Inside the lines: The oft-ignored importance of cleaning beer lines

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Draft line cleaning at The Lowry // Photos by Aaron Davidson

These are my least favorite words to say when patronizing a bar: “I’ll have a whiskey.”

It’s not a slight toward whiskey—I love it. But it stands a firm number two against my drink of choice, which is beer. When I drink whiskey at a bar, it’s for one of two reasons: lack of a decent beer selection or unclean beer lines—and to be honest, it’s almost always the latter. Dirty lines are everywhere, from taprooms to bars to brewpubs. It happens more often than you may realize, and it’s a problem that compounds when left untreated.

Industry guidelines

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Photo by Aaron Davidson

Line cleaning should be performed a minimum of every two weeks. Trace minerals, namely calcium oxalate, take a foothold in a beer line’s minor imperfections. This buildup is called beerstone, and it’s the barnacle of beer. (Fun fact: calcium oxalate is also found in most human kidney stones.) Over time, beerstone traps bacteria, mold, and yeast, and creates a miasma of bugs hell-bent on destroying the flavor of your beer. After two weeks, beerstone can build to a point where these creatures begin to produce traces of off flavors.

Most people can’t begin to taste flaws this early for two reasons. One, the beer needs to soak up off flavors by sitting in the line. The first pint of the day may have some noticeable flaws, but if the beer is popular and the line continues to flow, it won’t be sitting on the beerstone long enough to absorb bad flavors. Two, most people can’t detect flaws in such a trace amount.

Why skip cleaning?

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Photo by Aaron Davidson

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Photo by Aaron Davidson

Cleaning lines is a time consuming, messy, and inconvenient process. Any beer left in the lines needs to be emptied, and it can’t be put back into the kegs. Sometimes that means up to three pints per line are dumped—profits literally going down the drain. For a bar with 30 lines, that’s no small investment. And with many craft beer bars pulling 50-plus lines, costs mount dramatically. When most customers are not able to detect minor off flavors, and because tap lines are almost always obscured from the customer and most of the staff, many bars choose to have a line cleaned only once a month, if at all.

Therein lies the problem. Beerstone is harder to remove when it begins to take a foothold, and when cleaning every two weeks stretches to three, established beerstone doesn’t go away. Beerstone slowly compounds. With the increased surface area of calcium oxalate, more bacteria, mold, and yeast can form, thus creating even more off flavors. Soon the first pour of the day is undrinkable, and while subsequent pours are better, many experienced beer drinkers will begin to notice something is off.

Matt McGough, general manager at New Bohemia in Golden Valley, knows how important line cleaning is to his beer program.  (Full disclosure: I work as a GM at New Bohemia in Minneapolis.) “Line cleaning ensures we are serving beer the way the brewers intended it,” he says. “Two weeks is the industry standard for a reason, something that is even more crucial in an environment such as ours where we rotate lines often.”

Many bars hire the services of professional line cleaners. They are the unheralded saints of the beer world—the ones who wake up at 3am to clean beer lines so you can enjoy a clean pint come happy hour. Rob Shellman, whose Better Beer Society offers line cleaning and many other beer-centric services, offered some thoughts on what drives him and his employees.

“If you talk to any good brewer, they will tell you that a good portion of their time is spent on cleaning and sanitation, which directly impacts quality,” Shellman says. “Brewers go to great lengths to produce quality beer for retailers and, ultimately, the consumer. For a brewer to invest all his or her time, thought, and care only to be compromised due to dirty lines is really quite sad and frustrating. This is why we get up in the wee hours, working in cold and wet conditions. It really is all about the beer.”

Photos by Aaron Davidson

Next page: How to detect a dirty tap line

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