Barkeep’s Corner: Flow-Control Faucets
Barkeep’s Corner is a series of posts discussing equipment, concepts and techniques useful to beer servers and bartenders.
Today we’re talking about a special item: flow-control faucets. You may have seen or worked with them in bars that feature a lot of European (especially Belgian) beer brands or perhaps you’ve noticed them at a newer brewery tasting room. Certain bars that bring in a wide variety of beer styles may also choose to use them. They’re not everywhere, but if you live in a craft beer-loving part of the country you will probably notice them at some point.
So what’s the deal with this extra-fun faucet, and why would anyone choose it over a standard version where you know, step one: open tap handle, out comes beer, the end? No problems there, right? Well unfortunately, sometimes there can be. The wrong pour speed can lead to poorly filled beers with the wrong amount of head for their style and large amounts of overflow or waste. Flow-control faucets give the bartender a few more options. These faucets work on a fairly straightforward idea–control or restrict the flow of beer from keg to glass by turning a little knob attached to the side of the faucet. Sounds great, right? Especially during a busy service when a new keg starts acting up, or alternatively when your keg of homebrew turns out a little more or less carbonated than you intended.
Beer styles can vary in their preferred level of head, and carbonation levels can also drastically differ from style to style. And glass size and shapes–they’re all over the place. All these variations can all naturally contribute to a different outcome of liquid beer + foam. Having an option at your fingertips for helping to pour the perfect pint, schooner, goblet, taster, or growler is obviously advantageous.
You may be wondering why everyone doesn’t already have these faucets, if they give bartenders more control and create less wasted beer (nobody’s happy about that). But let’s back up for a moment and remember that draft systems have multiple elements, all of which can change how beer behaves. The faucet is the last place one can apply any kind of control to the system, so it’s easy to focus on that, but some of those other elements can do a good or better job even before beer reaches the faucet. Let’s consider other ways to control flow and pressure.
- Gas regulators. Most draft systems have one main regulator connected to a gas source and multiple secondary regulators that allow for specific pressure settings. Now ideally nobody wants to change the overall carbonation level of a beer–hopefully the producer left the product just as intended at a correct level for the style. So we just want to push the beer through the lines at the right speed with the right exit into the glass for the entirety of the keg over time–or, as close as we can get to it. If the gas level is set too high or too low, the equilibrium of pressure will not be balanced and gas will either enter or leave the liquid and headspace of the keg. Most bars set their regulators around 12-14 PSI (depending on their storage temperature and elevation) for the majority of brands–but as I said earlier, different styles require different pressures. Regulators aren’t cheap–they cost about what a stainless flow-control faucet costs–so not every bar manager opts for one regulator for each tap, though that offers a lot of customizing. Instead, many systems chain 3-4 taps to one secondary regulator instead. You can alter this pressure as needed–it’s not complicated, but it takes a few more steps and a couple extra minutes to change, as opposed to restricting the flow at the faucet. The bottom line is that everyone should be familiar with what their draft system standards are to recognize and manage off kegs, faulty connections or leaks.
- Proper balance. Every bar I’ve worked at with draft beer has been unique: just a few taps or more than 42; short 8 foot lines or more than 40 foot lines; beer gas blends or straight CO2; three + scary stacked kegs in the cooler or kegs on floor-level under the counter. While there’s certainly a disadvantage to extra long lines (more waste overall–nobody wants to drink what’s been sitting in lines overnight), less line length isn’t exactly always better. It’s a balancing act between the pressure setting and two types of resistance (gravitational and frictional) that keeps carbonation in the beer as well as moving from keg to glass. Side note: certain pieces of draft hardware like the shank can also provide some resistance. But most equipment doesn’t provide significant amounts. If you were to throw a tap directly on a keg, the beer would burst out in an unmanageable gush. You need the resistance of gravity and line friction to moderate this flow.
So how does this relate to you, dear reader? If you’re just the bartender, you can’t really alter your bar’s draft system beyond adjusting gas input or keg height. You can calculate the optimal setup for your manager, should they want to change it–and if they don’t or can’t, you can at least know what you’re working with. In that situation, flow control faucets can help you overcome an improperly set-up system’s flaws, but you need to keep in mind that it’s not exactly ideal.
So now you have a small background on what flow control faucets can offer, and why they’re not always going to be the perfect band-aid to a larger problem. Unfortunately it’s pretty rare to find a perfectly balanced system–anywhere. And with both more wild beers and more plastic “one-way” kegs in the market, I think flow-control faucets are a good idea–that is, if the cost isn’t a deterrent. They can be a great tool in the right hands. And if your draft system is properly set-up they’re in no way necessary. Sometimes more toys just complicate the matter.
If you’ve used these faucets and have a comment or story to contribute, please do so on my facebook page. Thanks and cheers!