Lack of Keg-Sight


We’ve been spending a lot of time lately scrubbing some used kegs we bought.

The kegs came to us very dirty, so dirty that the nice automated keg washer can’t get them clean even with repeated cycles of hot caustic and acid. We’ve tried everything from soaking to pressure washing, but the only thing that seems to work is good old fashioned elbow grease. It wouldn’t be so bad if there were only a few to do, but we need to clean more than 500 of them.

After the first couple days of scrubbing, I had to admit that I had made a big mistake purchasing these kegs, but not for the reason most people would think. The kegs are solidly built. They have new valves and the price was very reasonable, even when accounting for the large amount of labor spent on cleaning. So why am I kicking myself? Because I did not identify the source of the labor correctly.

I thought I could hire someone at minimum wage to scrub kegs. We tried that, but the results were not acceptable. Our kegs need to be flawless inside before we can put beer in them. That means inspecting each keg with a critical eye. Even a faint hint of any remaining residue stuck to the keg is unacceptable. Scratches bad welds, and similar imperfections are also forbidden. It takes someone that is deeply invested in our beer to hunt out these flaws — and even then it requires the ability to detect these tiny flaws. That limits the labor pool to two of us: Chris Kennedy (our head brewer) and myself. We are the only ones who we trust to verify that a keg has been cleaned properly.

Therefore, the problem is that this keg scrubbing is taking Chris and I away from other tasks important to growing the business. When Chris and I are scrubbing and inspecting kegs for days on end, we lose out on the opportunity to work on other tasks. We’re still getting beer brewed and packaged. We’re still getting beer out to the retailers and distributors, but this whole keg thing is slowing us down.

That was my big mistake. I assumed that almost anyone could clean kegs. When I ran the numbers on buying new versus used, I did include a lot of time for cleaning. I also included the cost if a considerable percentage of the kegs were unusable. And those numbers have held up. My calculator works, but my foresight was weak. Allowing the keg cleaning to tie up Chris and myself was a big mistake. I counted labor costs, but neglected opportunity costs.

I think this is a common flaw in many nano brewery plans. The business plan often relies on exchanging labor for lower equipment costs. The plan includes some calculation on the cost of the owner’s labor, but it often fails to consider how consuming all of the owner’s time on inefficient brewing can limit the future of the business. When you take your limited pool of highly talented people and tie them up with time consuming tasks, the future of the business can take a hit.

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