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September 2003
By Mike Sherer
SPECIAL REPORT: BEER HERE

Moving big volumes of beer across many feet? Here’s what to look for in remote dispensing systems, plus a top line on eight major brands. 

For many people, there’s nothing like a tall, frosty glass of draft beer. For you, it’s gold in more ways than one. Draft beer can be one of the most profitable items in a bar or restaurant—if you do it right.

Too often, however, bartenders find themselves pouring foamy or warm beer. Waste goes up, and your profits go down—down the drain. Or, just as bad, customers end up with draft beer that isn’t up to snuff and stop ordering it, buying less profitable bottles instead. Either way, your profits can easily slide down the drain.

Properly handled, stored and poured, draft beer’s miles ahead of bottled beer in taste and freshness, and that’s what customers pay for. In recent years, brewers and dispensing equipment makers have made a major push to improve the quality of draft beer poured in bars and restaurants. The push has come in the form of better technology in dispensing systems, and education for operators in how to operate and maintain a good draft dispensing system.

Beer As Science
Holding draft beer and getting it from point A to point B, especially in remote systems, actually involves a fair amount of science. While you don’t have to know the formulae that companies use to design the right dispensing system for your operation, it helps to know the principles.

First off, look at temperature. Draft beer is a living product. Beer in kegs isn’t pasteurized, so the yeast in it continues to work its magic alchemy. That also means you need to store draft beer at 40°F or below, and most brewers recommend 36°F to 38°F. Temperature also plays a key role in holding beer’s natural carbonation in suspension. Too warm, and the carbonation will be released from suspension, causing foam. Too cold, and the beer will tend to come out flat when it’s poured.

Proper flow pressure is another key. You need sufficient pressure not only to move the beer out of the keg and through the length of the beer lines to the tap, but also to maintain the proper level of carbonation in the beer along the way. Different types of beers have different characteristics that dictate different carbonation levels, so they’ll lend themselves to different pressures as well. But whatever the particulars, too little pressure, and the beer’s flat or doesn’t get where it’s going. Too much and it foams. Depending on those variables, brewers may recommend pressures of anywhere from about 12 psi to 18 psi.

The third factor, intertwined with the first two, is distance. As indicated, it determines how much pressure is needed. But it also influences temperature requirements. More surface area in the lines equals more surface area for heat transfer.

The best place to keep beer at the proper temperature is in its own walk-in. You can store kegs in an existing walk-in, but it’s harder to hold temps constant when kitchen employees are in and out a lot for food products. If you don’t have a separate walk-in, curtain off the area where you store kegs to help hold temperatures. And get some racks. They make it easier to stack and store kegs.

Bits And Pieces
Gas and pumps: To pressurize the kegs, you’ll need CO2 tanks. It’s best to store these in a separate area outside the walk-in. As mentioned earlier, how much pressure you put on kegs depends on brewer recommendations for maintaining the proper level of carbonation in the product and how far the beer has to travel before reaching taps.

But what if your distance calls for 18 psi and your brewer recommends a limit of 14 psi for carbonation purposes? In the cases of ales or stouts that are sensitive to overcarbonation, or in setups where the distance requires additional pressure, you can get the pressure you need without overcarbonating by blending CO2 with some other noncarbonating gas. Usually your choices are nitrogen or compressed air, and in most cases, you’ll go with nitrogen. Compressed air has the disadvantage of potentially imparting flavors and odors to beer. The Draught Beer Guild, an association of brewers and suppliers, strongly recommends against using compressed air. In most cases, a blend of nitrogen and CO2 works fine.

In large operations, though, where the distance from keg to tap runs more than 300 ft., you actually do have another choice. Many newer large systems now incorporate beer pumps. These pumps operate with CO2 or compressed air, but the gas never comes in contact with the beer. A pump can push beer up to 800 ft. horizontally or vertically up 10 stories through a single line.
Regulators: Regulators are, well, regulators. They regulate the pressure from the gas tanks into the kegs to push the beer out into the lines. Each keg should have its own regulator. If you’re going to be using a mix of CO2 and nitrogen, you’ll need a gas blender to mix the gases in the proper amounts.

Chillers: Line chillers (often called power packs) keep the beer cold while it’s on its way from keg to tap. These are small refrigeration units that chill a food grade coolant, usually a solution of propylene glycol and water. The coolant is recirculated through a tube bundled with beer lines, keeping the beer cold. They range in size from 1/3 hp compressors to 1 1/2 hp to 2 hp. The size you want will depend on how many beer lines you have, and again, how far it is to the tap.

You have two basic types of line chillers to choose from. Most manufacturers design their chillers so the evaporator sits right in a glycol bath. The chilled glycol recirculates from the bath through the lines and back. The other type of line chiller is a sealed system. Rather than immerse the evaporator in the glycol solution, the glycol lines are sealed and run inside the evaporator coil. Far less glycol is required in these systems than typical glycol bath systems.

With both types of systems, you need to monitor the concentration of the glycol solution, and you need to change it occasionally. Glycol solution in chillers using a bath must be checked three or four times a year, subject to local health codes, and has to be replenished or replaced every year or so. Glycol in sealed systems will last far longer. Many units with glycol baths now have a sealed lid to help preserve the concentration and quality of the solution.

Beer lines: Trunk lines house the beer and glycol lines, insulating and protecting them between the walk-in and the bar. In almost all cases, manufacturers now use a special barrier poly tubing for beer lines that prevents the migration of both moisture and flavor from other lines. Glycol lines are usually this same type of tubing, but at least one manufacturer uses copper tubing for glycol because it offers better heat transference. Beer lines are typically 3/8” in diameter, but some suppliers are promoting use of 5/16” tubing on runs of 30 ft. to 150 ft. The smaller diameter, they say, simplifies balancing of the system and requires less cleaning, which for you means less waste and less expense.

The beer lines are bundled around the glycol lines (one outbound and one inbound). Typically, one line chiller will be used to cool as many as eight different beer lines. In that case, the bundle would be two glycol lines and eight beer lines. Some bundles will have up to 12 beer lines with two glycol loops (four lines).

In a well-constructed trunk housing, the lines are first wrapped with a poly moisture barrier film, then with aluminum foil to help conduct cold transfer between the glycol and beer lines. The bundle is enclosed in insulation, usually at least 3/4”. Finally, many suppliers add a PVC jacket to the outside of the housing to further protect it from moisture, shock or pests, particularly if the lines are going to be run underground.

Beer towers: The trunk lines run to the bar, where beer lines are routed to each individual tap. Those of you who work regularly with beer systems know towers come in all shapes and sizes, including column, mushroom, “T”, double pedestal and pass-through. Most often they get polished brass or chrome finishes, but ceramic and wood towers also are common. Many are still made of brass or chrome-plated brass, but stainless is becoming more common because it’s less likely to impart off-flavors.

No matter what style you choose, look for an internal insulated cold plate or block for the tower, and make sure the glycol lines run all the way to the tap. In one standard design, a copper tube lies on top of, or is zip-tied to, the faucet shank. In newer designs, the faucet shank screws directly into the cold block. Manufacturers claim the latter design is less likely to leak and provides better cooling at the point of dispense.

Taps: When it comes to food-contact surfaces like faucets, you want stainless, and generally that’s the way the manufacturers have all gone. Stainless faucets are less likely to promote bacterial growth than older fixtures made of brass or plated brass.

Gizmos and gadgets:
There’s been so much work in recent years on delivering high-quality beer that your suppliers now can make your head spin with a host of gizmos and options to make your system work better with fewer headaches. Special valves have popped up on the market in recent years, for example, that detect foam, signal when a keg is empty, and automatically close the beer line so it stays packed with beer. Once the keg is changed, the valve opens and product starts flowing again. These valves save a ton in waste and are worth their weight in gold. A couple of the devices are designed to be wall-mounted in the walk-in. Another design incorporates the valve into the keg coupler that connects the keg to the beer line.

Most operations independently set the temperature of the walk-in, the temperature of the glycol in the beer lines, and the pressure put on the beer kegs. Those settings are based on brewer recommendations for a specific type of beer and the design/distance/pressure of the dispensing system. If the balance shifts, however—if the walk-in temperature goes up for some reason (lots of people in and out due to high volume, for example)—the quality of your pour can suffer. Relatively new to the market, thermostatically controlled pressure regulators compensate for shifting temperatures to keep you on target.

Faucet locks, too, are handy and discourage employees from making off with profits after hours.

For folks who find that a blend of gasses is the way to go, suppliers also make generators that produce nitrogen gas, eliminating the hassle of more tanks to store and change. If you store nitrogen, however, you may need to monitor oxygen levels in the storage area. Sensors are available. There’s also a carbon dioxide detector that sounds an alarm if CO2 levels rise above acceptable levels. As you can see, you can option up to your budget’s delight.

Design Considerations
While suppliers can design and install a dispensing system that’s tailored to your operation, purchasing one isn’t a matter of simply ordering it out of a catalog. And whether you’re familiar with the process or brand new at it, you have several design criteria to keep an eye on.

First, as mentioned early in this story, longer runs and heavier beers often require higher pressure. But regardless of pressure, you still want a limited flow rate, usually about one gallon per minute, at the dispensing head. How do you reduce the flow? That limit at the dispensing head is achieved by using a length of smaller-diameter tubing connecting the trunk line to the tap faucet. Think of it as a merge lane that slows the traffic. This narrower, “restrictive” line will vary in length depending on how much the flow rate needs to be slowed. Whatever your “restrictive” length, keep in mind you’ll have to accommodate it, so work it into your total line length and think carefully about where and how trunk lines are going to come into the bar.

Where you run the individual beer lines in the bar is another consideration. They may be run in the bar under the wall if it’s new construction or under the counter if it’s a retrofit. Either way, think about the implications for future maintenance, and make sure there’s room for the lines. And again, remember beer gets riled easily, so installers can’t just “T” into a trunk line anywhere.

The bar itself will determine the type of drain pans you use. Some bar designs may hang over the drink rail, for example, so choose carefully. Also note that some beer towers are designed to be mounted right into a drain pan instead of the bar top. The advantage is that spills and splashes are more likely to go down the drain and less likely to seep under the tower and rot the bar top.

Be sure to locate line chillers in an easily accessible spot, too. Like any other refrigeration unit, they’ll need regular cleaning, and service access should be as easy as possible.

Also, know where you want to mount regulators and beer pumps inside the walk-in. Once the beer lines are cut, it won’t be easy to change the location of those devices.

Better Beer
For more on how to pour better draft beer, contact the Draught Beer Guild’s Executive Editor Keith Lemcke
at 604/687-2889 or visit www.draughtbeerguild.com.

SIDEBAR

SORTING THE BRANDS
Most of the major manufacturers offer comparatively similar dispensing systems. A lot of the components in any given system, such as tubing, keg couplers, regulators, compressor motors and beer pumps, are made by OEMs. While systems may be comparable in general, however, seemingly subtle differences may make one system much more desirable in your stores than another would be.

While you’re comparing choices, you might want to ask around and find out what systems folks down the street are using and what they like and dislike about them. And keep an ear open on the subject of installers and installation. Like a lot of engineered systems, the quality of the installation on a specific site can determine overall operating satisfaction. A good system that’s installed poorly is no longer a good system.

Automatic Bar Controls
ABC/Wunder-Bar makes and/or sells a full complement of system components, including chiller packs, trunk lines, beer towers and accessories. Line chillers are available in 1/3-, 1/2-, 3/4- and 1-hp versions. All go with sealed (rather than open) glycol baths and thermostatic “pump saver” switches that shut off the recirculating pump if they start to run hot. The company also is known for its “Viper” beer tower, in which a glycol loop freezes condensation on the exterior, encasing it in ice, creating the perception that beer is ice-cold when dispensed. Towers and faucets are stainless. Contact: 800/722-6738; www.wunderbar.com.

Chill-Rite/Desco
The company wants to be known these days for its recently intro’d Chill-Rite 32 system, which features a large line chiller capable of cooling beer to 32°F and keeping it cold in runs of up to 700 linear feet or 12 beer lines for up to 300 ft. Chillers are available with 3/4-, 1 1/2- or 2-hp compressors. The company’s small Cascade system features a unique wall-mounted line chiller, and a remote condenser is available for its Chill-Rite 32 system. Contact: 800/256-2190; www.chillrite32.com.

Glastender
The company, which specializes in bar-related equipment like glass washers, makes a full line of remote dispensers. Line chillers vary in size from 1/3-hp to 1/2-hp and 3/4-hp versions capable of pushing beer from 125 to 500 linear ft. You get a beer pump, standard, in every system. Beer towers feature shank nuts that are welded to a stainless line that feeds to an aluminum cold block molded around the glycol lines with foamed-in-place insulation. Faucet shanks screw directly into this one-piece heat sink, keeping beer cold as it’s dispensed. Contact: 800/748-0423; www.glastender.com.

K-Way Products
K-Way’s beer dispensing systems include line chillers with 1/3-, 1/2- and 3/4-hp compressors capable of cooling eight beer lines from 100 ft. to 450 ft. Chillers are available in either air- or water-cooled versions. Trunk lines are made with 3/8” beer lines and 1/2” glycol lines, aluminum wrap and 3/4” insulation. The company offers a full assortment of towers and drain pans. Contact: 800/622-9163; www.kwayproducts.com.

Micro Matic
Micro Matic makes a variety of line chiller power packs ranging from 1/3 hp to 3/4 hp. The smallest unit is designed for short runs of 50 ft. and maximum vertical lift of 16 ft. Its largest unit will cool beer lines up to 350 ft. A full range of tower styles includes “Kool-Rite” modular construction—an insulated tower insert containing beer lines and copper glycol lines that directly contact cold blocks. Trunk lines use color-coded poly barrier tubing, moisture barrier wrap, thermal foil tape, 3/4” insulation and PVC wrap. Larger units get electronic thermostats. Contact: 866/327-4159; www.micro-matic.com.

Multiplex
A Manitowoc company, Multiplex has a range of dispensing systems available. Power packs feature electronic temperature control and digital temperature displays. Glycol baths have a sealed lid to prevent evaporation or adulteration in humid environments. The company’s trunk lines are completely insulated and wrapped with moisture barrier. System options include the Chill-Pak cold plate that can flash-cool beer as it enters the beer tower, and frosted beer towers, both of which can use glycol from existing chillers or additional power packs. Notable: The company makes up to a 16-beer-line trunk and four glycol lines. Four more than usual. Also 1” standard insulation. Extra lines and distance. Also note four chillers—one third, a half, a one horse, and a 2.2 horse. All available in either air- or water-cooled versions. The big one is avail with remote condenser. Line lengths from 75 ft. up to 450 ft. for the biggie. Contact: 812/246-7000; www.manitowocbeverage.com.

Perfection Equipment
Perfection uses a unique beer chiller that features a sealed glycol system and a co-axial evaporator. Three copper glycol lines sit inside a 1 1/8” copper evaporator coil that chills the glycol. The chillers also use a hot gas valve to control evaporator pressure instead of a thermostat to regulate glycol temperature. That means the compressor runs continuously and more efficiently, and glycol temperature remains constant. Compressors range in size to meet your conditions. The company’s beer towers are all cold-blocked and insulated. Trunk lines are made with color-coded barrier tubing with moisture wrap, foil wrap, 3/4” insulation (1” optional) and exterior PVC wrap. Options include a full range of accessories, including the “Beermizer” empty keg valve. Contact: 800/356-6301; www.perfectequip.com.

Perlick Corp.
Perlick’s line chillers are powered by compressors that range in size from 1/3 to 1 1/2 hp. A single 1 1/2-hp power pack can cool beer lines up to 1,000 ft. in length. For long runs like that in operations like baseball parks and stadiums, the company uses up to three beer pumps on a line. Or, a single beer pump can service up to three lines on shorter runs. Unlike most other suppliers, Perlick manufactures its trunk lines with copper glycol tubing. Beer lines are vapor sealed to the copper lines, which the company says keeps beer colder on long runs. All Perlick systems get electronic thermostats. Contact: 800/558-5592; www.perlick.com.—MS

SIDEBAR
KEEP IT CLEAN
In addition to temperatures that are too warm, draft beer’s other nemesis is dirty beer lines. Because draft beer is a living product, bacteria and other microorganisms can build up in beer lines and faucets. When that happens, beer can take on off odors or flavors when it’s dispensed.

How often you clean your beer lines usually depends on local health codes. Usually, you should clean your lines every two weeks or so. New cleaning chemicals have been introduced recently that do a better job of cleaning, are more environmentally friendly, and are easier to rinse out of the lines.

A new product promises to make it even easier to keep beer lines cleaner far longer, ultimately saving on costs for chemicals and labor. The BLM2000 from BLM North America is a device that generates audio signals and transmits them through beer lines with a transponder. The signals vary in frequency and amplitude, creating an unfriendly environment for bacterial growth. Beer lines using the transponder system stay clean for up to eight weeks company spokespeople say.

You still need to clean your lines (and check with your health department to clear less frequent cleaning with officials), but the dreaded job comes around a lot less often. For information call 800/767-8121 or visit www.blmtechnologies.com—MS

SIDEBAR
THE FAST AND FURIOUS
Beer, as even casual observers know, is easily riled. The trick in conventional systems is to hold the flow at a reasonable rate, and brewers recommend a limit of about a gallon per minute at the tap, or about 2 oz. per second. More than that, they say, and excess head will waste product, time and profits.

But what if you have a high-volume operation and need to pump out beers more quickly? Europe has had some fast-pour dispensing systems for years, but none have been used here. Recently, a Wisconsin-based company called Dispensing Systems Int’l. introduced a new dispensing head and cooling system that enables bartenders to pour beers at 10 times the typical rate with a precise head and at precise temperatures.

The system uses patent-pending cooling and valve technology to flash-chill the beer as it’s dispensed and fill beer glasses from the bottom up. The dispensing head can be programmed for the desired beer temperature, desired number of ounces to pour and proper level of carbonation. Speed is the icing on the cake—you can get 20 21-oz. beers per minute or a pitcher of beer in 2 1/2 seconds.

A direct-draw system is available now, and the company is beta-testing a remote-draw system now, which it hopes to launch in January. To see a video of the tap in action go to www.megatap.com.—MS

 

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