50 for a pint of Gamma Ray is near unheard of as that is pretty heavily discounted for promotional purposes.

GP is the “gross profit” made on goods sold. That is the margin made by the business in ex-VAT terms. If I sell pints of beer for a bargain £3.20 per pint I have a revenue of£2.67 per pint once the 20% VAT is scraped off. If that pint comes from a cask that costs me £60 (about normal for a local “boring brown bitter”) then each pint is costing me 86p (assuming a 70 pint yield per cask). So my gross profit on a pint is about £1.81… typically GP is expressed as percentage – this is the percentage the gross profit is of the revenue and in this case is 67.9%. This would be considered “pretty healthy” by most pubs.

When pubs talk GP they’re generally speaking of the average for the beer they sell. They’ll be targeting some specific figure that suits their overall business plan. This can be anything from as low as 40% in a countryside tied pub that probably survives only on profits from non-drinks sales to 70% in a city-slicker freehouse which might get away with being pretty much “wet-led” (most income is based on drinks). Two extremes of the pub spectrum.

All business situations are different – tie, location, rent, staff costs, etc. There’s a good breakdown of the costs of running various sorts of pubs available from the BBPA. There isn’t a one-size-fits all when it comes to GP. Yet customer expectations set a pretty narrow band for acceptable pricing of a pint, a trend now being a little broken out of by the “craft beer” scene. Still – a tied pub next door to a freehouse can hardly sell equivalent beer for a quid more per pint than the freehouse… so it typically makes a significantly lower GP on beer.

Let us look at a well known brown bitter as an example, a “20th century IPA” style of thing at about 3.6%. I’m talking about Greene King IPA of course. This is available on the open market at pretty low prices, I’ve heard of pricing as low as £55 from one reliable source. Meanwhile I know one Greene King landlord who pays £99. These prices are all ex-VAT, as is the way of these things. The problem is both pubs have to sell this beer for about the same price… in Cambridge let us say this is £3.20 in the freehouse and £3.40 in the Greene King place. The Greene King place isn’t going over the top on the price and there are plenty of drinkers in Cambridge who won’t be at all fussed by 20p if the pub is otherwise pretty good.

Pricing: Tied vs Untied

The freehouse GP here is a very healthy 70.5%… but the poor old Greene King pub is only at 50%. Keep in mind that these are pretty much extremes and there is a range between them, and then things differ again per beer and per pub.

The GP as a % versus “margin” in £ is important because punters generally only go out with so much £ in their pocket. Most people are living within a finite budget when it comes to luxuries like having a pint. The freehouse is making more per average customer. If the tied pub want to achieve similar profits it has to sell more volume (be larger, be in a better location) and/or shift other products – i.e. turn into a gastropub. Or maybe it can get by just fine as a wet-led pub simply making less profit… like I said before, every business situation is unique.

So that’s GP – and GP compared for tied and untied pubs. Now I get to the next core point of this blog-post: what does this mean for “craft beer” and why does my pint of Beavertown Gamma Ray cost me six bloody quid?!

Great tasty beer costs more. I won’t try to explain why – there are plenty of debates about how reasonably, or not, it is priced. All I’ll say is the brewers I know brewing what I think of as awesome craft beer are mostly working at capacity and expanding. Textbook supply-vs-demand means they can command a higher price for their product – within reason. Flavour is a factor, ingredients, and quality – but big factors are also fashion and brand… the best have all of these right. These folk haven’t founded a brewery with the aim of competing in the lowest-common-denominator end of the market. If this craft beer also happens to be in keg it’ll cost even more per pint, another debate to be had (and has been had) elsewhere.

In my opinion Beavertown stuff is reasonably priced, in the grand scheme of mid-5%s kegged craft beers. A pub will be typically paying anything between £85 and £100 for 30 litres of this lush 5.4% beer – depending on location, volume, and supply chain. For some calculations below we’ll pick £95 for a 1-off keg purchase in a very craft-keg-rotation-happy bar. This is to compare to the same bar buying any one of a dozen mid-3%s local bitters at £60 for a firkin.

We’ll say you get 52 pints out of a Gamma Ray keg, so a pint is costing £1.83 – more even than the pint of *tied* Greene King IPA (£1.42). But at £6 per pint the GP the pub is making on this beer is 63.5%. Most freehouse crafty places I know are aiming for the 65-70% GP range. They’ll cut a bit from target GP selling Gamma Ray at around £6 but balance this out by selling a “craft lager” at £4.50-£5.00 and higher GP (in the 70-75% range).

But, the punter says, a 70% GP pub selling a 3.6% 20th-century-IPA (brown bitter) is only making £1.88 from my pint – but this craft beer bar is making £3.18 from my 5.4% new-wave IPA… the profiteering SCUM! Fuck’em!

It doesn’t work like that. Going back to my point of punters with only so much £ in their pocket. Their limited beer cash might get them 4 pints of bitter or 3 two-third glasses of modern-IPA. Either way your business needs its target cut of their precious limited £… and in the above numbers a freehouse will make £7.24 out of the £12.80 worth of bitter and £6.36 out of the £12 worth of modern-IPA. (In the graphic below we’ve assumed the lowest brewery duty rate, but it isn’t really going to make a lot of difference which rate is involved.)

Pricing: Keg vs Cask

So, at £6 per-pint the pub has just given you a discount on some pretty lush IPA.

That’s GP for you. And why you really cannot think a £60 firkin of 3.6% brown bitter ought to sell for a very similar per-pint price as a £95 keg of 5.4% hoppy modern IPA.

Check my working… hopefully I’ve got all the above correct. Here’s the spreadsheet to go with this post.

Whether the keg of modern hoppy IPA ought to be £95 is a trickier debate… but that’s the price and your choice is to have that beer at that price, or some other beer at a lower price. My experience of “cheap” keg IPAs so far has not been excellent, but there is some good stuff on the market at prices down to around £85 I think. Below that it mostly starts to get a bit suspect.

Keg: All Tied Up

Tied Keg Tap

Tied tap

An impromptu #BeeryLongRead inspired by a little Twitter exchange earlier today. It’s a bit of quickly typed up “brain dump” really… little time for finesse with such things these days. I’m very keen to hear any other views on these things. Always learning, ever adapting…

I’ve spent the last year selling good beer to pubs & other drinks sellers – good beer in any format: cask, keg, bottle, can… cask is by far the larger volume market for me. There is a strong “freehouse” scene in the UK, with pubs that like their variety of beer on the cask pumps. And a strong drinker following for enjoying the variety they supply. (Yes, this is a minority of the overall drinking market, but a significant one.)

So – why, when you walk into these amazing freehouses, do you find on the keg taps alongside the cask a very predictable list of ubiquitous multinational-brewed products: Stella, Fosters, Guinness, Carling… here I offer my observations on this. Take note that a) I’m a newbie in the industry and b) I’m in the industry – and fight my own corner.

Anyway, why the lack of variety? Simple: nearly all keg lines in the UK are tied – including those in “free”houses. It’s an interesting situation really… the UK keg beer market is very much like that in New Zealand described here. [I don’t have a survey or stats to quantify any of this – it is merely observation from a year of working with pubs. I’d be very interested in any real data, or just other views on the topic.]

OK – but there’s plenty of complexity under the hood! The basic principle is this:

Beer company (Heineken say) says to pub: we’ll put all the equipment you need to serve these beers into your pub, we’ll look after it for you, you just have to buy the beer from us.

An attractive offer! Single simple delivery of all your keg products, and a whole load of stuff you just don’t have to worry about. The pricing for the “premium” keg brands is also fairly reasonable, and pubs can make a slightly higher GP on them (for the often higher-volume product). So it also subsidises those pesky cask drinkers who go apecrap if their pint costs 10p more than they think it should. (Spirits are actually better still, I’ve been told by many a pub they’d not be in business were it not for cheap vodka & whisky.)

Tied KeyKeg Coupler

Tied beer line…

Until recently there was very little cause to want to do anything else with keg. There simply weren’t diverse keg beer options on the market – you want ultra-premium, you’ve got -say- Hoegaarden and Leffe… so against the rise of cask ale the big brewers and distributors got themselves very solidly embedded into the freehouse market. And it was pretty much good for everyone. (Yes, there were always a few outliers – bars with knowledgeable enthusiast landlords who get hold of special imports and carved their own niche.)

But now things are changing. Small brewers are toying with keg, led perhaps by BrewDog’s bold positioning of switching over to being keg-only. Keg has various technical advantages – which can be discussed another time – and some folk simply prefer the beer the “keg way”. Usually folk inspired by European and American brewing. BrewDog were far from the first of course – Meantime, Camden, Freedom, and others were forging themselves little keg empires of their own already – with a big focus on supplanting mainstream premium lagers.

Speaking of these lager brewers – they had the strategy that was necessary to crack into this keg market. You’re a small brewer wanting to get your beer into keg, problem: how to you get that keg into a bar? All your locals have equipment owned by BigBrewCo and none of the publicans have the 1st clue about handling kegs beyond absolute basics. Put beer in keg… easy… but what next?

Those who successfully got their kegs into bars knew exactly what: put keg lines into pubs, follow the same model that the pub already understands. We start to see Meantime, Camden, Freedom, etc branded fonts showing up everywhere (in London and the South East at any rate). But this just means more tied lines! There’s a bit more diversity than before, but it’s still mostly “just lager”. The established-keg-breweries themselves provide a little diversity – pale ales, red ales, stouts… but all the same brands and little real “fun” to the beer. “Gateway beers”? Cask is still very much supreme for a tasty pint.

BrewDog’s little keg revolution changes this though – loads of little breweries now put their exciting beers into keg. But there’s a problem: the number of pubs with free of tie keg lines and clued up landlords is relatively minuscule. So now you’ve got dozens (hundreds?) of little breweries all vying for a tiny volume of keg throughput. Mostly relying on a small number of “craft” bars to get beer in front of consumers.

“Craft bars”? To me what it takes to make a pub or bar actually “craft” in ethos is total freedom and no compromise. We see places like the Euston Tap showing up – they know what they want, they don’t want to be tied up, they invest in their own equipment. Ostensibly they’re successful, others follow suite… we’ve now got a small raft of craft venues supporting these breweries. Cambridge 5 years ago probably had zero free-of-tie keg lines, now across 4 venues there are over 30 – and more to come no doubt. But that’s four venues in a city of dozens of cask freehouses. There’s a long way to go.

Coupler Fittings

Simple plastic fittings…

So what needs to happen to keep on growing this free-of-tie “craft” keg beer market? Pubs need to invest… in both equipment and know-how. Both are seriously lacking. I keep coming across pubs that have had free-of-tie keg equipment installed. But with only half the couplers they need, they don’t even know how to change a coupler on the lines, they don’t even have pressure gauges on their gas. They’re heading in the right direction but they need a lot of hand-holding in the short term. That’s what we have to offer – myself as a distributor, breweries to their direct clients. I fully support all keg beer I sell because this is necessary. I drove 80 miles to replace a simple plastic fitting last week – that’s how dire the state of knowledge in the industry is. The tied-keg-line status quo has done a good job of keeping landlords clueless and dependent.

Which raises that point too: the vast majority of publicans really don’t have a clue. After decades of fully supported keg lines the entire keg system is a black box to them. We need to help them skill-up, and really could do with a useful manual of keg system operation. I’ve done my BIIAB ABCQ – and it’s utterly basic, it teaches a reliance on Big Beer – which is of course relevant & correct for most of the current industry. We need something a bit more technical… I believe Cloudwater may be working on something in that direction. For the most part maintenance and operation of keg systems is actually pretty simple stuff, once you’ve got on top of some basic principles.

What’s next? Publicans need to be convinced that it is worth investing in the equipment. Because if I own the equipment in a pub I’ll pretty obviously want only beer I sell going through it – this is just sensible, there’s a cost to be recovered. What I want to do is support pubs in taking ownership of their own equipment, help with installs if needed, and then as part of the service of selling them beer offer full technical support – folk like me and all breweries selling kegged beer need to do the same to make it a viable option for pubs.

We need to get smart and start doing this now. Because the alternative future will be keg lines under the control of medium sized operators. Another recent conversation on Twitter I had was about Adnams. They’re aggressively going after the craft-curious market, sticking their kit in, and creating a craft-monoculture of Adnams/Camden beer across these eastern parts. Now I like Adnams and quite enjoy their Dry Hopped Lager. But this particular practice is pretty damn close to “craftwashing”. We’re getting a growing mid-tier of pseudo-craft-bars with an unchanging range, including craft beers like Bitburger… yes, I really have seen this billed as “craft” in several bars. (Camden and Adnams both deserve a place in a craft lineup… but unchanging lines of either and nowt else isn’t where it should be at.)

From both a personal and a business perspective it is very disheartening to have a good conversation with a pub about getting free of tie keg up and running for them, then to find a fortnight later that rather than that they’ve got the same two beers from Adnams as everyone else. The offer that the likes of Adnams has for these folk is simply too good… the price of stuff like Dry Hopped Lager is good too, as you’d hope. Adnams aren’t “the enemy” per se, they’re very nicely building their own market and if an Adnams tap is replacing a Fosters tap this is a step up. But… y’know… ho hum.

I’ve considered going the whole-hog myself, simply paying to put lines in, tied to myself. But it is so against my own world-view that I’m hesitant… but it is tempting.

There’s a long way to go on this. I’ve done my first full keg install for someone this year, and hope to do more – targeting the micropub sector a bit. I’ve spent a lot of the last 6 months helping folk understand keg, obtain couplers, and handle outlier support cases like “venting” various forms of keg. (Making up for brewery screw-ups, which comes and in hand with the micro/craft sector unfortunately.) It certainly isn’t trivial.

If we all support pubs in this way between us we can build the free-of-tie keg market. Giving publicans and drinkers more options – which is what it is all about in my opinion. It’s what I’m here for anyway.

Sadly necessary disclaimers, because everyone always seems to think that anything I say is all-or-nothing or black-and-white:

  • I am NOT saying that all bars and pubs need to be “craft beer” bars/pubs. This is very very far from what I believe.
  • I do NOT think that Fosters/Stella/etc need to be eradicated from the face of the Earth. Folk like drinking these beers, they’re the largest part of the beer industry, they’re not going anywhere and they have their place.
  • I LIKE ADNAMS – my favourite regional brewer by far, and by securing lines in pubs what they’re doing is simply good business and an attractive deal for publicans. If I were them I’d do the same, and they’re actually a bit “loose” with their tie – to my benefit!
  • I don’t claim that keg is superior to cask, I’d not claim the reverse either – they’re different and I believe both have their place.
  • I simply want more diversity in a small number of pubs and bars, and I see their lack of access to free of tie lines as an obstacle to my desired level of diversity. (And yes, I have a business interest in this obviously.)
  • Another topic: microbrewery keg pricing… a sticky issue and a definite barrier for publicans.
  • And the simple fact is that fancy keg beers are a harder sell for the publican. It takes a bit more work than shifting a pint of Stella. It’s definitely not for everyone… yet look to the “craft beer bars” and observe their apparent success. Why not give it a try?