Self-Serve Beer Taps

You may have seen them popping up in your neighborhood.  Even Conway has one, The Draft, near the campus of the University of Central Arkansas.  We’re talking about restaurants and bars with “self-serve” beer taps, which allow you to pour as much or as little as you want of any of the beers on tap, using a magnetic “key” to allow access to the chosen beer and to track your consumption.  At some of the tables, there will be built in taps with a limited selection—usually Bud Light or Coors Light, maybe a Sam Adams tap handle thrown in, possibly something special if you make arrangements in advance—then you’ll have a couple tap walls with more “craft” options. The Draft tends to keep a range from Shock Top to Sixpoint, to even Weihenstephaner on theirs, which in all honesty is a decent selection for little Conway, Arkansas.  In theory, this is all a great idea; it’s a fun novelty and it gives the customer more choice and control over their drinking experience.

Or does it?  In my opinion, there are so many issues for the customer with these systems that it becomes impossible to see them as a good idea… at least from the customer’s perspective. 

ONE: The Bar Doesn’t Pay You

The bar using these systems can easily reduce their front of the house labor costs.  Where a waitress and/or bartender might be needed to cover the volume of pouring for customers in a regular establishment, instead the bar gets to use YOU, the customer as free labor.  Now, there may be some additional cleaning work (and I hope there is, more on that to come) but generally that cost is lower, mostly due to the amount of work/time required for the task.  It takes a lot longer to fill a pint and deliver it to the table than it does to wipe down a faucet every ten times it’s used.  Congratulations, you’re doing the bar’s job, and probably still tipping as though they did it for you!  What are you going to do, NOT give your server the standard 15-20%, you cheapskate?

TWO: The Rookie Factor

No matter how good you are at pouring your own beer from the tap, most of the people using these systems are NOT.  This is the rare occasion for most customers to use a real beer faucet as opposed to the flimsy pump on a keg at a party.  For many of them it will be the first time they have ever poured beer from a proper faucet.  If you DO know how to use a tap properly, you know that it takes a fairly deft touch to pour a perfect pint (or snifter, or tulip) with the proper amount of head and no spillage.  We know what happens when the average joe (and the bartender in your lesser beer establishments) pours a pint: massive amounts of foam, spillage, beer down the drain, on the glass, all in order to get a “perfect” pint. 

Let’s say the average customer wastes 2 ounces of beer on a 16 ounce pour, that’s 11% of the beer that gets wasted over the course of the keg.  If they lose as much as 4-5 ounces?  Up to a QUARTER of that keg is down the drain.  But, the bar still has to make its profit margin, so it is building the price of the inefficiency into the per ounce cost of your pour.  Even if you have a perfect pour of 16 ounces, with a one-inch foam collar right up to the rim of the glass and not a drop on your hands, you will be paying for 18-20 ounces when the bill arrives, if not more.  Not really a great deal for the bar as they are making the same margin they would anyway, but you will likely be paying $10 for a beer that costs $10 a six-pack at your local store.

THREE: The Ick Factor

Again with the novice pourers: The other mistake that inexperienced tap operators tend to make is dipping the faucet fully into the beer as they top off the glass.  Gross and highly NOT recommended even when a paid, professional bartender is filling your clean glass.  However, the bars I’ve been to that run these systems give you a single glass, and a clean one isn’t offered unless you ask for it first.  Which means that the customers are going up to that tap with the dirty glass they just drank from while eating their greasy hot wings, and putting the faucet right into the dingy beer/grease/food-bits mess that’s now swirling in their glass.  Again, customer and beer aficionado, you lose.  Now in all fairness, I have seen that these taps are wiped down pretty regularly at the places I’ve been, but it only takes one person before you to create this problem.  And wiping down and cleaning are not the same thing.  Enjoy your swill.

FOUR: But Choices!

Finally, and this is a small thing, but the idea of being able to try whatever you want in whatever quantity you want is a relatively minor advantage.  Any beer bar worth its salt will let you sample any beer you want, usually with a one ounce-ish pour.  Additionally, many of them will have glassware available that will allow for a smaller pour anyway, such as a 5-ounce or 10-ounce option.  And again, whatever you pay for a 16-ounce pour, even if you only drink half of it, will probably come out close to even due to the pricing concerns at a self-service establishment.

FIVE: Yeah, I’ll Probably Still Go.

Having said all that, will I still go to these places for a pint from time to time?  Sure, if the food’s good and/or I have friends that want to meet up there, I’m not going to say no.  But here’s what I’m going to do: 

1)      I’m going to ask for a clean, non-frozen glass before every time I go up to the tap.  If the bar is willing to provide it, I’ll ask for a couple clean ones up front, so that I don’t have to wait for a waiter every time I want another beer (because that would defeat the purpose, wouldn’t it?)

2)      I’ll make sure I know how to open and pour from a tap properly.  Hold the glass at a 45 degree angle and pull the tap forward as quickly as possible to fully open the flow, helping eliminate excess foaming and ensuring proper head, then tilt the glass back upright when it’s half full and finish the pour down the middle. 

3)      I’ll watch the taps and if I don’t see any regular cleaning while I’m there, I’ll be done self-serving and will start asking for bottles instead. 

4)      And last, I’ll assume from the start that my bill will be larger than it should be, because it will be.

Now go enjoy a beer, aficionados, hopefully one that’s been poured by a professional.

JAB – 8/15/15