The next beer revolution: Quality on tap

Will Hawkes

Will Hawkes

26 February 2018

Gipsy Hill’s new taproom offers plenty for daydreaming drinkers to ogle. There’s a tiny brew-kit, a long wooden bar with a lowered section for customers in wheelchairs, unique steel and wood fittings produced by designer Mike Doveton, and the cellar, which will be on full public display behind a glass wall when the bar officially opens in early March.

This is no accident. For Gipsy Hill co-founder and director Sam McMeekin, the cellar – and particularly its keg dispense system – is the room’s crowning glory. 'We believe this is the most advanced system out there [in the UK],' he says. 'We had to work hard to find something like this, because it doesn’t really exist in the UK. We took a standard system and adapted it.'

Craft beer has had its flavour revolution; now the (slightly-less glamorous) dispense revolution is beginning to break over the UK

Keg beer dispense quality is not often talked about in the UK, at least in contrast to the perpetual hand-wringing that goes on with regard to cask ale. But it deserves to be a very big issue, because a huge number of pubs and bars in the UK are not set up to serve craft keg beer in the best condition.

That’s because most keg dispense equipment in the UK has been designed to suit low-carbonation, sterile-filtered big-name lager brands, which are relatively easy to look after. But modern craft beers come in a bewildering variety and they need individual treatment, be that a higher temperature of serve or a different gas mix.

The team
The team

If you get it wrong, the beer won’t pour properly; it certainly won’t be as the brewer intended. Craft beer has had its flavour revolution; now the (slightly-less glamorous) dispense revolution is beginning to break over the UK.

McMeekin is leading the way. He’s clearly proud that the keg dispense system at Gipsy Hill’s taproom offers both temperature and gas-mix control, amongst other benefits. It cost just over £8,000 to build and install, money he considers well-spent. 'It is about improving quality in the beer world,' he says. 'You hear a lot of talk about quality ingredients, but real quality is about so much more than that. This is another way of pushing that quality mantra forward.'

It’s telling, though, that Gipsy Hill had to tweak the system they brought – Brewfitt’s ‘Future of Dispense’ model – to get what they wanted. They’re fortunate, as McMeekin acknowledges, to have a number of gifted engineers in the company. For others, it can be less easy to get what you need.

Unless, that is, you operate in the region covered by Jolly Good Beer, a distributor/wholesaler/dispense-installation company based near Peterborough. Owner Yvan Seth is a long-term advocate of improving keg dispense, but he says that there’s a long way to go. 'The standard of keg dispense in the UK is low, because it is driven by price and not quality,' he says.

'A lot of this is rooted in the expectation that cellar installs are done free by big breweries, so there isn't enough market for tech suppliers to stock higher-end equipment.'

That’s beginning to change, according to James Paxman, joint managing director at Huddersfield-based Brewfitt. 'We think there’s a change in the market,' he says. 'Historically there was a principal brewer, which would have been one of the big four, which did all the installation.

Co-founder and director Sam McMeekin
Co-founder and director Sam McMeekin

'Now more venues are coming to us direct, and they want something different, something craft, something premium. They want to put their own products in, so they can swap and change, they can change the product weekly.'

One company that fits that description is Magic Rock, also found in Huddersfield. At the tap room, beer is served through very short lines that run through the cold-room wall into the bar: the lines are so short, in fact, that they can be replaced every six weeks. It’s a set-up that Seth advocates; the problem with many pubs is that their hands are tied by the presence of a cellar, which means long lines up to the bar.

Most pubs, he says, store kegs in a 12-degree cellar and have a flash chiller, a long line to the bar and then a serving font. Because of the length of the pipe, as much as four pints can be wasted from every keg, while poor-quality piping can leave the beer tainted.

'That system – with long lines up to the bar – is antiquated, kind of quaint, and far from ideal,' he says. 'My first recommendation for all new sites is to install a "direct draw" system. This means that the cellar/cold-room is located directly behind the bar, and it is chilled to serve temperature. This system has no more than an eighth of a pint in the lines typically, and because it is so short and simple there are less items that can go wrong.'

At Gipsy Hill, the piping is a bit more extensive – but even so, there’s only half a pints worth of liquid between keg and tap. Each line is cleaned after every keg, McMeekin says, not only in the interests of beer quality but also to avoid wastage. 'If you just do it every week as standard then everything that is left in the lines is flushed out,' he says. 'You could be losing 20 pints a week.'

Hopefully we can demonstrate to people – bar owners and the public – why it matters


He is evangelical on the benefit of having temperature and gas-mix control. Gipsy Hill is able to serve its beer at four, eight and 12 degrees centigrade, while it can amend the ratio of CO2 to Nitrogen used to serve it. 'I had a Russian Imperial Stout in a craft-beer bar recently that was served at four degrees,' he says. 'That’s not right. Different beers need to be served at different temperatures.'

It’s a message that should be easily understood in the craft-beer world, but the nature of keg installations means even the most clued-up bar staff can’t do much if the equipment isn’t up to scratch. 'UK barfolk needing to deal with rotational lines need to understand carbonation and how to set gas pressure suitably,' says Seth. 'Then how to balance that at the tap end with flow control. Almost none do, because it's never been in the interests of established keg-brand big-boys for pubs to be technically informed on this.

'I often say that that best thing BrewDog has done for beer in the UK is train a load of staff to Certified Cicerone level, which includes work on draught beer quality. These staff move on and take that knowledge with them.'

Seth says anyone interested in understanding this better should look to the States, from where the Cicerone qualification originates. Meanwhile, McMeekin will be using his taproom to spread the mantra of keg quality. 'To be able to see the cellar when you come down here, that’s a big part of the taproom experience,' he says. 'Hopefully we can demonstrate to people – bar owners and the public – why it matters.'

More from Will Hawkes:

Malt + Pepper duo on pub-hopping and honing their ‘beer food’ offering

Marko Husak: Bundobust’s recipe for success

Self-serve beer: Trying to replicate Vagabond Wines’ success

Bamberg to Braybrooke: exclusive story of this year’s most interesting new beer

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