Top Menu

Dirty beer lines – who you gonna blame?

Brewers across the nation will be cringing when they read the investigative report in today’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about dirty beer lines.

Of course this a local story, even quoting a vendor that “Milwaukee is a real horrible town for draft beer.”

LactobacillusBut this will have repercussions in craft beer land because the “dirtiest” beer the reporters found came from a brewpub and the second dirtiest was another “microbrewed” beer. Both contained large amounts of lactobacillus (left), bacteria that produces lactic acid, souring a beer’s flavors and smells. It is the same microorganism responsible for spoiling milk.

So does that mean you should be concerned about the beer on tap at your local brewpub? Or that small breweries aren’t able to control quality – clear through to what is poured into your glass at a bar – as well as large?

First, this isn’t a safety issue but a quality one. Trust your senses, and if you notice foul aromas or sour beer point it out to your server. Second, a Budweiser checked at a place called Chasers Pub contained 1,950 cells of lactobacillus per gram and a yeast count of 16,400 cells per gram (sounds like a lot, doesn’t it?).

That’s not to say that breweries don’t recognize they’ve got a problem. In delivering the keynote speech at this year’s Craft Brewers Conference, Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing said: “The integrity and quality of our beer is more important than hitting a certain growth number each year. Making sure the consumer is purchasing fresh craft beer is just one example. Taking care of draft lines and cleaning them properly is yet another example of the integrity I speak of.”

Boulevard Brewing founder John McDonald has been and an industry leader in addressing the problem and outspoken on the topic. “It depresses me how deplorable the state of draft lines has become,” he said a few years ago.

You might say the Brewers Association is taking the Journal Sentinel story head on – posting two stories about draft quality on the front page of its website and issuing a press release for an upcoming manual to improve draft quality (obviously in the works well before the Milwaukee investigation).

A Draft Quality Standards Committee comprised of small, large, and foreign brewers is in place and slated to release a standards manual in the first quarter of 2008. This document will be available to distributors, retailers, and the public. The goal will be to produce a comprehensive manual addressing draft beer dispensing and serving.

Let’s be straight. Addressing the problem is not the same as solving the problem. Dirty lines are always going to be a danger, and while we appreciate it when brewers choose not to filter out flavor those unfiltered beers also leave more sediment in lines. A dozen years ago a vendor told me the dirtiest lines he came across were always in brewpubs because it was distributors who trained bars and restaurants to clean lines (and most brewpubs didn’t buy draft beer from distributors).

But there’s reason to be optimistic. Everybody agrees that clean lines are good business. “I have never heard a bar customer say, ‘Gee, this bar does a lousy job of maintaining and cleaning their lines,’” New Belgium Brewing co-founder Kim Jordan once said. “They say that the beer they ordered is lousy.”

And then there is the matter of pride. The Journal Sentinel reported that New Glarus Brewing brewmaster Dan Carey takes it personally when one of his beers is served through a dirty line at a bar.

“It ruins my evening,” Cary told a reporter. “It’s my baby, and damn it, you’ve ruined it.”

4 Responses to Dirty beer lines – who you gonna blame?

  1. Loren September 10, 2007 at 4:20 am #

    Line cleaning is a big issue and glad to see it getting a spotlight to help alleviate the issues. I’ve turned in local establishments to the liquor control commission before and sure enough…problem solved. No more butter!

    Sidenote: You should take a poll of how many brewpubs do line cleanings daily? Weekly? Monthly? Also yeast cleaning (overall care I guess?)…which is even more important.

  2. Eric Trimmer September 10, 2007 at 6:52 am #

    And while we’re at it, let’s remind bar and tavern managers to do a good job of cleaning their glasses as well.

    I got a nasty one the other day. The inside seemed ok, but the outside smelled like garbage juice. (Years ago I had a summer job as a trash collector, so I know what garbage juice smells like…)

    And a buddy of mine has refused to order draft there for years because he didn’t think they cleaned their glasses well enough. I thought he was crazy, or just being a sissy, but now I understand.

    I’ve noticed dirty lines there, too, but very infrequently.

    If I ever go back, I’m ordering a bottle, and no food.

  3. Rick September 10, 2007 at 9:37 am #

    Interesting timing. I was just working on a piece for the Toronado and in interviewing some brewers I learned that one of the big reasons brewers like the Toronado as much as they do is because they clean their own lines. They own their own line cleaning equipment and are diligent in maintaining their lines. I had never really thought too hard on this subject before that, and now I’m wondering just how rare a practice that is in today’s pubs and bars in the US. In our area many bars have their lines maintained by distributors, which I assume is a common practice. I guess I need to figure out how frequently these distributors come out and clean their lines.

  4. SteveH September 10, 2007 at 12:05 pm #

    “And a buddy of mine has refused to order draft there for years because he didn’t think they cleaned their glasses well enough.”

    Reminds me of the brew-pub that cleaned their pitchers too well – so well, they couldn’t rinse them clean of iodiphore. Um, yeah…that was a Wisconsin pub too…

Powered by WordPress