THE FAMILIAR, old beer barrel – hoisted at fraternity parties, rhapsodized in polkas – is dying a slow, inevitable death.
Every month, dozens of the dented steel glories go to the graveyard, their innards exhausted by gallons of freshly tapped lagers and ales.
In the past 10 years, nearly every brewery in America has abandoned the reliable but bulky barrel, known as the Hoff-Stevens keg. Most have switched to the sleeker Sankey keg.
Few people are crying into their beer over this development, for one good reason: The Sankey has handles.
But that is exactly why the Hoff-Stevens is such a beloved icon of an era gone by. It was meant to be rolled, not lifted. Invented in the 1940s, before the advent of forklifts, the metal barrel is a remnant of an age when brewing was a physical labor. There was little automation, no digitized heat-exchangers or light-speed bottling lines. Helpers hoisted 100-pound sacks of grain into the mash tun and deliverymen rolled kegs into the taproom.
Before the war, beer was usually served on draft, so – other than a frothy mug – the barrel was the most identifiable symbol of America’s favorite adult beverage. It’s hard to remember, but at one time, the beer barrel was once as ubiquitous as plastic 1-liter Coca-Cola bottles are today.
The aluminum can and suburbanization changed that. These days, beer drinkers prefer to stay home; today, less than 15 percent of beer is poured out of a keg.
Half the size of its predecessor, the wooden cask, the Hoff-Stevens is a simple 15.5-gallon container with two holes: one for filling, which is closed with a wooden or rubber bung, and a second for pouring, through a tap.
The Sankey has just one hole, which means fewer leaks. And, with modern cleaning equipment, it’s easier to wash out.
But defenders of the Hoff-Stevens are quick to point out its advantages.
“People forget there are reasons those barrels are shaped the way they were,” said Bill Barton, of Yards Brewing in Kensington, which still uses them. “They have a concave top, so beer doesn’t slosh all over the place when you tap it.
“When you lean them too close together, it’s impossible to smash your fingers, like you can on the straight-wall [Sankey] kegs.
“And they don’t have handles because you’re not supposed to pick up half-kegs that weigh 165 pounds filled.”
The bung hole also allows breweries, like Yards, to conveniently “dry-hop” their beer. A pack of fresh hops is added to its ESA to enhance the aroma. You can’t do that with a Sankey.
And something else. Like a ’55 Ford coupe with big chrome fenders, these kegs were built to last.
Hoff-Stevens kegs are stamped with their date of manufacture. Looking around his brewery, Barton says it’s not unusual to find one from 1947 or ’48.
That longevity is one of the unsung secrets to the growth of America’s microbrewing industry. When big brewers started switching to newer Sankeys in the 1980s, newly emerging micros grabbed up the old Hoff-Stevens barrels. At 10 bucks apiece, they were an easy way for these small start-ups – who couldn’t afford expensive bottling equipment – to break into the business.
Likewise, the old kegs gave Yuengling – the nation’s seventh-largest brewery – a chance to expand during the 1990s.
“Over the last 10 years, we bought about every Hoff-Stevens available from every remaining supplier,” said Dave Casinelli, Yuengling’s executive vice president. “When Stroh/Pabst went out of business, we bought thousands of them. We bought every keg we could put our hands on.
“I don’t know of any other brewery our size still using that keg.”
Part of its reliance on the old barrels is beer-making necessity. About 40 percent of Yuengling beer is draft.
Moreover, by stockpiling cheaper kegs, Yuengling was able to devote its capital to expansion.
“We made a decision, we could either buy 350,000 new kegs at $70 to $100 apiece – a $20 million to $30 million endeavor. Or we could keep the old kegs and build a new brewery,” Casinelli said. “It was a no-brainer.”
But now, Yuengling and even the micros are giving up on the Hoff-Stevens.
“We’d love to get out of it,” Casinelli said. “It is an antiquated keg – we still pound in the bungs with a rubber mallet. The bar owners do not like it – it’s not convenient.”
And finally, the kegs are dying.
The cooperage – the gaskets, the fittings, the innards – is wearing out, and no one makes the parts anymore.
Yuengling scraps the barrels by the scores, and will someday switch to Sankeys. Yards gets one or two “leakers” every month, and it’s considering a switch to the “sixtel” – a smaller keg that holds one-sixth of a barrel, or a little more than 5 gallons.
But even if it goes the way of the wooden cask, the steel barrel will live on after death – as an extra seat in the dormitory room, sawed in half as a barbecue grill, in the basement of an industrious home brewer.
Long live the Hoff-Stevens keg.
Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a bottle of Oliver’s Iron Man Pale Ale.