A keg man’s quest: Letting the beer run free and clean

Vince Rapinesi is responsible for more good-tasting beer in this town than anyone else alive, and get this: He’s never had even a single sip.

He’s been in the beer business since the mid-’40s, when he worked at his parents’ distributorship at 59th and Springfield in Southwest Philadelphia. Those were the days before forklifts, when men hoisted wooden kegs on their backs and finished off the day with nickel mugs.

Or, as Vince says, “When men were men, and kegs were full barrels, not these half-kegs they’ve got today. ”

But this story is not about hauling kegs. It’s about fixing ’em.

Vince Rapinesi is the city’s best keg repairman.

Nearly every distributor in the city and suburbs comes to his shop, next to Springfield Beverage below the South Street Bridge. When they need help with the draft systems that pump beer at the region’s hundreds of bars and restaurants, they know he’ll bail them out. Vince isn’t sure, but he’s probably the only man in town who specializes in fixing the quirky valves and couplings that help draw beer from those familiar 15.5-gallon kegs and into your glass.

You may shrug off such work as arcane, but know this: Without Vince, you wouldn’t know what good beer tastes like.

You’d be drinking gunk.

Believe me, I saw him scrape it out of a tap head.

“Look at this scum in here,” he told me, pointing with a worn pocket knife. He dug at a piece of yellowed metal, and shavings of dried-up crud fell onto his stainless-steel workbench. “It’s yeast, mostly. I’ve got to bore it out of there.

“People are drinking that s— – imagine! ”

Most of us never do imagine, of course. Like the making of sausage and legislation, the scene behind the bar is better left unwitnessed.

But before the bartender pulls the tap handle and fills your glass, your beer may sit for hours – maybe days, at a slow joint – in yards and yards of tubing that are connected to valves and gauges and fittings.

When that equipment goes uncleaned, it’s like drinking out of a crusty glass left over from last night’s poker game.

It’s funky. It smells stale. You may even get an odor of rotten eggs.

“Unless they keep their equipment immaculate,” Vince says, “you’re going to be drinking junk. ”

In the old days, the law required bars to post their cleaning schedule. These days, you never know. A decent joint will clean its lines weekly, or at least once a month. For some places, though, it’s just not a priority.

And that’s where Vince comes in.

He started cleaning tap systems at his folks’ distributorship, Springfield Beverage, which he eventually moved to Schuylkill Avenue, near South Street. Over the years, he built a huge keg business, supplying local college fraternities.

“Villanova, Penn, La Salle – they all came in here for beer,” said Vince. “Drexel, they’re a powerful drinking college. Nine fraternities at Drexel are as good as 30 at Penn. ”

At 77, Vince is feeling the wear and tear of hard labor. He’s due for hip-replacement surgery soon.

So he sold the distributorship about six years ago to concentrate on his beer parts and equipment shop next door. Seven days a week, he’s inside with his wrenches and pliers and grinders.

The other day, he was cleaning a box of 125 Guinness taps. Wearing a wool cap and heavy shirt, he proudly showed me around his drafty but meticulously organized workshop.

“Over here, we’ve got faucets and splicers. This here’s a keg coupler. And these are regulators. I order them from Chicago and Allentown,” he said.

Spools of hose hung from the ceiling. Old tap handles from Piel’s and Schmidt’s and a dozen micros lined a counter.

Vince has set up scores of area home brewers with fittings and keg systems. Area breweries tap him for his expertise.

“Nobody would be able to fix a tap without Vince,” said Yards brewery chief Tom Kehoe. “He got me my first beer-meister set-up 10 years ago. ”

Jim Meiers, a representative for Belgium’s Interbrew conglomerate, said, “There’s no one else that I know who does what he does, certainly not with the expertise. People from all parts of the beer business go to him. ”

Ask Vince about his reputation, and he says it’s because “when I do it, I don’t do it half-assed. ”

“He’s like a dentist, an orthodontist,” Meiers said. “He is so absolutely thorough, it’s fascinating to watch him at work. He knows the insides of these parts so well. He’s meticulous, he’s an artist, he’s a machinist. ”

And he’s a teetotaler.

I asked Vince about that. How does a guy who makes a career out of beer manage to go a lifetime without tasting the stuff?

“Too bitter,” he said. “I smell it, and I just couldn’t drink it. I’ve never had anything intoxicating.

“That’s OK. I’ve had a good life. I’ve got a lot of friends. I feel good. ”

Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with Weyerbacher Belgian Double.

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