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Pipe dreams

Beer flows beneath city streets in Bruges and Cleveland; could it ever come directly to you?
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Brewery infrastructure improvements rarely attract much attention outside the industry. But when the De Halve Maan Brewery in Bruges, Belgium, announced this past September that it was planning to build a 1.8-mile beer pipeline beneath city streets to run between the brewery and its bottling plant, it not only generated a lot of European press, but it also triggered happy thoughts for American beer lovers.

Could beer pipelines become as commonplace as the water-carrying variety under city streets? Might far longer ones bring floods of Fin Du Monde (rather than tar sand oil) down from Canada? Is direct delivery from brewery to home faucets via pipeline even a  possibility?

Alas, such playful imaginings seem destined not to be realized. Yes, water- and gas-carrying pipelines already run under city streets and over long, cross-country distances, and some brewers like Avondale Brewing in Birmingham, Ala., have beer pipelines connecting buildings on their own properties. Great Lakes Brewing in Cleveland actually has one that runs under city streets to its own restaurant. But that’s a rare case; constructing one is costly, and municipal, state and federal regulatory hurdles are more than daunting. Plus, market pressure from consumers for beer that might be fresher and cheaper if delivered by pipeline (rather than trucks) is nowhere in evidence.

“We would have to look at something like this on a case-by-case basis to ensure that there is no jeopardy to the revenue,” says Thomas Hogue, the director of congressional and public affairs at the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. In short, moving beer from a brewery to off-site tap handles can’t short Uncle Sam on taxes he’s due.

It is thus only a set of special circumstances that would make a beer pipeline practical. One important element in making the De Halve Maan pipeline in Bruges possible was the cooperation of city officials who, according to news reports, were eager to get that brewery’s beer trucks off medieval city streets not designed for modern vehicular traffic.

Cooperative government agencies also played an important role in Great Lakes’ pipeline. “We took over a number of 19th-century buildings in a very neglected neighborhood,” says Pat Conway, Great Lakes’ owner. “We were a catalyst for economic growth in this neighborhood… so the city was very receptive to our [pipeline] overtures as long as it avoided gas, electric and water lines.”

The Great Lakes pipeline runs from a large tank in the brewery proper, through tunnels and under a city street to a serving tank in the basement of Great Lakes’ restaurant. But getting beer from one end to the other is not an automatic transfer. “Brewers on both ends of the pipeline must coordinate an actual beer shipment with walkie-talkies so they know when to open and close valves,” says Conway.

Of course, engineering a pipeline of this scale is no small feat. Deschutes Brewery in Portland, Ore., had considered constructing a rather large one as a solution to space constraints in their current brewery. “The proposed pipeline contained a decent volume of beer so insulation was a concern,” says brewmaster Brian Faivre. “It also involved a significant drop in height due to the grading on our brewery property. We are heading in another direction, at least for the time being.”

So, all things considered, while it’s possible to flow beer beneath city streets, getting it to your own kitchen faucet is, for now, a pipe dream.

 

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