Beer Run

The Beer Run: Not all taps are created equal

As the Sacramento area continues to embrace craft beer, you’re going to see more and more tap handles at bars, restaurants and beer-specific pubs.

Coyote Tap House has 72 beers on draft (or draught), LowBrau has 14, Final Gravity in Roseville has 24, University of Beer in Davis has 60 and, when it opens its new location in Sacramento at 16th and O streets in the coming months, it will sport 90 handles. Oh, then there’s Yard House in Roseville with a whopping 127 draft beers.

All those selections can either be a great thing, a confusing thing or, if the lines that run the beer from the keg to the handle are not properly maintained, a downright funky thing.

While this column is not out to indict any particular places – and the above businesses are listed solely as an example of the explosion in this realm – beer aficionados know that not all taps are created equal.

Some bar managers emphasize cleaning and maintenance of the lines, while others may not bother to do it consistently. Flushing the lines with the proper caustic solution and an electric pump for 15 minutes every two weeks (at a minimum) can be tedious. And really, who’s going to notice, right?

We wondered what happens to beer served through lines that don’t get cleaned. Who better to ask than Annie Johnson, the reigning National Home Brewer of the Year, a certified beer judge and a bona fide beer-imbibing bon vivant?

“You absolutely have to clean the lines,” she said. “If you don’t, that beer just sits in the line and it gets old. If the lines are not clean, the beer could taste metallic, kind of tinny or a bloody flavor. Sometimes it will smell musty or butterscotchy because beer is sitting around in lines so long.”

At places with tons of beer options, there are going to be favorites, and there are going to be beers that linger. That’s not necessarily good.

Rob Archie, owner of Pangaea Two Brews in Curtis Park, takes the maintenance of the lines seriously and is not a fan of huge tap lists.

“We have 30 handles and that is more than enough,” said Archie, noting that eight lines are reserved for sour beers, or lambics.

Referring to beer lines that might go weeks without cleaning, Archie said, “It’s nasty. They just sit and fester and create this nastiness. Yeast and sugars sit there and work together. That’s how you get off flavors.”

The Brewers Association, a national craft beer trade group, sets standards for maintaining tap lines. The group has a fact sheet on the subject along with a detailed rundown of procedures in its “Draught Beer Quality Manuel.”

The fact sheet notes in part, “Within days of installing a new draught system, deposits begin to build up on the beer contact surfaces. Without proper cleaning, these deposits soon affect beer flavor and undermine the system’s ability to pour quality beer.”

“It’s just a matter of prioritizing,” said Natalie Cilurzo, co-owner of Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa (best known for its double IPA, Pliny the Elder, and cult favorite Pliny the Younger). “If you’re going to say you’re a multitap beer bar, your No. 1 priority is serving quality beer. If that’s your focus, you’re going to want to make line cleaning a priority.”

Bars and restaurants can either do the task themselves or hire companies that specialize in this service. For the consumer, pay attention to the flavors of your beer and feel free to ask about the bar’s maintenance procedures. If you get a deer-in-the-headlights response, maybe your watering hole is too funky for its own good.

Grabbing growlers

In a Beer Run several months back, we mentioned the screaming deal Track Seven Brewing was offering for its Growler Club. For $399, you could refill your 64-ounce growler twice a week for the entire year. There was also a more ambitious $799 and five refills a week offering. It’s a great way for a young brewery to get plenty of capital up front. It’s also a great way for a small brewery to run dry.

So maybe we should have whispered it only to serious beer folks. In November, people descended upon Track Seven in hoards. Not all of them seem to be the kind of beer geeks Track Seven was targeting. Turns out, some people just like a good deal and aren’t really embracing other elements of craft beer – like chilling out. The popularity has prompted the brewery’s owners to reconsider the program for next year. Already there have been restrictions on special or limited release beers.

“All of our beers that we only make in seven-barrel increments, we’ve only been offering one fill on those beers. Otherwise the general public wouldn’t get any beer,” said co-owner/brewmaster Ryan Graham.

Time to rethink it?

“We’ll see how it works out between now and the end of the year,” Graham said. “Like anything, if you do too much of it, you wind up diluting it and you get the kind of people you didn’t really intend. Once things stop being about the beer, it’s time to do something else.”

Knee Deep Brewing in Auburn has a much more flexible deal. For $215, you get a full growler plus 12 refills. If you already have a growler, you get 13 refills. Unlike Track 7, which opened its growler membership for a specific time in November, Knee Deep’s card is available any time for any beer.

“They get whatever beer they want and can use up the card as soon as they want,” said Jerry Moore, chief executive officer of Knee Deep.