Heineken Pops Up in Toronto in a New Guise

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I had seen a bus shelter ad on King Street downtown for the new BrewLock Heineken dispense system, and looked into it further. Heineken has been rolling this out for a little while but it’s new in North America. Only one pub has it so far in this area, the Coach and Four, out in Oakville on Lake Ontario. I went there for lunch on Friday (nice place) and tried the beer. It was good but seemed not really different to regular draft Heineken.

Yesterday, after a long (cold) walk around downtown, I happened upon a pop up offering a free glass of the new beer. A Heineken brewer was present to give a demonstration of how BrewLock works. Most lager and craft beers – almost all that aren’t “cask” real ale – are forced to the bar by carbon dioxide, or a blend of CO2 and nitrogen gas. It is forced into the keg from a cylinder and regulator. The gas presses on the beer from the top – hence the old expression, top pressure – and forces it out of the keg to the bar. The beer travels up through a hollow tube in the centre of the keg which reaches almost to the bottom.

The BrewLock system uses compressed air to put pressure on a plastic sack or bladder of beer within a hard plastic (PET) tubular shell. So the air never touches the beer itself. There is a somewhat similar system called KeyKeg where CO2 is pumped into a double-walled container to the same end. Unlike the former Scottish cask ale dispense I discussed some weeks ago where compressed air was injected directly into a cask of beer, the BrewLock, and KeyKeg systems, once again do not put the air and gas into the beer; the pressure is applied simply to collapse a filled bladder to force out its contents.

In these new systems, the beer retains the level of carbonation set by the brewery, whereas with normal CO2 or mixed gas dispense, additional gas(es) enter the beer. The carbonation level is set at the brewery to accommodate this, but in practice, and given the different mixed gas proportion bars use, there is some variation from bar to bar and glass to glass in the fizz level in the glass. (I simply adjust it to what I like by swirling the beer with a swizzler, of course you can’t do that if the gas level is too low. In that case just give the beer back for a replacement).

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For the bar owner, the advantages claimed are that the 20 L BrewLock keg is 25% lighter than a 20 L metal keg. Less energy is consumed to transport and perhaps to store the kegs cold, for example. There is less waste too, it is estimated 10-15% of the beer in a normal metal keg is retained as wastage. The BrewLock system expels almost all the beer but for a few drops. There is no reuse of the keg by the supplier, the BrewLock is a one-way system but its components are fully recyclable. I would think this means, though, that a system must exist to permit the recycling. I’m not sure how that works currently in Ontario. I wonder if the keg supplier for example (The Beer Store or an authorized distributor) picks up the expended PET shell and ensures it is recycled.

What does the new system mean for the consumer? I asked the brewer making the demonstration if the taste of the beer was different from the regular draft system. He said the beer itself is the same in either case, but the brewery feels that dispensing it at the set carbonation level desired by Heineken results in the optimal taste. I was wondering if the beer might be a touch under-carbonated but it wasn’t, it had a similar level to a canned or bottled Heineken.

The beer did seem very fresh and tasty. Heineken is an all-malt lager and reasonably hopped. When served in good condition, it is a good beer albeit on the dryish side. I’ve discussed numerous times here that in the past, Heineken and many European lagers had a slight sulphury note (over-boiled egg or struck match). This is a characteristic of much blonde lager brewing due to the type of yeast and pale malts used, but brewery procedures can be adjusted to remove the taste. The BrewLock draft didn’t have the taste at all, a big plus for the beer IMO. I am wondering if BrewLock in some way precludes this characteristic. Either that or, more likely, the brewery is taking pains to rub the taste out at the brewery.

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I think the way to look at BrewLock Heineken is that it is like a very fresh bottled beer. It is pasteurized like canned and bottled Heineken are but presumably by the less-intensive flash process. True, regular draft Heineken is all that as well, but when you add gases to the beer you are “changing” it. The idea that it comes to the glass without any admixture at all, be it sterile or otherwise, has a certain appeal.

There was a lot of talk about the need to skim the head. The presenter claimed this hived off excess bitterness which gathers at the top of the foam layer. I don’t put much faith in this really, and in any case I like bitterness in beer. Our bars don’t usually do it anyway and it’s not in general a desirable practice IMO.

There was some interesting technical discussion about how the head forms, the right size, surface tension, etc.

The presenter was charming and funny and people – mostly younger people from the condos in the area – had a good time. I was struck by the fact that of their questions, none were on the craft vector. No one asked until I did if the BrewLock beer is pasteurized (it is), or how long it takes to ship the beer to North America, whether Heineken has other styles in its range, etc. It’s a reminder that craft brewing is still a sub-culture. I’d like to have talked to the brewer more in-depth but it wasn’t possible in a format like that. I am sure he is capable of appreciating many beer styles – most brewers I’ve met are – and would make an interesting person to talk shop with.

From a business standpoint it was excellent marketing by Heineken. I am sure it cost a pretty penny but will surely be worth it. It was well-organized with good hosting and control, and nice hors d’oeuvre too. The large brewers know how to do this very well and I admire it at that level.