Tech Talk by | Jul 2015 | Issue #102

A new custom draft tower at the headless horseman, New York, N.Y.

It’s no secret the American beer industry is evolving at a fevered pace. And it’s not only market share. The brewers at the helm of this rapid growth are coming up with new and novel ways to get more hop character, better attenuation, and brighter liquid. But one facet in this evolution that tends to get overlooked is the point of dispense, the all-important place where beer gets pushed from a keg through a specific length of tubing, out of a faucet and into your glass with a little gas pressure and possibly a pump.

Just as the liquid has evolved so has the way it is served. Brewers honing the perfect recipe take levels of carbonation and serving temperature into account. Using higher levels of carbon dioxide to drive hop aroma and dial in perceived dryness are integral parts of recipe design today and greatly affect how that beer needs to be dispensed.

For better or worse, many of the draft systems installed before 2000 were put in by Big Beer for Big Beer. These systems were engineered for one type of product, macro-brewed lager. Other outdated draft systems were installed with subpar equipment (i.e. not stainless steel), used the wrong gas blend (anything other than CO2 or a blend of nitrogren and CO2) and were designed with the wrong balance of pressure needed to maintain carbonation and an efficient flow rate. I’ve seen old systems driven by air compressors, built out of brass and desperately in need of a line cleaning.

That’s another issue: cleanliness. If Big Beer put in your system, then Big Beer cleaned your system. However, if your ill-informed private installer put in your system then you may have an ill-informed private installer cleaning it as well. Anton Baranenko, owner of Draft Choice, an installation company in New York City, used to force bar owners to do taste tests between their dirty draft lines and a clean one just to get them to admit that their lines were dirty. Today, poorly designed, unbalanced and dirty draft lines are all but a thing of the past. “The evolution of rotating craft has forced new beer bars to have properly engineered, well-kept, balanced systems,” says Chris Fetzfatzes, owner and operator of Hawthornes and The Cambridge in Philadelphia.

In the current landscape, proper dispense has become just as important as hops or yeast. Not only is the industry demanding clean and balanced lines, there are also a number of new tools available—everything from the common restrictor faucet to inline heat exchangers and counter pressure growler fillers. One useful barometer of a bar’s attention to quality is the presence of restrictor faucets. There are several types, but most of them have a small handle on the side that looks like a shifting lever or a dial farther back on the shank. That lever adjusts the restriction at the faucet so a bartender can slow it down or open it wide. This restriction combined with a little added gas pressure can keep highly carbonated beers calm as they are poured. In other words, a brewer can make a Belgian-style Tripel to the proper carbonation level and a bartender can maintain it by adding restriction and gas pressure at the point of service.

Draft innovations are a natural part of a larger movement within the brewing industry. Proper dispense ensures a beer is consumed as the brewer intended and helps the pub owner’s margins by keeping waste low and the pour speed high. Besides, why wouldn’t someone who is already passionate about drinking the perfect liquid also care about how it’s stored and served?