Is there really -- I said really -- such a thing as watered-down draught beer?
December 10, 2008 12:33 PM   Subscribe

In spite of years of hearing people say that establishment X has watered-down beer, and years too of tasting beer that tastes, well, watered down, I don't know if this is anything other than a folk interpretation of the effects of dirty delivery systems. If pubs, clubs, and bars do water down their beer, how do they do it?

A little googling seems to illustrate my point. I found hits where communities accuse establishment X of watering down its beer. And denials that it is possible.

Presumably in many jurisdictions it would be illegal, too.

Let's leave real ale/cask ale aside -- in my experience, the variable quality is usually explained away by claims that such and such a pub doesn't "clean its lines" properly, or that the beer doesn't "travel well", or that the pub doesn't sell much ale, so it goes bad, and the landlord doesn't care. Etc.

My experiences with watery beer are more in the world of big commercial lagers / light ales. These seem to arrive in pressurised kegs. Pitchers aside, could an establishment introduce water into what comes out into a pint glass in front of my eyes? And get away with it? It seems unlikely to me.
posted by galaksit to Food & Drink (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'd imagine they could do it the same way water is mixed with syrup in a soda fountain. I don't know if they actually do, but that's how I would water down beer at the tap.
posted by wavering at 12:41 PM on December 10, 2008

Response by poster: I'm assuming there are standard delivery systems installed for beer, and that, since by design they ought not to permit mixing with fluids from another source, they in fact do not, and therefore there's no way to water things down, unless you modify the system in some way or install a dodgy version not conforming to whatever regulations we the public might hope exist. And then hope you aren't found out, etc.
posted by galaksit at 12:50 PM on December 10, 2008

I don't know about watering down, but a friend of mine used to work in a particularly crappy bar here in Toronto. She told me that it didn't really matter what you ordered on draft there; all the lines went to one of 3 different kegs (Lager, Light or Red) -- so it didn't matter if you ordered Keiths, Canadian, or Coors, because you just got Blue anyways. =P
posted by kaudio at 1:01 PM on December 10, 2008

Best answer: No, that would be more trouble than it's worth.

The markup on beer isn't really that great for bars anyways, it's call drinks where they really make a profit margin. So it would make more sense if they watered those down, or refilled the Grey Goose bottles with something cheaper, but they probably don't do that either.
posted by andrewzipp at 1:04 PM on December 10, 2008

Yeah: possible, probably, but way more trouble than it's worth, and a good way to lose your liquor license. The beer tastes watered-down because it's ice-cold and poured into a wet, frozen glass.
posted by uncleozzy at 1:08 PM on December 10, 2008

I *think* sodas are mixed below the counter as they arrive just in concentrated form and are hooked up to a water line? so perhaps it's possible there? it would certainly confirm my impression but I'm not sure if this is really right.
posted by krautland at 1:13 PM on December 10, 2008

Bars that don't clean their lines often enough serve beer with more of a skunky taste than a watery taste. I think mixing beer with enough water to make a cost savings, though, would be pretty obvious. And flat.
posted by hwyengr at 1:15 PM on December 10, 2008

In the Netherlands there's something called evenementenbier (Dutch wikipedia). It has lower percentage, about half, and it's sometimes mandated by organisers of football (soccer) events to help control the crows.The Heineken brewery is is very adamant (link in Dutch) that they will never allow clients to be served diluted beer under the cover of normal Heineken. They say they make sure that people are told that they're buying a different Heineken subbrand like Lingens Blond which is 2.25% straight from the brewery.
So I guess for the US this points to the added angle of how breweries would feel about this fraud, how it would effect their brand, and if they would be able to find out.
posted by jouke at 1:16 PM on December 10, 2008

crows -> crowds
posted by jouke at 1:17 PM on December 10, 2008

how breweries would feel about this fraud, how it would effect their brand, and if they would be able to find out

I've heard that distributors will sometimes inspect setups to make sure the lines are clean and bottles are properly stored. AB, in particular, doesn't want you serving old product or product through dirty tap lines. Or so the History Channel would have me believe.
posted by uncleozzy at 1:22 PM on December 10, 2008

Best answer: it is certainly possible to do, but as others have pointed out it seems like more trouble than it is worth.

try googiling for "filling a Sankey keg" and see what results you find. this was the first result.
posted by phil at 1:35 PM on December 10, 2008

Keg beer is fairly cheap on both ends - you aren't paying much for a glass of domestic megabrew, and that's fine because the bar isn't paying much for a keg of it. I suppose a thing that might be happening is they are selling you, say, Budweiser (~80$ a half-keg, retail) but pouring you PBR or the Beast (~55$ a 1/2 keg).
posted by dirtdirt at 2:04 PM on December 10, 2008

Just coming at this from another angle, I've lived in the same region my entire life and I've never heard a bar accused of watering down *beer*. Maybe drinks, but never beer. So it could just be a regionalism.
posted by rhizome at 2:19 PM on December 10, 2008

Best answer: It's pretty difficult to doctor draught lager / beer on site. More often than not a brewer owns and services the cellar equipment and wouldn't be too happy about the bar / club literally diluting their sales.

Watery pints of draught lager / beer can be caused by poor line cleaning (the weekly washing of the draught pipes) which if not properly "pulled through" can leave water in the system for the first pints drawn on the bar tap (depending on the length of the line can be anything up to a dozen pints). I've never heard of anyone doing this intentionally but I supposed it's possible.

I've known bars that pour the "dregs" (spilled / overpoured beer) from the drip trays into pint glasses and top up with freshly drawn beer. Nothing illegal about that but makes for a pretty iffy pint. I've also heard talk that some brewers will discount kegs from the end of the brewery tanks to certain low-end pubs on their books (student bars / old men's pubs etc). The contents wouldn't usually pass their quality control but it's there and can be sold so what the hell...

And I guess if the lager / beer is poured out of sight of the customer then it's obviously easy to adulterate their glass with water but it's far easier to short serve a customer using unmarked, less than 1 pint glasses or serving with a large head.

But generally no, I've never seen or heard of a genuine case of repeated draught lager / beer adulteration in ten years of license trade work in Scotland. I can take apart a beer line from start to finish and can't think of a surreptitious way of introducing water to the system that didn't involve employing someone to stay in the cellar all night flushing water into the lines every five minutes (involving prolonged and repeated disconnection of gas and keg valves). Just not worth it and definitely not if your business strives to push a quality product.

Messing with spirits though? Easy peasy, and far more common than you'd hope. Watered down bottles, underpoured measures, free pourers with narrowed necks, cheap spirits in premium bottles etc.

But you do get tested. UK Inspectors of Weights and Measures / Trading Standards officers can make surprise and undercover visits. You can always spot them because they always ask for a shot of whisky without ice. Then they whip out their wee kit and proceed to check you've given them the prescribed 25ml before flashing a badge and inspecting your cellar for any improprieties. However, with ten years in the business I've still yet to meet one...
posted by theCroft at 2:51 PM on December 10, 2008 [3 favorites]

One can buy low-point beer kegs. A local bar in Lawrence, KS lost its liquor license after innumerable tickets for serving minors. Kansas allows the sale of low-point beer in grocery stores and convenience marts, so the bar now sells low alcohol content grocery store beer, both in bottles and from low-point kegs. I'm not sure how widely this is known in the frat and sorority crowd that keep the place in business, but it's always full on weekends, game days, and holidays.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 2:54 PM on December 10, 2008

Years ago, Missouri had blue laws which required "Sunday beer". Sunday beer was 1.5% alcohol compared to 3% for regular beer. And the stores had to sell it thru the back door.
Does watery beer = lower alcohol content? Is lower alcohol content cheaper? I imagine if brewer skimped on all ingredients they would save money, at the cost of "less robust" body and taste.
posted by ohshenandoah at 3:01 PM on December 10, 2008

I think sometimes the watered down taste is caused by temperature and lack of carbonation. The lower quality establishments might not refrigerate the beer or might serve old beer or whatever, but once the carbonation's gone, or lowered, things start tasting watery. And that's double gross at room temp. And really, certain cheap beers are always sort of watery, you just don't notice so much when it's cold and carbonated.
posted by robinpME at 3:39 PM on December 10, 2008

Unless you opened up the keg of beer itself to add water, it's impossible to get water into the lines before it comes out the tap. To get beer out of a keg, you need a keg coupler. It attaches to the top of the keg with two hoses attached to it. One of the hoses is the hose for the gas (CO2 or nitrogen) and the other hose is for running the beer from the keg to the tap. There no way in hell that water can be added into this process. Another reason it would be impossible is because if anything sketchy was going on, the reps that deliver the beer would be able to tell and would not let that fly. Dirty lines aren't going to make a beer taste watered down, it would just alter the flavor of the beer a little bit. The colder a beer is, the less you are going to taste it. Some bars are going to have colder beers than others and this could account for a more "watered down taste." Also less carbonation will make something taste more watered down. The Weights and Measurements people that work for the Department of Agriculture take their job very seriously. If for some reason you think you are being jipped (high unlikely) those guys will investigate every claim.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 4:19 PM on December 10, 2008

I've known bars that pour the "dregs" (spilled / overpoured beer) from the drip trays into pint glasses and top up with freshly drawn beer. Nothing illegal about that but makes for a pretty iffy pint.

That would certainly violate the health code anywhere I've ever lived in the U.S.
posted by ikkyu2 at 6:29 PM on December 10, 2008

I've been hearing allegations about pubs that serve 'dreg pints' to save money for as long as I've been drinking and have yet to find anybody who has actually seen it done or a bartender who would cop to having done it. I sort of assumed it was an urban legend. It's one of those things you always hear when sitting in The Lamb and Flag about what those bastards at the Crown and Axe are capable of.

(And I've had bartender friends confess to me about plenty of other things, from hair-raising stories about adulterating the drinks of obnoxious customers, to the tale of a landlord so incredibly tight he took to watering down the blackcurrant cordial.)
posted by the latin mouse at 2:05 AM on December 11, 2008

Best answer: YES - pub I worked at used to do it.

Back when I was at uni working at a bar we had cheap student nights - all you can drink for a couple of hours for about $5.

We would go through about 10 kegs a night. This was the old style (in Australia) of keg where you 'spear' the keg and it has an output and an input - usually gas (C02) in and beer out. But you can run them in series so you have gas going into the 1st keg which then sends beer & gas into the 2nd keg etc. So we would have 10 kegs, the last one was water and a couple of 'light' (low alcohol) beers in the line. As the gas gets pulled through the line it would mix the beer, dropping the alcohol content by a % or 2.

I presume all big places with a central bank of beer feeding a number of beer taps in place would be able to do it reasonably easily
posted by lamby at 5:49 AM on December 11, 2008

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