Back of the House: The life of a beer-tap-line cleaner

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

Ten years ago, my buddy at Sierra Nevada [Brewing Co.] kept telling me, "Dude, the draft beer scene in Columbus is terrible." He was really disappointed by the way Sierra Nevada was being handled in town. It was the Wild West. He would go from bar to bar-at one place it's great; at the next it's horrible. So he said, "You should go to beer school."

So I go, and there's guys from Oklahoma, Florida, California, and the guy right next to me is from Cleveland. But he wanted nothing to do with me because he knew I did not know my stuff. I had been to a couple keg parties; he had been servicing draft systems for 15 years.

He avoided me for four days. On the last day, I look around, and the guy is gone. So I run outside, I'm dodging through people, and I jump in front of his truck; he's trying to take off. So he reluctantly hands me his card and says, "OK, next Saturday, 6 a.m., Cleveland." And that's where you put up or shut up. School is one thing, but practice is another. So I start making trips back and forth and learning the ropes. And I wouldn't be doing this today without him.

Last time I checked, 14 states, including Ohio, have independent people cleaning tap lines. In a lot of other states, the distributors are just rolling that [service] into the cost of your keg. So if you have 12 beers on tap, you may have four or five distributors that would have to come out and clean just their two or three lines. But the way tap handles are changing now, it would be a nightmare.

When you whittle it down, I charge $5 a line. But it's every two weeks you have to clean the lines in Ohio. The wording in the law is vague and bizarre, like, "not less than every two weeks." [The Division of] Liquor Control is responsible [for oversight], but, truly, it should get kicked back to the health department. Beer is a food product and should be stored under 40 degrees. Just like milk; if you set it out, it spoils. Maximum bacteria growth is nine to 14 days in a draft beer system-"maximum" being the key word. American draft beer is not pasteurized.

It doesn't look like a whole hell of a lot, these draft systems, but it's tricky. Everybody wants a ton of handles-the more the better. Nobody wants to maintain all those handles. You got 80 lines? That's $400 every two weeks. Did you factor in $12,000 a year for line cleaning when you built your bar? And a lot of these beers don't move. You walk into a place with 150 beers, and there's definitely some dead beer sitting on tap that just won't leave. The worst thing is when I go in and see [Southern Tier's] Pumking in the summer-from the last season. That's not right. Pull it, and throw it away.

When you hire me, you're buying my time. If you have a kegerator at your house with two kegs, I'm going to be there for at least 30 minutes. To do it the right way, the faucets have to be taken off and cleaned. The couplers that connect to the keg have to be cleaned. While I'm cleaning those, I use a pump that recirculates chemicals through the system to clean it, 10 to 15 minutes per line. A pump is considered 80 times more effective [than any other line-cleaning method]. There are canisters or cleaning pots that can only handle 25 feet [of lines]. With a pump and a motor, I can do 400 feet. It's the equivalent of a washing machine. I could put my jeans in the sink with soap and let them sit, or I could throw them in the washing machine. Clearly the agitation and movement is going to do a better job.

The main chemicals used for a long time were sodium hydroxide and potassium hydroxide. Both have their own reasons for being used and can be interchangeable, but sodium hydroxide was more of a brewer's choice, an industry standard. But it's harsh. There's a lot of additives in chemicals. Sodium hydroxide is the active ingredient in liquid Drano and Clorox toilet bowl cleaner. It's dangerous. So we've done our own chemistry and are using a green enzyme cleaner now with a pH booster. The enzyme cleaner is completely safe; we could take a shot right now. We're getting more effectiveness out of it, too.

I've seen dilapidated systems. Molding on couplers. That sweet vinegary smell. Nineteen-seventies technology, like air compressors pushing oxygen into kegs. I've had people tell me they wipe down the faucets. No. You pull the faucets off. This isn't mom's-coming bullshit-let's shut the toilet seat and close the shower curtain. It's a complete cleaning. It's like calling a maid after the home's been train-wrecked. You're thinking, "Oh, it's going to be perfect tomorrow." No, listen, we're going to do this much today, and then we'll be back in two weeks. Like peeling an onion, I'm just pulling back one layer after another.

It's important bartenders are being educated. A glass should never touch a faucet. That's bad bartending. Ever see that? They just shove the glass right into the faucet, and foam's pouring out over the glass. You're transferring bacteria, warming up the faucets-which are refrigerated just like the the cooler. When that beer comes out and lingers outside the faucet, it becomes room temperature, and bacteria starts to grow. That's just 20 or 30 minutes. Then it continues overnight. Happens all the time with popular beers.

I've had people come to me and say, "Listen, we're paying you $400 bucks, but another guy just walked in and said he'd do it for $200." Wow. Yes, that's quite a difference, and I understand their interest, but is the other guy going to be here for four-and-a-half hours? And it's not because he's better. I've figured out every possible way to eliminate time within my standards, within the Brewers Association's standards, and you just can't do it without skipping steps. And if you do, you're disserving the bar owner, and you're disserving their customers. And there's no one keeping tabs on me, no one keeping tabs on any of this. In many ways, it's still the Wild West. That's why we take what we do so seriously. -As told to Anthony Dominic