The kegs begin life as coils of 304 food-grade stainless steel, tightly twisted rolls roughly waist-high. Their birth requires a brief anatomy lesson: Kegs consist of two body halves, two chimes—the top and bottom, handles and base—as well as a neck and tube, the foramen magnum that will eventually hold the spear, the main artery through which the beer will flow.
Steel makes its way to a giant stamp, where it is cut into strips and discs for the chimes and body, respectively; it can also embossed, both for marketing purposes and, more importantly, to help prevent keg loss, a major issue for brewing companies. A deep draw press forms the discs into the body halves, while across the way small, man-operated machines roll thinner strips into scorpion tails, the eventual chimes, which are placed upon a rack to have their seams welded. The handles and neck hole are cut into the chimes, the neck welded in, while the two body halves are first spot welded, by hand via TIG welding, to prevent the stainless steel from pulling apart at the seams when it goes into the machine to get welded completely.
A "keg crusher" pushes the chimes into place, which are then welded securely. All of this welding can degrade the 304 steel, and as the kegs will contain beer for human consumption, a passivation line, consisting of acids and de-ionized water, not only cleans and beautifies the kegs, but brings the steel back to food-grade safety standards. From here, the kegs move on to quality control, where they are further cleaned and pressure tested—no beer bombs!—before having their Micromatic spears inserted, a final polishing, and, if needed, the application of colorful wraps for marketing, branding, and aesthetic purposes.
As far as industrial processes go, the keg's is not particularly sexy; it is a straightforward creation for a straightforward product, and these kegs are nearly identical to all of their stainless steel brethren tout le monde.
Except for one key difference: That steel is American steel, sourced from the productive Hells of Pennsylvania and Ohio—Ohio AK Steel, to be specific, at the time of MUNCHIES' visit—and the stamping, cutting, embossing, welding, wrapping, packaging, and shipping are all done in America. In an industrial park adjacent to a Friendly's and a Walmart Super Center, in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, on the outskirts of the Philadelphia metro area, lies the 30,000-square-foot American Keg, the only producer of stainless steel kegs in the United States.
"How hard is it to make a keg in America?" Scott Bentley, owner of American Keg, asks rhetorically over the phone. "And the answer is: It's pretty hard. Why? Mainly because it's not something that we already do in America."
The only company producing stainless steel kegs in the US, Spartanburg Stainless Products of South Carolina, was acquired by Swiss firm Franke Beverage Containers in 2006, and its keg manufacturing moved overseas. No keg was made stateside for eight years.
"In the beer business then … there was a shortage of kegs. You just couldn't by kegs," Sly Fox Brewing Company's John Giannopoulos says. With hair like lightening, a handshake like a vice, and a voice whose rumble puts the low flying Cessnas of the nearby Pottstown Municipal Airport to shame, Giannopolous' office at Sly Fox's brewery and tasting rooms lies just minutes from American Keg.
Giannopolous founded keg importer Geemacher in 2007 to meet this demand. In the beginning, Giannopolous sourced kegs from China, and Geemacher began selling to craft brew companies, much like Sly Fox, who were feeling the pinch of the keg shortage. Even then, Giannopoulos says, the end game was to produce the kegs in America, which they did in 2014.
"That was our ultimate goal," Giannopoulos says. "Obviously, the capital required to do that was extensive versus doing it in China, so we needed time to build that up and get it going. Which we did; it [Geemacher] became a pretty successful, good-sized company … and the time was right. So we decided to move forward on manufacturing in the US, and that was a heck of a process."
Geemacher moved from using space at Sly Fox's Royersford brewery and Limerick warehouse to Pottstown—Sly Fox moved to Pottstown itself in 2012—and geared up to begin production. The first kegs rolled off the line in December 2014, eight years after the industry had disappeared from the country.
"Unfortunately, I just didn't have the capital required to really get it to the finish line, and that's when I reached out to Scott," Giannopolous says. "And he stepped in, and was able to commit the resources to the company that I just didn't have available to me."
Bentley, who owns VideoRay, an underwater ROV manufacturer, and numerous buildings in downtown Pottstown, bought Geemacher's assets in the spring of 2016, forming American Keg.
American Keg's products are a few dollars more expensive than their imported competitors, but they do have some advantages their Chinese and German counterparts do not. If a brewery needs kegs in the popular 1/6 and 1/2 size, the only two American Keg currently manufactures, they can acquire them much more quickly from Pottstown.
American Keg currently runs two shifts, with their 20 employees capable of cranking out roughly 150 kegs a day. They do three-week production runs of each size, knocking out embossed orders and stocking blanks, before switching out the dyes. If a brewer wants blank kegs, American Keg has them on hand; if they want a large embossed order, they could have them in three or four weeks, according to director of sales and marketing Brian Luzzi, rather than the ten or 12 it would require to receive the cheaper shipment from China.
The keg's domestic steel sourcing and manufacturing can also appeal to the local and quality-over-quantity ethos of the craft brewer, who, according to the Brewers Association, had a little over a 12-percent share of the US beer market as of 2015.
"We've gotten the quality to where we want it," Luzzi says. He says that American Kegs' products can compete with the best of imports, including Franke, which they were modeled after, and they currently meet InBev specifications, although they're a long way from being able to produce enough for such a high-volume brewer.
"So now we need to ramp up, and obviously we need to do a lot of sales and marketing, get the word out," Luzzi says. They cold call, hit the Brewers Association Craft Brewers Conference trade show, and have kept Giannopoulos on board as a sales consultant. Sly Fox uses the kegs, as does Abita, Heavy Seas, Karl Strauss, and numerous other smaller and craft breweries.
Not lost on anyone is American Keg's creation of jobs in Pottstown, an area of low income and high crime compared to its affluent Montgomery County neighbors. American Keg hopes to add a third shift soon, doubling production and coming ever closer to cost competitiveness with the Chinese.
"The idea is to add more jobs," Luzzi says. "We're taking applications right now."