I guess it was curiosity about how we get draft beer out of the keg that led to an odd segment of my beer-gadget collection. In the days of wooden kegs, many strange and messy contraptions were used to release the beer. Wooden or brass spigots were hammered into the keg, and beer would spew from the valve as the spigot was wrestled into place. This mess—combined with the need for the strength of Hercules—prompted the search for simpler way of releasing the nectar of the barrel.
Even today, as we enjoy more and more imported beers, taverns must deal with a duke's mixture of draft couplings.
I have seen many photos, “brewsreels” and live tours of how breweries fill their kegs. It became obvious to me that, with pressure and pumps, beer could be forced into the keg and that most kegs were filled basically the same way.
More interesting to me was how we, the consumer of beer, sweet beer, get the liquid out of the keg. Basically, a hollow rod or a tube reaches down to almost the bottom of the keg. Then, when either carbon dioxide and/or nitrogen is forced into the keg, the pressure forces the beer to rise up through this rod or tube. The beer is released when we press down on a “tap,” a spring-loaded ball, disc valve or check valve. Each tapping device has an outlet for the beer and an inlet for the pressurized gas.
Many different types of valves are used on beer kegs. The more curious I became, the more types of valves and fittings I came across. Names like Perlick, Golden Gate, Kooler Keg, Hoff Stevens, Tap Rite, and even Firestone quickly became the names to know.
Distinctive Dispense Systems
In the years following Prohibition and World War II, as the world was working to standardize the equipment needed for various applications, the brewing industry was not heading in the same direction. Many a bar became a “tied house,” selling only one brand of beer, due to the fact that it would require a massive overhaul of their draft system if they were to change their brand loyalty to another brewery or to expand their offerings.
Even a city the size of Cincinnati had four distinctive draft dispensing systems in use. Among the city’s last four breweries, Wiedemann used Perlick equipment, Hudepohl used Hoff Stevens’s products, Schoenling used Golden Gate’s apparatus, and Burger favored the Tap Rite system. The Golden Gate style had to be attached to the base of the keg as well as the top
Many breweries have had their name stamped into the metal of the tapping apparatus or inscribed on the lever. This, of course, makes for a more desired collectable than just the device itself. These different valves on the kegs have also led to the manufacture of various shapes and sizes of the dust covers needed for each keg.
Even today, as we enjoy more and more imported beers, taverns must deal with a duke’s mixture of draft couplings. Styles like the US Sankey, Euro-Sankey, German Slide, Bass-Watney conical style, Guinness-Harp plunger, and the dual probe Hoff Stevens are commonplace. Adding further complication to the tavern owner’s job, this specialized plumbing sometimes involves getting US and metric fittings to speak the same language.
The most unusual, inventive and visually appealing way to evacuate beer from the keg has to be the beer engine—the unique device that requires the bartender to do the work of the pressurized gas. Through a series of bellows, diaphragms, tubes and hoses, the engine pulls the beer from the cask or keg. The beer even passes through a sparkler disc that agitates the trapped carbonation to produce a head on the beer. Modern improvements have been made to this device, but there still is no better treat than having your pint of ale pulled from the cask through an authentic beer engine.
One nice sideline to a collection of draft couplings is that, regardless of the beer being served, I probably have just the right tool for the job at any given party.