by Jason Parker (Brewing Techniques)
Don’t take your kegs for granted — here are some tips on purchasing and caring for the all-important vessels being used to transport and serve your precious beer.
Perhaps you’re a brewpub owner who has decided to take the plunge and offer your beer to outside draught accounts. Or maybe you’re already a producer of draught beer, but would like to increase your distribution area. Whatever the reason, you need to obtain more kegs to make it possible. But kegs are expensive, costing anywhere from $25 for the most beat-up, dirtiest, leakiest vessel just this side of the scrap yard, to $90 for a brand new, top-of-the-line, polyurethane-coated beauty with your name embossed on the chime and stenciled on the side. With so many keg sizes, shapes, styles, and valve types available, selecting the right ones for your application is difficult. This article will guide you through the process of buying kegs and follow up with a few tips about how to treat your kegs to ensure a long, trouble-free life once you own them.
Before you even begin shopping for kegs, make sure that your plans for draught sales are legal in the area you plan to distribute. Some states have restrictions on the size of kegs allowed. Others may not allow you to sell draught beer at all from the same location as your pub and brewery, and some states may ban the use of certain types or sizes of kegs. Still other states may allow you to sell beer in any size keg you want, from the location you want, but only to a distributor: the dreaded three-tier system. Also, distributors may have their own restrictions on the types of kegs they handle.
Kegs themselves are considered either open system or closed system; traditional kegs have a bunghole on the side by which the interior can be readily accessed (Hoff-Stevens and the almost-extinct Golden Gate kegs both have bungholes). Newer closed system American Sankey-style kegs require automated equipment for cleaning and filling but offer many other advantages over the older styles and are becoming increasingly common.
Kegs were initially designed for one of three valve systems. Deciding which is best for you depends partly on what is already prevalent in your market. To get draught placements you usually must displace another product. If switching to your product involves an investment in a new tapping device, then you have one more obstacle to overcome before you can land the sale. Also, remember to check with your distributor (if you’re using one) to see if the company has requirements for keg types.
Closed-system kegs: Introduced in the 1960s from England, closed-system kegs are upright, cylindrical vessels, usually straight-sided, although Coors uses barrel-shaped kegs. All new closed-system kegs are made entirely of stainless steel, or have a stainless steel cylinder covered with polyurethane (designed to reduce noise). Older kegs may have had an aluminum cylinder. These kegs have a rim, called a chime, on each end. The top chime has integrated handles for easy handling and can have, at an additional cost, the brewery’s name embossed on the side. The top also contains a concentric valve fitting in the center allowing for easy cleaning and filling by automated systems. Brewers warmly embraced these kegs as huge labor savers compared with the old bung-style kegs previously in use. Draught accounts also preferred the closed-system keg over the open-system keg for several reasons, including ease of tapping, ease of storage and handling, and the improved profit margin due to the reduction of beer loss that was commonly associated with older keg styles. As a result, large breweries steadily replaced their inventory of open-system cooperage with the new closed-system design. These kegs, with all of their associated advantages, are at least partially responsible for the acceptance that draught beer now realizes in the U.S. marketplace.
Unlike open-system kegs, closed-system kegs can be accessed only through the valve housing. All cleaning and filling is accomplished without extracting the valve. The interior shape of a closed-system keg is designed for efficient cleaning by means of automated equipment that opens both valve ports, injects cleaning agents, rinses, and sanitizes while the keg is inverted with the valve down. The keg can be filled inverted or upright. Closed-system kegs are less vulnerable to infection than open-system kegs because they restrict the access of air to the interior more than bung-style kegs do. The downside is that closed-system kegs require automated cleaning, which involves an initial investment in equipment.
American Sankey-style valves. This valve arrangement consists of a stainless steel rod housing, called a combination fitting, that is permanently installed into the top center of the keg and sealed with a spring-loaded check ball. The tapping device, or tavern head, fits into the lug housing of the valve. When the tap is opened, a probe extends and opens the check ball of the combination fitting. Carbon dioxide enters the keg and forces beer up the rod into the beer line and on to the faucet. Virtually all large breweries, and many of the micros, are now using this combination. The fittings are easy to use with one hand and control both the beer flow and CO2 flow at the valve.
Closed-system kegs must use Sankey-style valves. These types of kegs are the most expensive on the market, both in terms of cooperage cost and cleaning and racking costs. The fact that maintenance of Sankey kegs is minimal and the failure rate is far less than that seen from a two-valve keg offsets this initial investment, however. In fact, the only regular maintenance needed on a Sankey keg is replacing the gaskets in the combination fitting, and this only rarely needs doing. When it does, though, a fairly expensive tool (about $260) is required to get the valve out of the keg. With considerable effort and a moderate risk of personal injury, the valve stem can be removed without this tool, but for safety reasons this method should not be used except in dire emergencies, and should not be attempted at all before pressure is vented from the keg. The tavern head gaskets themselves, however, are both inexpensive and easily replaced.
Adding to the up-front cost is the price of the necessary automated cleaning equipment. Costs vary; you can make your own manually operated, single-keg washer for about $200 by attaching a pump to a tavern head, and it will cost another $50 for a single-keg racking apparatus. The cost of the most basic, single-keg, semi-automated washer/racker is about $5,000, with fully automatic systems beginning at around $20,000.
Open-system kegs: The interior of these traditional barrel-shaped kegs can be accessed without extracting the valve body or spear by way of a bunghole in the side of the keg that is closed by a wooden or plastic bung plug. The openings allow the kegs to be visually inspected before filling and for the kegs to be cleaned manually.
Hoff-Stevens systems. The second most common type of keg is the Hoff-Stevens keg, sometimes referred to as a “two- probe” keg. The Hoff-Stevens keg has a centered valve protruding from the top in addition to the bunghole in the side. Because of their tipsy shape, and since there is no chime on a Hoff-Stevens keg, they are frequently stored and shipped on their side, though they must be upright when served. Hoff-Stevens kegs are somewhat larger in circumference than the American Sankey keg and are without handles, making them more difficult to move and stack than Sankey kegs. (Handles allow the kegs to be easily lifted by electric hoist for those breweries that are so lucky.)
The valve is welded to the top center of the keg and is threaded on the outside. In the center of the valve is a hole, which is blocked by a spring-loaded ball. This part of the valve is connected to the bottom of the keg by a plastic internal pick-up tube. To the side of the center hole is a slightly smaller hole, which is also blocked by a spring-loaded ball. When the Hoff-Stevens tap is inserted, and the wing-nut collar tightened down, the two tubes of the tap open the check balls of the valve and allow CO2 to flow through the small probe into the headspace of the keg. Beer is then pushed up the center tube and to the faucet. Unlike the Sankey keg fitting, the Hoff-Stevens tavern head does not control the CO2 at the valve, making it necessary to cut the flow of CO2 at the regulator when changing kegs.
Hoff-Stevens kegs also require more attention than do Sankey kegs. For one thing, the plastic pick-up tube can be damaged or separated from the valve during racking. It may be a somewhat rare occurrence, but if it happens, it is usually not noticed until the keg has reached the customer, who taps the keg but cannot get beer to pour. The keg cannot be repaired without first emptying the keg and pulling the valve. Fortunately all that is required is a removal tool (even standard tools may suffice), but the destruction of a half barrel of good beer is a considerable loss to a small brewer. Another potential problem involves the two-probe valve, which has a small “figure-8” gasket that seals to the valve fitting. If this gasket becomes damaged or lost, which it frequently does, both beer and CO2 can leak from the keg once tapped, sometimes with considerable force. Annoying and messy at the least, it can also lead to significant beer and bottled gas loss if it is not noticed right away. For these reasons, many people short on cash may choose to purchase Hoff-Stevens kegs that have been retrofitted with the Sankey-style valve system.
In their favor, because Hoff-Stevens kegs have a bunghole, they can be cleaned, inspected, and filled without automated equipment, and kegs with bungs are decidedly less expensive than kegs without bungs, both in terms of cooperage price and cleaning/filling equipment. The Hoff-Stevens kegs suffer the same downsides of any open system keg, however. Leaking bungs and the less sanitary design of kegs with bungs can cost the brewer in off-condition beer, returned kegs, shorter shelf life, and loss of customer confidence.
Golden Gate systems. The Golden Gate keg is very similar in shape to the Hoff-Stevens; it is barrel-shaped, has no chime or handles, and has a bunghole. The difference is in the tapping device. A Golden Gate keg has two valve housings instead of one: one at the top center of the keg for adding CO2, and the other near the bottom on the side for drawing beer out. These kegs are difficult to empty completely; the keg must either be tilted or a “snorkel” device used to reach the last bit of beer. Thus, two-valve kegs usually leave from 6 to 23 oz in the keg, whereas single-valve kegs rarely leave more than 2–3 oz of beer. Furthermore, the beer outlet is difficult to reach and frequently leaks when the rubber washer is not seating well or is getting worn.
Golden Gate kegs are very difficult to find today. In a market almost completely dominated by single-hole kegs, it is quite possible that distributors or draught accounts will reject Golden Gate kegs. Most Golden Gate kegs have been converted to single-hole kegs by welding closed the bottom valve and bunghole and installing a Sankey or Hoff-Stevens fitting on the top. These modified Golden Gate kegs cost $25–30 for a ¼-bbl keg and $30–40 for a ½-bbl keg, depending on condition.
The few intact Golden Gate kegs still in use are best used to serve cask-conditioned beers, because they can pour by gravity through the bottom valve while venting through the top valve.
Kegs come in many sizes aside from the typical ½ or ¼ barrels: 20-L, 30-L, 1/6-bbl, variously sized firkins, 2½-, 3- and 5-gallon Cornelius, and more; too many, in some people’s opinion. You may want to sell all of your beer in ½-bbl kegs, but in order to get a placement you may have to start with a ¼-bbl or 1/6-bbl keg and prove yourself before moving up to the larger sizes. Find out what pub and bar owners like. In California, especially Southern California, the 9-in. diameter 1/6-bbl keg has become the rage. This size makes it possible for the pub owner to add one more tap to an under-the-counter cold box designed to hold two regular ½-bbl kegs. The 1/6-bbl keg can squeeze between the two larger kegs with only slight difficulty. Before you think about mixing and matching, however, keep in mind that some distributors may refuse to handle the smaller sizes, complaining, perhaps, that they cannot inventory any more sizes than they already have, or that their customers don’t like changing kegs that frequently. Also, for each size of keg you offer, you will have to post a price, get label approval, maintain an adequate inventory, and manage the deposits. Furthermore, many automated keg washers and rackers do not work for more than a couple different sizes of kegs. Make sure the height, diameter, chime height, and valve height are right for the equipment you plan to use with the kegs.
Before you can decide how many kegs you’ll need, you must first ask yourself a few basic questions: Will you be self-distributing or using a distributor? How far do you plan to distribute? How many keg sizes do you plan to offer? The rule of thumb is to plan on at least three kegs for every account you service if you’re self-distributing locally and five kegs per account if you go through a distributor, depending upon how quickly you expect the accounts to return your kegs. These numbers could rise to five and seven if you are distributing long distances or don’t have your kegs returned as soon as they are empty. The smaller the keg, the more of them you’ll need. Taking the example of an account with one keg on tap and one back-up, a ½-bbl keg would allow more time to get the keg returned and filled than a 1/6-bbl keg would, all things being equal.
There are millions of kegs out there without a home, but should you be the one to adopt them? Before allowing the sticker price to sway you into the false impression that you’ve found yourself a deal, consider the minimum attributes a keg must possess in order to function properly:
You have yourself a deal when these attributes are met and the cost of the keg and repair and maintenance is less than you would have paid for a new keg. A keg can easily last 15 years, so the maintenance cost should be calculated over this period of time. See the box “New or Used?” for some of the pros and cons of new and used kegs. Keg leasing or keg return programs provide an alternative to a large initial cash outlay. See the box “Purchasing and Keg Management Options” for more information.
If you are self-distributing and therefore have more control over the handling of the kegs, you could consider the lower-cost, older-style kegs. They may require some initial scrubbing, paint striping, and valve cleaning to get them to your level of acceptability, but shouldn’t need anything more than that. Used kegs should be purchased reconditioned from a reputable source. Do not consider rewelding seams, patching holes, converting keg valves, de-denting, or resizing (returning kegs to their original volume) yourself. The risk is too great that the resulting keg will not be sanitary and pressure-safe, and the cost benefit is almost never worth it. “As-is” lots of kegs should be avoided; a reputable supplier will guarantee their reconditioned kegs to be in sound working condition. Though the sticker price of these kegs may seem attractive, the physical condition of each keg cannot be verified without removing the valve and inspecting each one. And even then, you have no guarantee that the keg or valve will not leak.
Some of the services a company like Sabco Industries (Toledo, Ohio) might provide for used kegs include valve conversions, weld repair or reinforcement, chime repair or replacement, valve reconditioning, de-denting, pressure-testing, acid washing, paint or tape striping, and name plate additions. According to Sabco, one of the more popular used kegs these days is a 5-gallon Cornelius-to-Sankey valve keg. These kegs will cost about $50, significantly cheaper than the cost of a new 1/6-bbl keg. The 5-gallon kegs hold a bit less, of course, and are made from a lighter-weight steel, but may be advantageous because of their slightly narrower size (they are a bit taller than 1/6-bbl kegs, however).
The other decision to make when it comes to kegging equipment is how to clean them. If you have a small number of kegs (say, under 100), you can get away with less automatic, and thus less expensive, cleaning equipment. Consider the cost of labor. Manual keg washing can be time-consuming. First, the bung is removed and the keg is filled with water from a hose, caustic is added, and the keg is left to sit. After the caustic is emptied and the keg rinsed with fresh water, the valve is disassembled and the keg is hand-cleaned and sanitized. Then the valve is reinstalled and the keg is ready for purging and filling. An automated or semiautomated system will greatly increase both the efficiency and thoroughness of these procedures, but requires a considerable capital investment. Here is a typical list of tasks that must be addressed when the kegs are returned. Note that your cleaning techniques may vary, but the desired result is the same — sanitary kegs.
Kegs should be stored clean. As soon as dirty kegs return from the trade, de-ullage them and rinse until the water runs clear. Old beer left in a keg will only become more difficult to rinse out as it crusts onto the stem and inside keg walls. This is especially true of unfiltered beer. Unwashed kegs lead to an unsanitary storage facility, and can even damage the valve gaskets and welded seams if the pressure from rotting beer builds up too high.
Now that you’ve researched the laws regarding distribution in your area, and are comfortable that your market will support your draught product, you’re on your way to becoming a player in the draught market. The decision to supply draught product for distribution is one of the most important a brewer can make. Quality control of products that are going to be let out of your control for the first time is a huge issue, as is the added work load of dealing with the kegs. Add to that problems with cooperage shortages and keg failures and you’ve got the makings for a lot of sleepless nights. To minimize your stress, you need to know that you’ve covered your needs with an ample supply of quality kegs. Consider your options: Purchase or lease? If purchasing, should you buy new or used? Decide what size and in what quantity the kegs need to be purchased. Then take the step and don’t look back. You’re in the draught business now and you’ve got a whole world of adventure waiting ahead for you.
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