It’s such an essential part of everyday life, you probably don’t notice how often you interacted with it just today. From the zipper on your jacket, to the cutlery in your kitchen. From automotive parts to accents on skyscrapers. Even surgical implants like pins connecting bones or an artificial replacement hip are made of stainless. It’s no surprise such a precious metal is also the best way to store and transport precious, delicious golden suds.
Traditionally, beer was stored and transported in wooden kegs to taverns. Through modern history, the stainless steel keg has been the leading standard for bars, restaurants, and taprooms. There are, of course, alternatives to stainless like aluminum or plastic, but stainless still reigns supreme.
You likely haven’t ever given much thought about the keg that was once home to your IPA or stout, you’re just happy the glass is in front of you. Many brewers have also admitted to not giving a whole lot of thought to kegs since they’re just so commonplace. However, there are four key characteristics that make stainless steel kegs the humble hero of the global beer industry.
Whether they’re used exclusively for brewery-only pours or shipped across town, or across the country, for draft accounts, one thing’s almost guaranteed: shit happens. Haven’t you ever been to a local brewery’s spin on the Olympics? There’s almost always a keg toss!
Stainless can easily withstand the everyday bumps and bruises behind the bar, not to mention the cool, damp conditions. These kegs also block out any light, preventing off-colors or off-flavors, including the all-to-well-known “skunked” beer.
The durability of traditional kegs are so well-known throughout the beer industry, that brewers hardly give it any thought.
“I don’t think we think about them much because there isn’t much to think about given how durable they are,” said Brian Shurtleff of Bog Iron Brewing in Norton, MA. “Once in a very blue moon you’ll get a seal that needs to be replaced but otherwise, they’re such a standard tool they’re really out-of-mind. It’s common to see beers aged for years in kegs (big stouts) which speaks to their ability to properly keep beer.”
There are countless arguments from bars to across the internet about the best way to package beer: cans vs. bottles, 12 ounces vs. 16 ounces, growlers vs. crowlers, 22-ounce bombers vs. 750 ml bottles. When it comes to kegs, stainless steel blows any other alternative out of the water.
Testing has shown that beer is simply going to taste better when coming from a stainless steel keg. Compared to plastic kegs, stainless offers better overall quality of your beer, even when stored over a long period of time. Since ultraviolet light isn’t tainting the beer, there’s very little oxidation and the beer remains a nice golden color instead of turning a dark brown.
A month or two out, flavors remain nearly the same as the day the keg was filled and shipped to your local watering hole. And most importantly, carbonation doesn’t escape the keg meaning you’ll have a perfect pour. We’ve all been served a flat beer, and there’s very little that compares to that type of disappointment.
Since beer is sensitive to so many different factors, including oxygen, heat, age, lights, and pressure, it’s important that packaging is able to guarantee beer can maintain peak flavor, freshness, and quality from brew house to pint glass. In this regard, stainless steel kegs offer two major benefits to ensuring this level of quality.
First off, kegs are designed in a way that they offer the ability to transport beer in bulk while maintaining the beer’s quality and integrity pour after pour. Their design protects beer from both air and light while enabling easy and rapid dispensing. When tapped, the keg valve admits gas to the head space where it applies the pressure needed to push beer through draft lines and out of the tap, while maintaining correct carbonation in the remaining beer.
Second, the inertness of stainless steels makes them ideal for food and beverage packaging material due to the fact that they do not react with the food, so both the product and the container remain pristine. Moreover, stainless steel is a very hygienic material, remarkably cleanable and durable due to the advancements in passivation of stainless steel. These properties have established certain grades of stainless steel as the materials of choice for the food and beverage sector, where guaranteeing the quality of the product is imperative.
Given that stainless steel kegs are reliable, they have to be subjected to external and internal washing processes before each use. Therefore, the kegs have to be resistant to washing processes where all product contact surfaces are effectively exposed to washing agents and rinse water without retaining or attracting microbial growth nor retaining residues of washing agents.
The keg’s design inside and out plays a major factor in its food-grade level of cleanliness. The smooth surfaces and strategic welds on the inside of the vessel prevents any organic or inorganic materials from latching onto the internal walls and tainting the beer inside.
On the outside, the keg’s chime, or skirt, creates an important barrier between the bottom of the vessel containing the beer and the concrete ground. This separation helps prevent the formation of tiny cracks that can lead to corrosion of the steel. Corrosion would ultimately lead to leaks and ruin the overall product.
Though there is no industry standard for cleaning and sanitizing kegs, most national brewers associations have their own recommendations that are often followed by brewers to ensure top-quality use of kegs.
As more and more breweries strive to reduce their own carbon footprint, stainless steel kegs are a no-brainer. Compared to using a plastic keg solution, one stainless steel keg can contribute to the reduction of 240 kg of CO2 during its shelf life, which can exceed 120 cycles. That’s the equivalent to unplugging a fridge for 30 years while still serving up thousands of pints of fresh, cold beer!
It’s also important to look at kegs as a way of packaging beer, not just transporting it from brewery to bar. Of course, there are some additional costs with stainless steel kegs compared to plastic, such as manufacturing, washing, and transportation. However, it’s important to keep in mind the reusable characteristics of stainless steel, which reduces its carbon footprint when compared to plastic kegs over time.
After a stainless keg is manufactured, it never has to be manufactured again unlike a single-use plastic keg. Stainless kegs show a lower carbon footprint than one-way plastic kegs after 12 uses, which can be achieved in 3-4 years on average. From that moment on, every use of a stainless keg will entail the reduction of harmful substances to the environment.
Even considering that stainless kegs require continual sanitization and back-and-forth transportation between brewery and point of sale, the carbon footprint of these phases is nothing when compared to the whole process of manufacturing and transportation required for every use of a plastic keg.
Not to mention, stainless steel is 100% recyclable. And sure, that term gets tossed around a lot, but over 80% of the world’s steel is recycled and two out of every three tons of steel comes from old steel.
With so many breweries wasting as little as possible, from sharing spent grain with local farms or using it to bake fresh treats for pups and humans alike, it makes sense they would invest in steel. A resource that continues to stay out of landfills while keeping our favorite beers safe and delicious.