Worker’s death in keg explosion puzzles beer brewers

Posted May 20, 2012, at 6:14 a.m.

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — The untimely death last month of a local brewery worker has left unanswered questions for some beer producers around the country, who remain unsettled by the news that a plastic keg somehow ruptured and fatally wounded a Redhook Ale Brewery employee.

The worker died of injuries suffered on April 24 when a plastic keg he was cleaning exploded, striking him in the chest and head, according to officials from the Portsmouth Fire Department.

In the wake of the blast, several brewers around New Hampshire were perplexed by the accident, which stands out as one of the only instances of a work-related keg explosion that most beer industry veterans can recall.

Of the 12 brewers, microbrewery owners, beer distributors and industry experts interviewed by Foster’s Daily Democrat in the past month — including employees of Smuttynose Brewing Co. in Portsmouth, Otter Creek Brewing in Vermont, Shipyard Brewing Co. in Portland, Maine, and Tuckerman Brewing Co. in Conway, N.H. — none could recall another instance of a keg exploding inside a brewery.

The incident also has raised eyebrows in the brewing community because Redhook officials said it involved a plastic keg, rather than a traditional stainless steel keg — the industry standard for several decades.

Craft Brew Alliance Inc., which owns Redhook, has released little other information about the circumstances of the industrial accident, indicating that further details will be released at the conclusion of a full investigation.

Ted Fitzgerald, a spokesperson for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said an investigation has been launched into the accident, but declined to discuss the inquiry while the process is ongoing. He said it’s still too early to estimate when it will conclude.

Since the early 1970s, breweries such as Redhook have relied on beer containers made of stainless steel, which can be hooked up to tap lines at bars and restaurants. However, a handful of commercial brewers in the United States have begun using plastic beer kegs for distribution.

While plastic beer kegs have been in use in Europe for some time — ostensibly more than a decade — their introduction into the American market largely wasspearheaded by a British company called CypherCo., which established a manufacturing operation for full-sized beer kegs in California.

The company operates in the United States under the name Plastic Kegs America.

Pat Ringe, co-owner and brewmaster at Diamond Knot Brewing Co. in Mukilteo, Wash., said the company recently switched its entire line of old stainless steel kegs to plastic vessels from PKA.

While there’s no indication a PKA product was involved in the Redhook accident, Ringe said he’s “very, very curious” to find out as much as possible about the incident.

“Hopefully they’ll share every detail about what happened,” Ringe said. “I have to think that there was a series of mechanical failures or, God forbid, operator error. I don’t know. But given that we have about 2,000 of these kegs in our fleet, and they’ve been far from … trouble free — I’m very interested to find out what the story is and what they want to do about it.”

When they began receiving the plastic kegs 15 months ago, Ringe said the manufacturing quality was inconsistent and about 1,000 of the kegs had to go back to the manufacturing facility to be reworked at least twice — some three times.

The primary issue was the size of the kegs, many of which didn’t fit in the automatic keg-washer used by the brewery. A few were leaking because valves were accidentally threaded into the plastic shell, while others had “substandard” valves, or broken handles, Ringe said.

Since then, Plastic Kegs America has addressed the quality problems, Ringe said, and Diamond Knot has been pleased with the performance of the products at its three restaurants.

The brewery also distributes beer kegs to bars and restaurants in Washington state. At any given time, the brewery has about 700 kegs of beer distributed around the state, Ringe said.

“I’m interested to find out what happened [at Red Hook],” Ringe said, “and if it was a mechanical failure of some sort, or if the guy was doing something out of the ordinary.”

In an interview last week, Redhook spokesman Ted Lane confirmed the employee who was killed was engaged in routine activities when the keg burst.

“[He] was going about, you know, normal daily activities,” Lane said, “which included emptying kegs as part of our cleaning process.”

In April, Redhook released a statement saying the plastic keg was not owned by Redhook or any other brewery under the Craft Brew Alliance Inc. umbrella.

Lane said the brewery will not comment on how it received the plastic keg. He also declined to comment on whether Redhook has ascertained who manufactured the keg, or whether the keg was intended for beer or soda.

In a message posted on the website probrewer.com shortly after the April 24 incident at Redhook, Plastic Kegs America sales manager Darcie Symons said the company offers its deepest sympathies to the family and friends of those involved in the Portsmouth accident.

While Redhook is not a client of Plastic Kegs America, the company has contacted Redhook to “gain clarification,” Symons wrote, and PKA was advised that “no new information would be released for some time.”

“We are prepared to help in any way possible to help find the cause of this accident,” Symons wrote on the website, continuing, “Like many in the tight-knit craft brewing community, we want to understand the circumstances of this accident and take any precautions we can to ensure that it won’t happen again.”

Contacted by Foster’s earlier this month, Symons declined to offer any comment about Plastic Kegs America or its products.

“The only thing that we can say is that our sympathies — we have deep, deep sympathies in regard to the accident,” she said. “We’re being cooperative with the investigation, and until further information is learned, we can’t make any comment.”

A financial disclosure form filed by Craft Brew Alliance with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission sheds a small amount of light on the situation. It states the plastic keg was erroneously delivered to Redhook as part of a shipment of used kegs, which is a “fairly common occurrence in the industry.”

Although they don’t have direct knowledge of the situation, several brewers who were interviewed by Foster’s explained that beer kegs are often lost or misplaced while being shipped back and forth by third-party beer distributors.

Breweries such as Redhook rely on distributors to circulate their beer kegs to bars and restaurants. Those same distributors are responsible for collecting empty beer kegs and returning them to the breweries where they originated.

However, it’s common for distributors to make mistakes and pass along extra kegs that don’t belong to the brewery, according to Tuckerman Brewing Co. President Nik Stanciu.

Stanciu said this is the most likely explanation for why Redhook would have possession of a third-party keg.

For Dylan Lintern, vice president of New Orleans Lager & Ale Brewing Co., the products offered by Plastic Kegs America were appealing in part because of an added safety feature — a pressure release valve, which is built into the bottom of all kegs. The valve hypothetically shouldprevent the plastic keg from building up sufficient pressure to explode, he said.

Lintern said NOLA launched three years ago solely with plastic kegs and now owns roughly 4,000 of them.

Lintern said he has seen pressure release valves pop off of the kegs in the past when they’re dropped from tall heights — such as off the back of a truck — but never witnessed an explosion.

“We have had nothing even close to that happening,” he said.

NOLA Brewing ships beer kegs throughout all of Alabama and Louisiana, and parts of the Florida panhandle, Lintern said.

During the company’s three years in business, the only problem it has experienced is with broken handles on the kegs, he said, calling the Redhook blast a “disconcerting” development.

The River Company Restaurant & Brewery in Radford, Va., uses approximately 75 kegs from Plastic Kegs America. Mike Pensinger, chief brewer, said the company has used plastic for about three years with no trouble.

“I have a bunch of them,” he said. “I love them.”

The River Company is a relatively small-scale operation, but the brewery does sell some kegs to restaurants and bars through the distribution network, Pensinger said. The plastic kegs have all stood up to the rigors of travel on the distribution network as well as stainless steel kegs, he said.

Earlier this month, beer producers from around the country gathered in San Diego for the annual Craft Brewers Conference. The tragedy at Redhook came as “sobering” to attendees, according to Steve Bradt, brewmaster at the The Free State Brewing Co. in Lawrence, Kansas, who also serves as chairman of the events committee for the annual conference.

“It’s a very tight-knit community, so everyone is very concerned and very curious as to what the root cause of it is, and whether there are larger issues that need to be addressed with it,” he told Foster’s earlier this month. “But I think we have to wait a little bit more before we can really assess anything about that. Everything else is just conjecture.”

(c)2012 the Foster’s Daily Democrat (Dover, N.H.).

Visit the Foster’s Daily Democrat (Dover, N.H.) at www.fosters.com.

Distributed by MCT Information Services.

 

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