Brewers, both big and small, say Wisconsin bars and restaurants - including downtown hot spots - aren't cleaning their beer lines as they should, leading to a buildup of bacteria that "infects" and spoils tap beer.
"They actually can be very, very dirty, to the point that you'd be shocked," said Dan Carey, the brewmaster for the New Glarus Brewing Co. in New Glarus. "It's a real problem."
Jay Gromek of National Chemicals in Winona, Minn., which supplies cleaning chemicals to tap cleaners and brewers across the country, said insiders know the dirty little secret about the "Beer Capital of the World."
"Milwaukee is a real horrible town for draft beer," he said.
While the average beer drinker might not realize it, that buttery or sometimes sour flavor is not typically by design and is more likely an indication of a contaminated beer. And although the bacteria - specifically microorganisms such as lactobacillus - won't make you sick, they can lead to foul-smelling and -tasting beer, not worth the average $3 to $5 consumers pay.
"It can be quite unpleasant," said Mary Pellettieri, quality manager for Goose Island Beer Co. in Chicago.
Beer lines should be cleaned at least once every two weeks, according to industry standards. Some states such as Illinois require that restaurants and taverns clean their lines once a week or at minimum every two weeks, depending on the system. The category "Unsanitary taps" consistently ranks among the top 10 violations cited by the Illinois Liquor Control Commission, said spokesman Ted Penesis. In 2006, for example, the commission cited 91 bars and restaurants for dirty taps.
Wisconsin has no such law enforcement, or laws. The issue of beer line cleanliness is addressed in the Wisconsin Food Code, mandating only that lines be cleaned "at a frequency specified by the manufacturer" or "a frequency necessary to preclude accumulation of soil or mold."
Kevin Hulbert, an environmental health supervisor with the Milwaukee Health Department, said he can't remember the last time an establishment was cited for dirty tap lines and that inspectors don't typically examine the lines, even though they are considered a "food contact surface."
"It's very, very rare," he said. "They check some of the surfaces. They probably don't look under the tapper. . . . It's something that's very difficult to see."
Rex Halfpenny, publisher of the Michigan Beer Guide, said he's had dirty beer at so many places across the country it's stunning.
"It's so common as to be scary," Halfpenny said, although scary in the sense that the scope of the problem is vast and its nature nasty and disgusting; microbiologists say no known pathogens can survive in beer. Still, beer is essentially liquid bread and experts agree it should be treated as such.
"If you make a pot of spaghetti, you wash that pot before you use it again. Beer is a food product," Halfpenny said. "This stuff leads to bacterial infections" in the beer.
Just to get a glimpse of the grit around the city, the Journal Sentinel's Public Investigator Team tested six beers from five bars and restaurants picked at random and found four were "dirty" by brewers' standards.
Results from a sample of Session Ale from the Milwaukee Ale House on N. Water St., for example, showed that beer - a Weiss beer - had 150,000 cells of lactobacillus per gram of beer.
"You caught us between cleanings," said Robert Morton, an Ale House brewer.
Morton said the Session Ale, sampled on Aug. 20, ideally shouldn't have any lactobacillus.
"That certainly is high," said Michael Barney, a microbiologist and consultant for the Milwaukee Ale House. "There's always the chance that a line doesn't get thoroughly cleaned. . . but the Ale House does much, much better than most."
Owner Jim McCabe called it an "oddball result" and said other factors could have led to a bad keg.
"It's so out of character," he said. "We're so passionate about (our beer)."
The day after being contacted by the Public Investigator, McCabe said internal testing showed the keg itself was contaminated.
"Over the past 10 years, we have brewed more than 11,000 barrels of beer at the Third Ward location, and this is the first time we have had a bad batch," McCabe said in a written statement.
Lactobacillus is naturally occurring bacteria undesirable in most beers because it produces lactic acid, souring the flavors and smells. It is the same microorganism responsible for spoiling milk.
Another sample, a Budweiser from the tap at Chasers Pub on S. Kinnickinnic Ave., contained 1,950 cells of lactobacillus per gram and a yeast count of 16,400 cells per gram, another indication that lines or faucets hadn't been properly cleaned, experts in the industry say. Budweiser should not have any lactobacillus or yeast in it.
Chasers Pub owner Frank Dobert said he contracts with a cleaning company to have the lines cleaned once every two weeks and the spigots scrubbed monthly.
"I've never had anybody get sick here from beer," Dobert said. "Nobody has ever told me my beer was skunky."
Dobert provided receipts that showed the taps had been cleaned monthly from February through May. He had no receipts for June, two cleaning receipts for July and two in August. He said he probably lost some of the other receipts.
A Miller Genuine Draft from a terrace-level concession stand at Miller Park had 3,300 yeast cells per gram when it shouldn't have any.
Tom Olson, general manager of Sportservice Corp., which operates the concessions at Miller Park, said his company cleans the lines once a month.
"Every two weeks is something I hadn't heard before," Olson said.
The Home Bar, another tavern on S. Kinnickinnic in the Bay View neighborhood, served a Goose Island 312 Urban Wheat Ale that when tested showed it had 4,700 cells of lactobacillus.
Owners Todd Brown and Sonja Seebacher said they, too, have their lines cleaned every two weeks. Brown and others in virtually all sectors of the beer industry agree: Bad beer negatively affects sales.
"We've been in the business a long time," Brown said. "We know it saves us money by keeping the lines clean."
But visits from a line cleaner don't necessarily mean the lines are clean, those in the beer brewing industry say.
Russ Klisch, president of Milwaukee-based Lakefront Brewery, said he has been talking with other brewers about initiating a tap cleaning certification program to ensure the work is being done properly.
"I'd say one in 10 probably isn't cleaning right," he said.
Steve Lonsway, owner of Happy Tap cleaning service in Appleton, said line-cleaning frequency and techniques have become more important in recent years as the craft beer industry has exploded. Heavier beers provide more food for the bacteria and when coupled with the fact that many craft beers aren't pasteurized, lines provide a breeding ground for bacteria.
Lonsway said many tap cleaners make lots of mistakes, such as not using proper chemicals or not keeping the chemicals in the lines long enough. Bars and restaurants need to make sure they hire companies that understand and care about beer, he said.
"It's so damn important," said Lonsway, who also is a professional brewer and owns Stone Cellar Brewpub in Appleton.
And line cleaning is not all that expensive, depending on the number of lines - roughly $3 to $6 a line.
One Milwaukee pub and grill tested by the P.I. Team seemed to be tending to tap tidiness. One beer - a Miller High Life - pulled from Hooligan's Super Bar on E. North Ave. came back bacteria and yeast free, a perfect score. A second beer - a Spotted Cow from New Glarus Brewing - had 100 cells of lactobacillus per gram.
"Our bread and butter here is our tap business," said Hooligan's owner John Sidoff. "Milwaukee tends to have some pretty educated beer drinkers. They know what a beer is supposed to taste like."
Much is at stake not only for the retailer who can lose huge sales, but for the brewer, who, like a gourmet chef, often has invested in the finest, freshest ingredients and spent much time crafting each batch for a specific, desired taste.
"Draft beer line cleaning is being done so poorly (that) the beer consumers are tasting is not the way it was intended by the brewer," said Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association, a Boulder, Colo., trade association of American craft brewers. "I don't think people know that at all. They walk away thinking they don't like the beer. They assume it's the brewer's fault."
Carey, of New Glarus Brewing, takes it personally when one of his beers is served through a dirty line at a bar.
"It ruins my evening," Cary said. "It's my baby, and damn it, you've ruined it."