Carolina Beer Guy: Keg party 101

UNDERGROUND COOL: Weinhaus owner Hunt Mallett keeps a stock of 20-30 kegs of beer in the store's basement refrigerator. He sells a keg roughly every other day. Photo by Edwin Arnaudin

What beer drinker doesn’t enjoy a keg party? The sight of a half-barrel cylinder or several smaller one-sixth barrel kegs — known as “torpedoes” — pouring cold, creamy draft brew makes a statement at joyous occasions like wedding parties or get-togethers to watch a big game.

Fun as they may be for the guests, a keg party is a pricey undertaking for the host. It requires an investment of time and the muscle to lug the heavy kegs into place at the celebration. Also the beer must constantly be kept cold, either on ice or in keg refrigerators, and specialized dispensing equipment is necessary.

But even with the effort required, keg events remain popular, especially in warm-weather months and through the holiday season.

The keg hub

Asheville’s Winehaus beer and wine store has been in the keg business for many years, says owner Hunt Mallett. He keeps filled kegs on hand in a cooler and can easily order local craft brands through area distributors. He also has the needed hand pumps to pour the suds.

The Weinhaus has been open for 42 years, but Mallett identifies 2003-04 as the time when kegs really took off, thanks in large part to the beginning of dramatic growth in Asheville’s craft brewing scene.

“Beer has been coming on like gangbusters,” he says. “We’ve seen a shift toward the microbrews, especially the local beers. We do a lot of wedding business, which also helps in [keg sales]. Of course, [sales] go up in the summer.”

Mallett sells a keg of beer about every other day at the Weinhaus, where customers can choose from the store’s stock of 20-30 kegs. “We’ll always have a Highland Gaelic [Ale on hand], and we’ll generally have Yuengling or Pabst Blue Ribbon,” Mallett says. “If we have to order it, we can usually get it in a couple of days.”

The one-sixth barrel (5.2 gallon) kegs, which are the most popular with Weinhaus customers, sell for $80-$95 and equate to 55 12-ounce pours. Half-barrel (15.5 gallon) vessels run $185-$195 and contain the equivalent of 165 12-ounce pours. Refundable keg deposits are usually an additional $30-$50.

Mallett says that for parties with 20 or more guests, kegs can make economic sense. “The real disadvantage comes if your friends are not drinking like they used to and you end with a bunch of beer left over,” he says. If a big surplus is a concern, Mallett advises customers to order a one-sixth barrel keg and have canned or bottled beer to supplement if additional beverages are needed.

Because party pumps introduce oxygen into the keg, beer will quickly begin to deteriorate, and that spoilage is hastened as the brew warms up. Mallett suggests putting a bag of ice over the top of the keg to keep it cold. Any leftover beer will last about two days, he says, as long as it’s kept cold before off flavors develop.

Direct from the source

Some breweries, such as Highland Brewing Co., do not sell kegs directly to the public, while others do a steady business peddling their products through those means.

“We sell kegs to people almost daily, probably eight to 10 times a week,” says Asheville Brewing Co. President Mike Rangel. About half his keg business comes from Perfect Day IPA, which is very popular for wedding celebrations.

For football tailgating, the one-sixth barrel kegs are most popular. Asheville Brewing also offers 5-gallon, one-way plastic kegs, which are not returned and are recyclable. “We sells extra kegs [for the] Super Bowl and during Christmas and Thanksgiving [seasons]. It’s a good little industry,” Rangel says. “We also sell them for Christmas parties or anniversaries or any kind of get-together.”

Asheville Brewing will sell kegs of any of its regularly produced brews, such as Shiva IPA, but smaller-batch brews are generally not available for keg sale. The brewery asks for a 48-hour notice to have the keg ready for pickup.

Prices vary by beer, but a half-barrel of Fire Escape Pale Ale is $155, and Perfect Day IPA is $170. The keg deposit is $50, and pumps are available to purchase and keep for $15. Using the one-way keg is $20 plus the beer, but no deposit is required.

Asheville’s Hillman Beer has been selling kegs to the public for a few months. “We might sell a few kegs a week,” says co-owner Brad Hillman. He offers only the one-sixth barrel kegs, and they cost $70-$100, depending on the beer, the availability of which changes regularly.

“It’s a week-by-week basis,” Hillman says. “Usually we have four to eight options out of the 18 beers we have on tap.” His top seller is the hazy New England IPA.

Catawba Brewing Co. has always offered kegged beers to customers and rings up a couple of sales per week, says brewery co-owner Billy Pyatt. The brewery’s higher-volume brews, such as White Zombie White Ale and Hopness Monster IPA, are most likely to be available for keg sales, while smaller-batch beers depend on supplies. Most of Catawaba’s keg sales are in spring and summer.

Pricing likewise depends on the beers. A half-barrel of Farmer Ted’s Cream Ale is $165, and a one-sixth barrel is $80. Meanwhile, the popular seasonal offering, Peanut Butter Jelly Time American Brown Ale, is $185 for a half-barrel and $90 for the one-sixth barrel. Catawba sells kegs at its Morganton, Charlotte and two Asheville taprooms, as well as at Palmetto Brewing Co. in Charleston, S.C., which is owned by Catawba.

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About Tony Kiss
Tony Kiss covers brewing news for the Xpress. He has been reporting on the Carolina beer scene since 1994. He's also covered distilling and cider making and spent 30 years reporting on area entertainment. Follow me @BeerguyTK

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