Pouring a great glass of beer involves more than pulling a tap handle at a brewery taproom, bar or restaurant, especially during a pandemic.
In recent months, COVID-19 prompted interruption of operations at these businesses. Some draft systems were shut down for months. Many systems were not maintained properly during that period. With excess inventory after the shutdown, some retailers might be tempted to pour expired or close-dated kegs. These factors and others directly impact the quality of the draft beer experience.
That's why Neil Witte of Craft Quality Solutions recently launched TapStar, a program that certifies draft beer quality at bars, restaurants and brewery taprooms. The goal is for beer drinkers to have a consistent quality experience with each pour.
“I’ve worked for over 20 years dealing with all of the things that can go wrong with draft beer at retail,” says Witte, a 23-year beer industry veteran and master cicerone. “Dirty draft lines, poorly designed systems, out of code beer, and dirty glassware can all ruin a normally great glass of beer. With TapStar, I’m recognizing those bars, restaurants, and brewery taprooms who do all of these things right and serve a great glass of draft beer every time.”
TapStar provides an annual certification with a mid-year check-in. The process involves an in-person audit that covers more than a dozen aspects of draft system design and maintenance, beer storage and rotation, and draft beer service.
“Once certified, they receive a TapStar Certified sticker in the window, a framed certificate, some TapStar coasters and a listing in the website directory," Witte says.
The audit is meant to be a learning process for folks in the beer industry. “I’m encouraging at least one manager or owner to accompany me during the audit so we can discuss the various aspects together,” Witte says. “Not everyone knows all the ins and outs of draft beer. I don’t want the auditing process to be a black box. If people are learning more in the process, quality will only improve.”
Witte’s expertise draws from a career in the beer business spanning many roles. He began working in a brewpub in the late '90s. He went on to work for Boulevard Brewing Co. as a brewer and later as a field quality representative. He oversaw quality control between the brewery and its distributor and retailer network, continuing in that role when Duvel USA acquired Boulevard and Brewery Ommegang.
In 2017, Witte founded Craft Quality Solutions to provide draft beer quality-focused system design, installation and on-premise training services to breweries, distributors and retailers. He is the lead trainer for the Cicerone Certification Program and is currently one of only 19 master cicerones. Bolstering his credentials, Witte is a certified beer judge and served multiple years as the Brewers Association’s quality ambassador and draught quality ambassador. He also co-wrote the Brewers Association Draught Quality Manual and Draught Beer Quality for Retailers and contributed to the MBAA Beer Steward Handbook.
With TapStar, Witte’s program provides certification that beer drinkers can trust as a measure of a retailer’s draft beer quality.
“I’ll be promoting these businesses with beer drinkers as much as I can through social media promotions and giveaways,” Witte says. “My goal is to raise awareness of draft quality issues in the beer community. I hope to get more beer drinkers to patronize certified accounts. The TapStar certification shows consumers where they can get the best draft beer experience. They’ll know where the lines have been cleaned, where the beer is fresh and where the glassware is clean.”
Witte has labored on this project for more than a year and a half. He was weeks away from launching TapStar as a paid service when the pandemic hit. “Now, with retailers slowly opening back up and in need of all the help they can get, I feel like it’s the perfect time to do a pilot launch as a free service,” Witte says. “My hope is that I can build a solid foundation for a healthy company. Eventually, when the hospitality business is back on steady ground, I can turn it into a self-sustaining business and expand into other markets.”
TapStar is designed to benefit both beer drinkers and beer industry businesses in the short-term and long run.
“The shutdown has closed many businesses and put countless others on the brink of closure. Now that many are starting to re-open, local ordinances limit how many people can come in,” Witte says. “Even if they were allowed to fill their businesses, many people are still scared to come out. In this environment, every customer is precious.”
Customers that venture out to have a beer want a consistent quality draft beer experience each time. “Countless have lost some or all of their work and don’t have as much money to spend. If they’re going to brave the pandemic to come out and spend what few dollars they have, there will be little tolerance for poor quality,” Witte says. “It’s critical retailers that deliver a great draft beer.”
Witte’s initial round of TapStar certified accounts include Bier Station, The Belfry, Oak and Steel, KC Bier Company, Torn Label Brewing and Crane Brewing.