All around the world, from major metropoles to humble booze-loving hamlets, you can find bars that make you wonder: Is this place safe to drink in? Sometimes the red flag is a beer special that seems a little too affordable. Other times it’s that the interior looks like it hasn’t been dusted in 15 years. Or the presence of a passed-out roach (the insect, not a long-time regular) in the corner of a urinal stall.
If you’re lucky, you might discover you’re in a very decent drinking hole, realizing the initial sketchiness was just the product of ignorance, cynicism or both. But if you’re unlucky, well, then you’re just spending money in a really gross bar. How are you supposed to tell the difference? And, crucially: Should you be drinking draft beers from your neighborhood dive’s ancient-looking taps?
I learned my lesson about dirty drink lines as a child, not with beer but with soda. My mom was meticulous about keeping our family restaurant’s soda machine clean — she couldn’t help it, being blessed with a type-A head. She also couldn’t help but try and stop me from drinking fountain sodas anywhere else. “I’ve seen the dirty hoses in other restaurants. You don’t want to see it,” my mom would say in a stern, hushed tone, as if she was sharing war secrets. “It’s horrible. Old gunk and mold building like a monster. It’ll make you sick.”
As it turns out, the problem of dirty beer keg lines really is “the elephant in the room” when it comes to the world of serving alcohol. Bar veterans say draining and disinfecting draft lines is an “oft-ignored” task in the industry, likely because it takes time and wastes beer (since you need to purge the pints that are in the hoses). But the pros stress the importance of cleaning draft lines as the equivalent of a person brushing their teeth: Skipping sessions leads to buildup, and visible plaque is a sign that things have already gone wrong. The rule of thumb for an average bar is to clean those hoses roughly every two weeks. In reality, even reputable bars can, and do, stretch the deadline.
Unfortunately, the research on bar hygiene leaves a lot to be desired: A survey of pubs in Britain, the ale capital of the universe, found an alarming third of pints poured are coming through unclean hoses. Equally grimy are the statistics on unclean citrus, like that lime wedge sticking out of your Corona Light: The consensus is that a li’l squeeze of acidity usually comes with big doses of bacteria that can cause illness. So beer and the garnish can be tarnished with unnecessary germs. Anything else?
“Ice machines,” blurts out bar owner Andrea Borgen Abdallah, owner of the excellent bar and restaurant Barcito in Downtown L.A. (Yep: Ice has the magical property of harboring bacteria even amid acidity and alcohol in a drink.)
Barcito is an homage to the drinking culture of Argentina, where her family’s roots lie; there’s timeless black-and-white tile, lots of warm wood and a selection of beers and cocktails on tap. The staff clean those lines on a consistent schedule, and Abdallah is pretty meticulous about nipping other bad bar hygiene habits before they can set in. Something that’s pervasive in even good bars, for instance, is the practice of scooping ice directly from the machine with a mixing glass, instead of a dedicated ice scoop: “That’s a big health code violation,” she says with a wry chuckle.
As for the issue of keeping beer lines clean of mold and buildup, Abdallah observes that the job is made easier by big beer distributors, who usually send their own maintenance people to flush out hoses on a regular schedule. Dirty lines tamper the flavor of beer, after all, and that’s bad business even if an average drinker might not immediately notice. Smaller craft brewing operations, on the other hand, often lack the resources to conduct the rounds themselves. That’s how we encounter the terrible irony of good beer being more vulnerable to gunky hoses — all it requires is a bar owner and staff with little or no quality control.
“It really comes down to having employees that will care about that kind of thing and being proactive. I invest in people — paying them well, giving them insurance — because I want them to feel invested in the business,” Abdallah says. “It’s good to have the employee who’s opening say, ‘Hey, we’re going to clean the ice machine today,’ even if it’s not the scheduled day for it.”
Not coincidentally, her favorite bars tend to be word-of-mouth spots with employees who stick around for a while and show off an ease with hospitality, whether it’s that they remember her name or just wipe up messes with smooth efficiency. It makes sense to me: People who really care tend to be bad at letting something like dirty beer lines fester. But, I also think of some great dive bars I’ve frequented where I had a hunch that the grime didn’t just stop at the floorboards and vinyl countertops. Was I wrong to dismiss so much as, uh, “patina”? Or is the attraction of something with a little age and neglect real?
Abdallah, despite her own habits as a hygiene sticker, shrugs and notes that a good bar is more than just clean. “There are tons of things that happen in some dives or local bars that, in a nicer establishment, shouldn’t fly. But it comes with the territory! I just tend to not order a ton of draft beer at grimy bars. I’ll have stuff on the rocks or out of a bottle. There’s still a certain charm to it,” she tells me.
Given that even mainstream franchises like TGI Friday’s have been busted for gross and unethical bar practices — literally shorting customers by serving them well liquor while charging for top-shelf — it really seems like the best rule of thumb when settling into a neighborhood bar, crusty or otherwise, is to find out whether the people sliding you another Bud actually give a shit.
One of my favorite places in L.A. consistently has bad-tasting soda, either because they’re using chlorinated tap water or carelessly flushing the system with bleach. But they also recognize me when I walk in, the old-timers are good at small talk and there’s a jukebox. So, instead of my usual whiskey sodas, I make like Abdallah and crack a cold bottled lager — even though their draft beer, somehow, tastes just fine.