Keg sizes: The trends in the draft beer market

Kleine Bierfassgrößen im Lager
© / Elevate

What advantages can reducing the size of barrels in catering bring? To what extent can this positively affect beverage dispensing quality, hygiene, variety and even labor law aspects? The following article addresses this and more through a market study conducted by beverage dispense specialist Dr. Johannes Tippmann for Micro Matic A/S.

Already checked the keg size?

For years, a steady change has been taking place in the catering world. This has been driven by changes in lifestyle, new health and diet demands, as well as craft beers and most recently the coronavirus. The keg can be an important tool in marketing due to its environmental friendliness. The number of bottles and cans they remove from production is considerable. Moreover, the market share of draft beers is ten percent of the beer output, with a slight upward trajectory worldwide.

Therefore, bar and restaurant managers face the challenge of adjusting the market in this area, for example, in order to offer a wider variety of tapped beverages. The consequences of this can partly be seen in the complete redesign of catering establishments. However, this isn’t always economically viable, so cheaper alternatives are being sought. One possibility – as banal as it sounds – could be adjusting the draft beer barrel size, which could also positively affect various other aspects.

Advantages of smaller kegs for catering

Better beer quality on draft

Surveys have found that draft beer is considered the preferred catering beverage due to its fresher taste. The main factors for flawless beer quality in the keg and a long storage life are the carbonation level, microbiological situation and changes to the beer through natural aging.

In addition to the storage temperature and utilizing CO2, the storage life of a tapped keg largely depends on the hygiene situation of the dispensing system. Furthermore, this depends on the quality of the components used.

Only once all of these factors are precisely considered can a high quality be ensured for most beer types over a period of three to four weeks once the keg has been tapped.

Normally, this is not the case. Even in catering, where regularly changing and insufficiently trained staff handle the draft beer, quality problems can arise when the keg is tapped for too long. Many breweries have recorded this in their specifications. If bar and restaurant managers don’t empty the keg within a certain time period, then the beer types in question will be served bottled.

In order to be able to continue serving good tapped beer with low throughput, some breweries are already offering smaller keg sizes – 15- or 20-liter kegs as opposed to the traditional 30- or 50-liter kegs.

Schankhähne in einer Bar beim Bier zapfen
© / Gonzalo Remy

Increase in carbonation in 10-liter kegs

Carbonation, or the CO2– content, is a decisive beverage characteristic. It provides various sensory effects, and deviations can change the drink drastically.

Zeitlicher Verlauf des Aufkarbonisierens in einem 30-l-Fass Helles Bier
Picture: Büchele, “Investigations into the increase in the carbonation of beer under dispensing conditions,” thesis, Freising-Weihenstephan, 2003

When a keg is tapped, regardless of the operating pressure, a new saturation pressure arises after 48–72 hours. Of the beer types in question, ten liters of draft beer are sold during a business day.

The green frames in the adjacent picture represent the volume of the beer type sold. In turn, this corresponds to the time that a 10-liter keg is tapped. The red frame represents the duration that a 30-liter keg is tapped, which comprises 8+16+8+16+8 hours, or 56 hours in total. When compared to a 10-liter keg, this shows a significantly higher carbonation increase.

Quicker cooling with smaller kegs

The second most important physical factor in beverage quality and characteristics is the keg cooling. A slim keg with a 24 cm diameter takes around 25 hours to cool through, which is significantly quicker than a DIN-keg with a 40 cm diameter. This means that smaller kegs have an advantage when it comes to stockpiling, cooling time and flexibility.

In their “Guidelines for beverage dispensing equipment,” the German Brewers Association recommends cooling for at least 48 hours. They recommend a cooling capacity 1.5 times that of the serving quantity of a delivery interval.

Lower hygiene risk

High germ content in the line doesn’t just present a direct contamination risk when the beer passes through. In fact, microbial growth also spreads toward the keg. If microorganisms reach the keg, then they continue to grow there and often cause the keg to go bad. This is often seen in 50-liter kegs that have been tapped for long periods. This risk can be reduced by utilizing smaller keg sizes.

Wider selection of beverages for consumers

The triumph of craft beer allows for a new kind of establishment: Beer bars with various taps. The number of taps at the bar has been rising steadily in recent decades, often in excess of ten with seemingly no upper limit.

In particular, this trend is being driven by young consumers with deep pockets who want variety in their beer choice. Utilizing smaller keg diameters (so called slim kegs) makes it possible to expand the number of beer types as shown in the illustration on the right.

above: Use of standard DIN-kegs, two kegs, two serving taps; below: Use of slim kegs, eight kegs, six serving taps

Less damage to the container

Another and very important argument in favor of small beer kegs is that they are easier to handle. The high weight of 50-liter kegs means that they are often thrown, rolled and handled roughly for their circumstances. According to many breweries, the use of lighter, more manageable 20-liter kegs leads to a better-maintained pool of kegs with less damage overall.

Higher occupational safety for employees

Mann trägt Bierfässer in der Brauerei
© / Elevate

In the catering industry, 50-liter kegs pose a particular challenge to everyone, and 30-liter kegs tend to can be difficult at least for female employees. These specifications for occupational safety are often neglected.

In this case, the load rating due to the weight of the keg plus filling it with beer reaches a maximum of 25, which makes it possible to overstrain one’s body. Design measures are thus called for.

Smaller kegs are also relatively uncritical from an occupational safety point of view.

New sales opportunities for breweries

Serving non-alcoholic beer

The greatly increasing market presence of non-alcoholic beer means that the demand for these beers to be served from dispensing systems is also rising. In addition to the basic suitability of non-alcoholic beer, systems operators must also be clear that this beverage is subject to higher microbial risk. Therefore, there is a risk that it will spoil more quickly. However, by far the greater risk is the unwanted fermentation of the malt sugars still present. This presents a particularly high product and consumer hazard, which can be minimized by utilizing smaller containers and the shorter times that they are tapped.

Draft beer for home tap systems

While it’s not conducive to revenue in the catering industry, it’s highly likely that the trend of beer consumption shifting to the home environment will continue, as well as in a catering context.

Bar and restaurant managers can satisfy this demand with suitable beverage dispensing systems. Smaller keg sizes also offer advantages here, as the beer can be tapped as needed and billed post-consumption.

Big corporations have known of this trend for a long time and already offer various home draft devices. These are consistently made with small containers in mind, and they prove that most consumers turn down beer kegs that are “too big.” The home draft beer dispensers market is expected to grow by seven percent in coming years.

Costs of switching to small keg sizes

There’s no denying that the switch to smaller kegs demands a certain investment. However, in the long-term, this should provide benefits in the form of improved beer quality. Draft beer sales is an important market segment for many breweries that lets them offer total sales prices accepted by the consumer. Draft beer, when implemented correctly, has good potential for a high gross profit.

It’s important to note that the costs-per-hectoliter are higher with small containers. However, given the arguments outlined above, a calculated additional charge of about 1 cent per 0.3-liter glass of beer from a smaller container for a better quality is absolutely justifiable.

Conclusion: Smaller kegs have great potential

The catering and draft beer market continues to develop. One starting point for sustainably shaping this development could be utilizing innovative packaging technology, in this case referring to the container sizes. But often, when it comes to innovative packaging technology, only the alternative materials aspect is considered.

Even switching from large to smaller kegs has great potential, not only regarding quality, but also in terms of occupational safety. Utilizing smaller container sizes can also more easily open up new markets, such as non-alcoholic beer and the home consumption of brewery products.

Want to share your developments and innovations in the beverage industry to an international specialist audience? Then we would very much like to invite you to take part in the next drinktec from September 12 to 16, 2022 in Munich.

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