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The Craft of Draft

How one bartender sped up the cocktail and reshaped an industry.

Shane McKnight

 

This is one of many stories from San Francisco's February 2018 Bars & Nightlife issue. Check them all out here.

It used to be that if you wanted to serve cocktails for crowds numbering in the thousands or even tens of thousands, you had to mix industrial quantities of ingredients in five-gallon buckets and hand-pour the drinks. Quality could vary wildly from batch to batch, and anything made with fruit juice—especially citrus, which oxidizes, muddying a drink’s flavor and color—spoiled quickly. The whole experience was hectic for staff and patience-trying for guests.

But those days are over, thanks to a man named Shane McKnight. You may not have heard of him, but if you’ve ever downed a cocktail at AT&T Park, Levi’s Stadium, the Warfield, NightLife at the Academy of Sciences, or Outside Lands, you likely have him to thank. That’s because eight years ago, McKnight—a former bartender who jokingly calls himself a “plumber, a barback plumber”—figured out how to put craft cocktails on draft.

After tending bar for 10-plus years, in 2010 he was hired as a mixologist by Best Beverage Catering, a company that handles food and drinks for large-scale events. Driven by “absolute and complete fear of failure,” McKnight looked for a way to serve cocktails faster. He began to tinker with putting them on draft, but there were two fundamental problems that limited the menu: Draft systems weren’t able to carbonate the liquid in the keg, and any recipe with fresh citrus juice was out.

To tackle the first problem, McKnight, with the help of engineer Timothy Childs, designed a carbonation device for five-gallon kegs, akin to an industrial-size Soda Stream. Suddenly highballs and other carbonated cocktails in bulk became possible. Mc Knight began testing kegged cocktails at Coachella 2012, and his Moscow mules were so popular that he could barely brew ginger beer fast enough to keep up.

The problem of citrus oxidation was trickier. Mc Knight turned to shrubbing, a technique that uses sugar and a bit of vinegar to preserve fruit juice. He tinkered with shrubs and vitamin C, another natural preservative, until he found the right ratio to make mixers—whether ginger beer for mules, lime juice for margaritas, or a grapefruit-hibiscus blend for palomas—that can stay stable in a keg for months.

In 2015, McKnight, who is still the national craft beverage director for Best Beverage, founded his own company, Top Hat Provisions. It supplies and installs draft cocktail systems, including the SodaStream-like carbonators, and sells his keg-stable, shrubbed mixers. McKnight’s tinkering was well-timed. The craft cocktail craze had spread outside large cities, and artisanal cocktail bars were cropping up all across the country. “There’s thousands of amazing establishments that are set up with the right amount and type of crowd flow to handcraft cocktails perfectly,” he says. But there are just as many that can’t make a $15 cocktail without an accompanying 15-minute wait. For those bars—or for customers who want a different experience—there’s McKnight’s draft. To date, Top Hat has installed approximately 1,500 craft-on-draft systems nationwide, and 400 in the Bay Area alone.

A big selling point of draft cocktails is speed. Liquid flows from the keg at a clip of six ounces per second, and McKnight estimates that draft systems save about 40 to 90 seconds per drink. “If there’s 10 people in front of you, that translates to 15 minutes,” he says. At Emporium SF, a new boozy arcade on Divisadero, draft was an easy choice given the venue’s 800-person capacity, according to lead bartender Tyler Morton. The bar still makes cocktails by hand, but “draft cocktails are more about time management,” he says. And draft has proven to be popular: The bar goes through several five-gallon kegs of the crowd-favorite Autumn Mule—vodka, lime, apple cider, Angostura bitters, and Top Hat’s ginger beer—every night. “Plenty of customers order [draft] even when it’s not busy,” Morton says.

What remains to be seen is whether craft cocktails on draft are the future of drinking or a fad, like barrel-aged cocktails or giant cubes of hand-carved ice may prove to be. Ryan Fitzgerald, the managing partner at ABV, sees potential in the technology but has yet to try a draft cocktail that he considers particularly good. This, in his opinion, is because not enough bars understand the science behind making a keg-stable drink. At best, he says, bars offer them in an “admirable” attempt to serve customers faster. At worst, bars with draft cocktails are mindlessly following the herd. “That’s something that bums me out about our industry—people do things just to be part of the trend.”

Jennifer Colliau, who has been making and serving draft cocktails through her own system at the Fort Mason bar the Interval since 2014, has sampled her share of duds. But she thinks draft is here to stay for the simple reason that, when done well, it gives customers a much better experience. The whole point of the “weird, geeky shit we do as bartenders,” she says, is to keep guests happy. Sure, some like to watch a bartender spend 15 minutes meticulously concocting a beverage, but most just want a good drink in their hands, stat. That’s what draft makes possible. “It’s a state-of-the-art effort to make better cocktails faster,” McKnight says in a well-practiced pitch before demurring slightly. “However, it will never replace the experience of watching a true bartender handcraft a cocktail.”
 

Originally published in the February issue of San Francisco 

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