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Is It Fresh? A Look at Charlotte Beer Garden’s Draft System

Ever since owner Niall Hanley announced the opening of the Charlotte Beer Garden, I had a lot of negative speculation about the operation. It made no sense to me how a small team could operate on such a large scale (serving more than 400 draft beers) and expect to keep the beer fresh and the seasonal options up to date. I was curious how you wouldn’t waste all that beer. So I sat down with Hanley during the recent grand opening and asked, and he was more than ready to give me the details, because this is certainly something he has put a lot of thought into.

The Charlotte Beer Garden (CBG), sister concept of the Raleigh Beer Garden, opened in South End on Feb. 26. The space hosts 436 draft beers throughout a 16,663 square-foot layout. There are three floors with a keg cooler behind each tap wall. The first level is dedicated to only North Carolina beers with 190 tap handles. Hanley will submit for an official Guinness World Record in the fall and said he’s confident in receiving it, seeing as how the Raleigh Beer Garden already holds three world records.

Just a fraction of the taps at Charlotte Beer Garden. (Photo by Jayme Johnson)

With all of that beer and all of those kegs, I had to know how they expect to keep it fresh and not waste 50% of it in the process. The answer lies in the Foam on Beer Detector, or FOB, which is a liquid management system for draft beers. FOBs sense when a keg is empty and shut down the line between the keg and the tap handle, meaning that the line stays full when the keg becomes empty.

“The way the system works is it’s a short-draw system,” Hanley said. “Every 10 feet of line, you lose a pint. None of our lines are over 8 feet,” Hanley said, adding that he’s been using FOBs for 30 to 40 years, beginning in his native home of Ireland.

Anyone who’s poured beer from a tap knows that when a keg becomes empty it spits foam and continues to spit foam from the new keg until the beer reaches the faucet head at the tap handle. The foam is considered waste and can affect the keg yield, or percentage of beer pulled from a keg. The FOB system is the first of many steps that Hanley and the team have taken to ward off waste and skunked beer.

“After the keg kicks, we don’t have these big long lines, we don’t have waste, we have a FOB. I wouldn’t operate this without a FOB because we’d be fucked. Every 10 feet, like if you had a 100-foot draw you lose ten pints every time,” he told me.

Reducing the length of the lines means reducing the chances of beer being poured inconsistently with the brewer’s intentions.

All draft beers are charged by either nitrogen, CO2 or a combination of both, and these gases are what push the beer through the draft lines. Over the course of travel, if the beer hits a bend in piping that is greater than 35 degrees, the beer can be knocked out of suspension and taste flat or inconsistent in your pint glass. In addition to this problem, there will be beer left in the line that is, well, less than fresh.

CBG keeps their own line cleaners on site so if a keg kicks they can tap up the cleaner and run it through the lines right away, keeping the next beer in rotation fresh and free from residual resin, foam and unwanted flavors.

“There’s no mystery to it,” Hanley said. “You can look through the cooler wall and see it. It’s not a million kegs of one product. It’s one.”

The management of flow is apparent, but it is still a ton of beer. How can they expect to go through all of it?

“From a keg management standpoint, we never have backups. We don’t have an extra keg sitting there,” Hanley explains.

Hanley says that they may start with over 400 kegs on a Tuesday and be left with only 120 by Sunday. Those numbers are low in comparison to the 600-700 kegs that he says the Raleigh Beer Garden goes through in a week. The team there has never had a concern about volume of beer sold or any of the beer being stagnant.

Hanley’s biggest concern was waste. His Micromatic FOBs and regulators in the keg coolers have been his saving grace.

The way it works is gas is forced through the draft lines to push the beer from the keg to the faucet handle that the bartender pours from. Each beer requires a different mixture of nitrogen and CO2 to ensure that the brew is served as fresh and as close to the brewer’s specifications as possible. The Micromatic FOBs in the beer coolers allow the team to manage each line individually.

Behind the scenes. (Photo by Jayme Johnson)

Beers that don’t sell well and are reaching their recommended shelf life will be put on special or advertised as featured beers in order to clear the lines. Some beers are pasteurized and some unpasteurized, so shelf lives vary by each keg.

CBG has nitrogen mixers on site that pull nitrogen from the air and store it in back-up tanks behind the wall on the second floor so as to accommodate high volumes of people, which the location has already been experiencing, as you know if you’ve driven by recently and seen the lines around the building.

Advanced cicerones Tim Paine and Josh Parrish manage the beer programs in Raleigh and Charlotte, respectively.

“It’s a little bit of flying by the seat of our pants. We’re working really hard on the organizational side of things on the back end,” said Parrish, former general manager at Town Brewing.

Tracking spreadsheets and inventory while lining up beers that will go on next will be the constant focus of managing the keg rotation. To make things a little easier on the team, Parrish plans to have many “staples,” or beers that stay on tap indefinitely due to high demand.

Setting up the initial tap list with local and national staples was imperative to taking some of the rotational aspect out of the equation, and be able to focus on buying seasonally for half of the amount of taps.

“On the back end, organizing what your purchasing is everything,” Parrish said. “We’re keeping an eye on all of the stuff that we plan to keep on all the time. Looking at pull through on them and asking ourselves, does this make sense to have in a half barrel or should we do three sixtels and keep fresh kegs?”

He said he doesn’t plan to have any empty tap handles on site and wants to keep close to 436 available beers at all times.

Hanley was ready to discuss the details with confidence after plenty of opportunity to troubleshoot at the Raleigh Beer Garden, which has seen success over the past five years. He and his team also oversee operations at seven other food and drink locations in Raleigh under the Hibernian Hospitality Group.

He has been in North Carolina for 23 years and settled in Raleigh before opening his first Irish pub 20 years ago this year. His largest operation is the Morgan Street Food Hall, similar to Optimist Hall here in Charlotte.

His initial plan to open a brewery didn’t get far, considering that he had “no fucking clue how to brew beer,” he said. What came instead was the opportunity to showcase everyone else’s beer. The idea was to keep it local to a certain degree but go international as well.

“Define local and then define the rest of the world,” he says. “That’s the business model that we’ve had in Raleigh. It was very successful for us in Raleigh and I think when we initially started it wasn’t about trying to be the biggest or the catchiest but it is what it is. We said, ‘Well, how many can we do, and what is the biggest, and how many beers can we showcase? And it would be a great sales point if you had all the local boys.’”

Hanley said Charlotte has been a sort of mystery to him, as its rapid growth makes it hard to plan for the future. He knew he wanted to replicate the Raleigh idea somewhere, and after getting the go-ahead for the South End location, he got right to work. In fact, it only took him and his team six months to build the location up after the sale. 

“The goal is we showcase the first floor with all local beers,’ he says. “There’s a reason the patio is connected to that and all the walls open because we expect it to be the busiest part,” Hanley continues.

The CBG rooftop patio. (Photo by Jayme Johnson)

The space on the second level is for what he considers to be the International section, though it also includes national and regional beers like Stone Brewing and Bell’s Brewery.

There can be a lot of confusion when trying to order a beer at a bar that has over 400 draft beers. Charlotte Beer Garden uses the Untappd app in lieu of printed menus to ensure accuracy and ease of ordering.

As soon as a keg kicks, a bartender takes it out of the system, which instantly removes it from the screen behind them and from the app. The beers are all broken down into different categories on the app, making it easier to find your next beverage while sitting anywhere in the bar or even in your Uber on the way there.

Making it that much easier to drink a beer while I eat my words.

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One Comment

  1. Being from central NC, I’ve been to the Raleigh beer garden several times – warm ($13!) beer, cold food, slow service. No thanks.

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