Beer Me | Kegs vs. bottles for event bars, Part 1: Draft Beer

Kegs versus bottles- which should you purchase for a wedding/birthday party/corporate event?

This is one of the first questions I get from my clients and one of the most "controversial" in the bartending service world. You will find some bartenders and service companies have very strong opinions on this (the scale usually tips towards a strong pro-bottle argument) and there are Pinterest articles abounding, arguing their side with more inflammatory titles than some of today's political op eds. This is not one of those blogs. I see pro's and con's for use of both, and as usual, I will try to walk you guys through your own decision process to find the best fit for your particular shindig, rather than shoving my opinion down your throat faster than a beer bong full of Natty Ice at a frat party.

On the subject of my biased opinion, I will admit a personal preference for draft pours right away, so let's start there.

Not all poured beer will look as good as this. This level of cool is dependent on my bartender Ali's very awesome arms and nails. Photo by Angie & Paul Photography

Not all poured beer will look as good as this. This level of cool is dependent on my bartender Ali's very awesome arms and nails. Photo by Angie & Paul Photography


Serving beer and cider on draft for large events

How to serve draft beer for large events:

Hire us and you'll have this taken care of. Other basic ways are to rent/build/buy a kegerator (consider this the "all-inclusive deal"- more commitment, & the most complete system), rent/build/buy a jockey box + co2 + co2 regulator (this is what most breweries use for beer fests because it is basically a retrofitted cooler with tap faucets on the outside and long lines inside that wind through packed ice to insta-cool the beer as it travels through the line. It is the most portable, but a little complicated for beginners), rent/build/buy a beer bar like this (make sure the rental company sets it up for you if you're new to this), or buy buckets & ice, and rent a hand tap (Think college parties. There are some major cons to this plan, but it is economical.)

Let's talk basics of pouring beer/cider first so we're on the same page. Kegs come to you full to the brim and pressurized. How the beer comes out of the keg will depend on the temperature at which it is served and the pressure at which it is released. Some other factors also play smaller roles, like how clean the tubing is that the beer travels through in a kegerator, or how recently the keg has been moved around. As the keg empties, the way that the liquid comes out can change, because now there is also the factor of extra space in the keg for sloshing and less pressure overall. At this point, it becomes more important for a consistent pressure to be applied to the keg when tapping it.  You use pressure, either from your own body in the case of hand pumped beer taps, or taps that attach to a co2 gas system to draft the beer at a consistent, pre-set pressure. The latter gives you far more control over the pressure and therefore a better pour. Certain beers prefer lower pressure, certain beers prefer higher pressure. (Some beers also require different types of gas than CO2 for service, but that is more rare and we won't get into it.)  Almost all beer pours best when served at 36-37 degrees Fahrenheit. This is why, if you have ever been or will be my client, we will have long heart to hearts about the importance of keeping your kegs cold before we arrive and can transfer them to our kegerator. It will help your beer pour beautifully if it is chilled properly. So in summary, CO2 gas drafting systems are more reliable than hand pumped systems, cold is king, and try not to play musical kegs and move them around much, especially after they have been tapped and are not completely full.

If you rent or buy a keggerator, or one of our mobile bars, they will contain a complete C02 gas draft system and will plug in, using electricity to keep the beer cold all night long. If you put together a jockey box system it will be pricey and will require you to refill ice, but is so portable you could use it again, say at next year's family reunion. I am sure that Uncle Joe's stories are better after a couple of drafted ciders! If you go the least expensive route, you will need to buy large, leak proof buckets that the kegs + packed ice can be stored in (garbage cans are the easiest choice and are about $40 each from home stores, but may not fit your décor dreams), consider who will buy the ice the day of the event to keep the kegs properly chilled and how often they will be able to refill it (you'll need to switch out bags every few hours), and you'll rent a hand tap from whomever you purchase the kegs (usually a refundable rental fee, included in the price of the kegs.)

Pro's of draft beer/cider

  • Draft beer tastes better and looks better: The freshest taste comes from drafting the beer. As much as I love peeling the label on a long neck bottle around a bonfire, I know that the same beer would be more refreshing if freshly poured from a keg. The caveat to this is that if your beer is not poured by a pro, this "pro" will probably not hold true. Hiring a professional bartender with experience setting up and troubleshooting draft systems and working with kegged beer will ensure you get the perfect pour.

  • Draft beer elevates your event: bottled beer reminds me of bonfires, backyard bbqs, days at the beach, more casual gatherings. Drafted beer reminds me of brewery tastings, beer flights, and dinners out. It's just a little classier, when done right (Kegstands do not apply to this "pro.") Think about the mood you want to create with your event, and let that lead you. Folks don't typically expect to find beer and cider on tap at events and it usually tickles them. People love to see our mobile bar tap handles and always excitedly remark something like "wait, you've got taps on there? Pour me one of those!" often before they even know what we're serving on draft! There is something to be said of the service aspect of having someone pour a beer for you, in a glass.

  • Keg service widens your options: many breweries, especially the excellent micro and craft breweries that abound in Seattle's beer scene, limit how they sell certain releases and varieties. Smaller breweries are often not set up to handle the added cost of bottling and selling their beer wholesale to retailers, so they sell only drafted beer. This is also true of larger breweries' seasonal varieties or smaller batch runs, which are some of the most fun, IMO, to drink. These hidden gems are not available year round or at every corner store, so they pack a little more intrigue. You can usually only get these great specialty beers direct from tasting rooms, in growler fills, or by buying a whole keg. In a state with as many incredible breweries and cideries as Washington state has, why limit your choices at all? Choose to order whole kegs and you'll have far wider options than buying beer or cider in cases for your event.

  • Kegs are economical: Kegs can be purchased for less than bottles because although you will pay a deposit for the keg itself, that cost is fully refundable when the keg shell is returned. When beer is bottled for retail you pay for shelf space at the store, the cost of bottling machines and labor, the bottle itself, the bottle cap, the label, etc. Pricing will definitely differ by brand, but for example's sake a 1/2 barrel of Redmond's very popularMac and Jack's African Amber will cost $155 plus a keg deposit (refundable, remember!) and will therefore cost you $1.24/ 16 oz pint. By comparison, a case of Alaskan Amber might cost you $18, or $1.50 for only 12 oz.

Con's of draft beer service for parties and weddings:

  • You have to pick them up. In Washington state, our liquor control board requires that the person who picks up the keg also signs a form and puts their personal information on file attached to that keg. Basically, they want to know who will be the responsible party for the responsible (or irresponsible....yikes) consumption of that keg. As such, most bartender service companies like ours will not pick up kegs for you, because it creates too much liability for us. (Whereas companies with licenses to sell alcohol that are selling this keg to you at a marked up price will likely deliver kegs because they can roll the extra cost of insurance into the inflated price you will pay for the alcohol.) Luckily, buying kegs yourself is pretty simple. There are a lot of places that sell kegs, including breweries, large retailers like BevMo or Total Wine and More, growler fill stores, liquor stores, or even possibly your neighborhood bar. These places also usually keep the kegs stored in big walk in refridgerators at the correct temperature, so depending on when you pick them up, you may minimize your iced down storage time.

  • You have to store them- remember how cold is king? If several hours or even a day or two will pass between the pick up and service of a keg, you need to keep it cold in a large cooler packed with ice or big bucket packed with ice in order to ensure a good pour later.

  • You will pay to rent/build/buy a draft system: you can check pricing here to buy/build your own, or rent a mobile bar like ours. At the very least, you'll pay for the ice ( about $25, or 8-10 bags per day per keg) the hand pumped keg tap rental (sometimes refundable), and trash can to store them in (about $40)

  • Calculating amounts and what to do with leftovers: working with a bartender service like ours means that we will walk you through estimates for your party's alcohol needs, taking into consideration guest count, hours of the party, occasion, guests' preferences, weather. etc so you know how many kegs to buy. Kegs hold large volumes, so you may want to choose several smaller sixth barrel kegs to get a bigger variety than a couple of half barrel kegs. (However, in most cases, we recommend choosing only 2-4 beers to offer on your menu. It is very difficult to estimate people's personal preferences and if everyone gravitates towards oneor two beers on the menu but you bought equal amount of 6 beers, you will end up with waste or unhappy guests.) Working with a professional bartending company to create your shopping list will help ensure you do not end up with a lot of leftovers.

However, if you do, there is no way to return 1/3 of a keg. That is why I will always recommend less kegs than you need and to buy a few cases of back up bottled beer to finish out service if you're on the verge between needing 2 or 3 kegs. Another option is to ask your bartending service to decant any extra beer or cider into growlers for you at the end of service and take these home to enjoy after the event. Any leftovers from kegged beer will last if refrigerated in growlers for about a week, after that they will go flat. A keg can last a month in a kegerator at home. If you don't have a kegerator to serve with and are leaving on a honeymoon the day after your wedding, leftover waste might be a bigger concern for you. You can also rent a hand tap when you pick up the kegs so that when your bartending service leaves, you can still pour your beer. As mentioned before the quality of these pours is lower, but at the end of the night most folks won't care, they just want to keep dancing. At Happy Camper Cocktail Company we are happy to transfer kegs to the spot of your choosing, ice them down with our leftover ice, and attach the keg tap for you so that you can self-pour after we leave. Just note that all responsibility for alcohol consumption after we leave transfers to the hosts of the party.*

*As always, I will remind folks that I think self-serve bars for the duration of large events, especially really big or festive ones, are a poor choice. (And in all fairness, I thought this even before I got paid to do it!) Please hire someone licensed to serve all alcohol for the duration or majority of the party, whether you choose bottled or drafted beverages! The most fun parties have responsible bartenders pouring great drinks and monitoring safety so that the host does not have to.

Up next we'll talk about event bartending service using bottles and cans, with an emphasis on why canned wine is my new favorite item to trump all players of the "what's in your bag" game.

Cheers y'all, and happy camping!

Those thrilling tap handles on our bar! Photo by Erin Perkins Photography

Those thrilling tap handles on our bar! Photo by Erin Perkins Photography