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The Future of Wine Is in the Keg

Why wine on tap may be the next big thing

Janice Williams By July 14, 2022
wine is poured in a glass through a tap wine system
Wine is poured in a glass through a tap wine system. Photo by Free Flow Wines.

A glass bottle, a bag in box, an aluminum can — these are all familiar sights to wine lovers. Tall and slender stainless steel cylinders that look like they belong on a dairy farm, on the other hand, are still an unusual sight.

But get ready to see more of these wine-filled kegs in bars and restaurants, because wine on tap is growing in popularity. 

“We estimate there are more than 8,000 operators pouring wine on tap now, from concessions and music venues, to hotels, airports, fine dining restaurants, and fast casual chains,” says Heather Clauss, vice president of sales and marketing at the Sonoma-based wine keg company, Free Flow Wines.

That’s up from more than 4,700 U.S. locations with wine on tap in 2018, according to Clauss. It’s a big change since 2009, when Jordan Kivelstadt and Dan Donahoe founded the company, when they had to convince people to try kegs. Kegs are connected to a wine tap line, similar to a beer tap, which allows the liquid to flow out through a steel nozzle.

 “When it was new over a decade ago, nobody understood it. Consumers thought wine on tap meant value house wine. People didn’t understand the quality benefits,” says Clauss. 

A young history

The idea of putting wine into stainless steel cylinders isn’t new; Anheuser Busch put wine in steel kegs in the 1980s under the Master Cellars label. It never took off. Too much of the wine being put into the kegs for tap programs was poor quality and cheap.

Perceptions started to change in 2009 with the launch of the Gotham Project, a New York pioneer of locally filled, reusable stainless steel kegs filled with high-quality wine. The company’s first release included a keg of Riesling from the Finger Lakes and was an instant hit. Paul Grieco’s famous wine bar and eatery Terroir became one of the first places to serve Gotham Project’s keg wine through a tap system. 

Gotham Project Wine Taps

Gotham Project Wine Taps. Photo courtesy of Gotham Project (@gotham_project) Instagram.

Free Flow Wines entered the scene in 2010.

“Our two co-founders started with wanting to put a single brand of wine into reusable steel kegs and sell that to a few accounts. And with that, several other winemakers and accounts quickly wanted to dip their toes in this keg wine world,” says Clauss. By 2016, Free Flow was releasing more than 250,000 kegs a year.

As far as Clauss can see, the interest in keg wine will only grow.

“The category has been consistently growing year over year. We took a little hiccup during COVID when the on-premise sales shut down, but we have picked up to pre-COVID levels and are on track to exceed those any day now,” says Clauss.

Everything is changing

“You cannot deny the benefits that keg wine has in terms of costs and sustainability,” says Angelica McPhee, co-owner of US Natural Wine, an online wine retail and distribution company based in Austin that has helped multiple wineries get their kegs in restaurants and bars throughout the state. 

Wine on tap is an economical solution not only for operators but for guests too. Wineries using kegs save on bottles and labels, and they can pass these savings on to restaurants and bars, who can in turn charge less for wines by the glass. Plus, just as a beer garden might have 10 or 20 different beers on tap, keg wines can give businesses the chance to sell a wider variety of wine. 

In New York City, the popular wine bar Temperance has a minimum of seven wines on tap available for customers. Meanwhile, restaurant chain Sixty Vines, which has locations in Tennessee, Texas, and Florida, has as many as 60 wines on tap across sparkling, white, red, and rosé categories. 

And keg wine stays fresh much longer than wine in bottle format.

“Once you pop that cork, you’ve got to get through it. People have tried vacuums. People have tried Coravins and the re-corking tools on the market — everything. Nothing maintains the freshness of the wine like keg wine,” says McPhee. 

person holding a wine keg with a 2019 Keggy Awards for People's Choice Award sticker.

Person holding a wine keg with a 2019 Keggy Awards for People’s Choice Award sticker. Photo courtesy of Free Flow Wines (@freeflowwines) Instagram.

A 19.5-liter stainless steel reusable keg holds about 26 bottles of wine that never come in contact with air because kegs are completely sealed. The thick steel also keeps light out, which can damage the wine.  All this means that restaurant servers can pour a glass on tap today, close the faucet, open it three months later, according to Clauss, and have guests enjoy the same wine. 

“There’s no risk of spoilage. The operators really love it because every glass they pour is consistent,” says Clauss.

“Once you pop that cork, you’ve got to get through it. People have tried vacuums. People have tried Coravins and the re-corking tools on the market —  everything. Nothing maintains the freshness of the wine like keg wine,” says McPhee. 

The sustainability

With more than 32 billion bottles of wine produced each year, glass bottles account for about 29% of wine’s carbon footprint. Not to mention the 13% generated from transporting glass wine bottles.

Keg wines offer a way to reduce this carbon footprint. “For every keg we fill, we eliminate 26 bottles from the landfill,” says Clauss, noting that Free flow also offers a reusable service that will allow operators to send their kegs off to be refilled once they’re empty. Since its creation, Free Flow’s program has kept some 21 million bottles out of landfills.

There are challenges, of course. The tap lines must be kept meticulously clean, while the gas mix used to preserve the wine — primarily nitrogen with some carbon dioxide — must be properly maintained. Keeping the ideal pressure and temperature are also important.

Getting a tap line with proper refrigeration is the biggest challenge for many operators. Sometimes that means swapping out a draft beer to make room for the wine tap. In other cases, a restaurant may need to have a brand new tap line installed, which can be costly. 

Some restaurants and bars simply don’t have the space to hold tap lines and multiple kegs. However, Clauss notes that is also changing. 

“People are working with restaurant designers and coming up with new concepts. Nowadays, if there’s a bar or a restaurant with any kind of wine program, they have wine on tap built-in from the get-go,” says Clauss. 

McPhee is already noticing the increase in wine on tap at restaurants and bars in Austin. 

“All this does is increase accessibility. Wineries will get more of their wines in front of consumers, and consumers will be able to try more wines more often. It’s a win-win,” says McPhee.

As more businesses open with wines on tap, the idea of having a glass of wine served from a keg will become a lot less surprising – perhaps even more common than from a bottle.