Inside the brewing sanctum at Sactown Union Brewery, a sign above a door reads: “BREWING: It’s what you do when you’re not CLEANING.” In proper beer brewing, the two words are paramount to success—or at they should be, says Michael Barker.
At two-week intervals, Sactown’s staff completes a complex cleaning task. They disassemble taps and couplers and rotate between sodium hydroxide and acidic rinses. The former eliminates the organic material from the beer lines; the latter ensures there’s no buildup of the chemicals.
“At least that’s how I do it,” says Barker of Sactown’s process, which occurs on Monday mornings when the brewery is closed. “A lot of other people may have other ways that they do it. There are a lot of other ways to skin a cat.”
“There are guidelines, and we probably do it a little more often, like every 10 days,” says Barker, co-founder and brew master of the now three-year-old establishment in East Sacramento.
The Brewers Association, a national trade organization based in Boulder, Colo., calls improperly cleaned beer lines “the enemies of draught beer.” The culprits include yeast, mold, bacteria and something called “beer stone” (calcium oxalate).
According to Barker, uncleaned beer lines sometimes collect old beer that results in Diacetyl, a green or yellow chemical compound that smells a bit like microwaved popcorn. Cleaning the pipes also allows the flavors of various types of brew to shine.
“Each brewery does something different,” Barker says. “You’re not going to have an IPA on a line, and when that’s done, say, ’OK, we’re going to put a sour on that one,’ and then go back to an IPA after that. That second round of IPA is going taste acidic. It’s not going to kill you, but it doesn’t taste good.”
Sactown Union Brewery serves only its own beer, with eight to 12 rotating selections. Its beers are also offered in various locations within a 50-mile radius of Sacramento.
Barker is also astutely aware that sometimes a customer isn’t going to be satisfied. “There have been times, I’ve done it myself, when I’ve said, ’This just doesn’t taste right,’” he said. “I said it with my own beer and with others. A good beer bar with good bartenders, they’re going to understand. If it’s not what you want, they’re going to take it back and get you something else. Then they’ll go in the back and talk about it with the owner.”
If there’s any doubt about the seriousness of cleanliness in the beer business, consider the opinion of Charles Bamforth, professor of brewing science at UC Davis.
“Beer is a foodstuff and, frankly, I am appalled at the state of hygiene in many breweries,” Bamforth wrote in his 2016 book Standards of Brewing: A Practical Approach to Consistency and Excellence. “In short, the whole place should be such as to give your aged aunt a warm feeling of all things being well-scrubbed.”