Kegs and the city: Is wine on tap the next big thing?

Darren Smith

Darren Smith

30 March 2018

The growing buzz around wine on tap suggests it could be the biggest on-trade wine trend of 2018. Cheaper and easier, not to mention greener than glass bottles, Darren Smith takes a look at the technology threatening to make the corkscrew a thing of the past

Wine on tap could be the big on-trade wine trend of 2018. A number of operators, including Roberson, Jascots, Bibendum and Vinoteca, have been dabbling with it for a while, but it seems as if the idea of very good quality wine on tap has now been picked up by a critical mass of restaurants, merchants and consumers. The scene has been set for the wine-on-tap revolution.

Greenwatch: Why keykegs are kool

An average 75cl bottle of wine (empty) weighs 400g, compared with a 20ltr KeyKeg at 1.1kg, so the equivalent glass per 20ltr of wine is around ten times as much, weighing in at 10.6kg.

KeyKeg developer Lightweight Containers is piloting a closed-loop production system, with the ultimate aim of being able to return and fully recycle all used KeyKegs to create new ones. The company is testing several collection methods in Amsterdam.

‘At the moment we are able to reuse 81% of the materials for the production of new one-way kegs,’ says Lightweight Containers’
Robert-Jan Knoppers, who points out that a KeyKeg ‘consists already of more than 30% recycled plastic.’

Central to the revolution is the relatively new KeyKeg technology from Dutch company Lightweight Containers. Already firmly established in Ireland and the US, KeyKeg has made its mark in the UK, largely thanks to UK-based merchant OW Loeb, whose ‘Loeb on Tap’ offshoot made such impressive inroads in the on-trade last year.

Key to success
The main strength of the KeyKeg system, and where it appears to improve on ‘bag in box’ and other kegs, is that its two-compartment system offers protection against oxidation, plus maximum safety during shipping, transport and dispensing. Suitable for both still and sparkling wines, the kegs are made from around 30% recycled plastic, and at the moment they are able to reuse 81% of the materials for the production of new kegs. From a restaurant point of view, one 30-litre KeyKeg can replace 40 wine bottles and, therefore, more than 20kg of glass.

‘We’re very keen on wine in kegs, more so than bag-in-box which we also carry, because we find KeyKegs to be incredibly robust and reliable,’ says Vinoteca director Charlie Young, who estimates the company has saved the equivalent of around 10,000 bottles since it started using kegs around three years ago.

‘We also choose kegs for their cost advantage, and for the sustainability and low carbon footprint aspects,’ he adds. ‘But we don’t use it as way of providing the cheapest possible wine. Indeed, we go the other way and source more premium and characterful wines and pass the significant cost saving on to the customer.’

The Tate gallery group is another major brand that’s joined the KeyKeg revolution. All house wine is now served via 30-litre kegs at the Tate Modern’s Terrace Bar, and wine on tap will also be installed in the gallery’s Level 9 restaurant and bar this year. Tate wine buyer Hamish Anderson echoes Charlie Young’s point that the savings from keg versus bottle mean Tate can offer better wine at the same price.

‘The difference is particularly marked at the lower end where even small increments in cost can lead to a marked improvement in quality,’ says Anderson. ‘Chosen carefully, keg wine is always better value than its equivalent from a bottle.’

We choose kegs for their cost advantage, and for sustainability. We don’t use it as way of providing the cheapest possible wine

Charlie Young

On-tap pioneers
But it’s across the trade, from the big fish like Bibendum to the relative minnows like Red Squirrel, that the benefits of wine on tap are being embraced. Early adopter Bibendum is looking to add more keg wines to its portfolio at different price points and from different regions this year. Matthew Clark, which is also owned by Conviviality, is on board the wine-tap train too.

Red Squirrel founder Nik Darlington is particularly pleased with his customers’ response to its first keg-wine offerings. The company now has a small but growing range of kegged wines from France, Portugal and Italy, including prosecco.

‘They’ve made a big impact very quickly,’ says Darlington. ‘The environmental and productivity benefits are big sells, but wine on tap also saves time for staff pouring wines by the glass. Above all, wine on tap looks awesome, and customers can make an amazing visual statement with how they present it to drinkers.’

Keg revolution
It’s still early days, but 2018 could see a big acceleration of the trend as the sustainability drive intensifies, and wine-on-tap logistics and support systems are developed. Les Caves de Pyrene is preparing to introduce four of its wines in keg format in the spring, while Rupert Taylor, former coordinator of Loeb on Tap, has embarked on his own solo venture Uncharted Wines, specialising in tap wines.

Hamish Anderson likens the buzz to the early days of screwcaps. ‘The speed they caught on surprised everyone,’ he says. It’s not difficult to imagine the wine-on-tap revolution unfolding at much the same speed.

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