Beer tap handles are not items to decorate with

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Ever been in a bar and noticed a brewery’s tap handles? I don’t mean in their usual place behind the bar; I mean decorating the walls or ceiling, or even used as door handles.

Tap handles aren’t cheap; they average $30 a pop. Breweries lend them out to establishments so patrons know what’s pouring. Tap handles by design should be aesthetically appealing in order to entice a sale. Since they’re provided to bars gratis, owners may see them as free décor. In a way, they’re right: it’s something that cost them nothing, and it’s quite decorative.

Whether bar owners want to admit this or not, this is oftentimes theft, and we as beer drinkers shouldn’t swallow the practice.

Kegs cost breweries a lot of money, so they warrant a deposit to make sure the empties make it back to their owners instead of into a scrap yard. Handles cost a fraction of kegs, so breweries or distributors don’t charge a deposit. Because of this, they don’t always make it home, and the breweries end up footing the bill. Craft breweries don’t have huge wallets or vast marketing budgets, and losing control of enough of these really hurts the bottom line.

My greatest failure as a beer rep came at the hands of my best account. I cared more about acquiring tap space than I did inventorying handles, as I was paid by how much product I moved. When my beer buyer asked for a handle or a sticker, I brought requested materials without batting an eye. One day, I looked up to notice a ring of handles encircling the entire restaurant. Of those handles removed from their respective brewery’s control, I had 16 on the wall. Nearly $500 of my employer’s money was being used for simple decoration, and it happened on my watch.

I contacted the bar owner. According to him, those handles were his now, even though he didn’t pay anything for them. No, I explained, they were simply loaned to you so patrons would know which of our beers you were pouring. I requested they be removed, and volunteered to bring my own ladder and remove them on my own time; that request was refused. My property would continue to hang on the wall, and was told I couldn’t have it back.

I’m no longer a rep, and haven’t been for several years, but that doesn’t mean I’ve given up the good fight. Recently, I spied one of those 16 handles sitting on the corner of the bar. The keg it advertised had kicked, and the handle was removed, destined to go anywhere other than back to the brewery where it belonged. Not on my watch, I thought, and pocketed the handle. Later that day, I ran into the new brewery rep and returned the handle. “This needs to be used,” I told him, “and not just as decoration.”

If we were told one small business was deliberately hurting another without provocation, we’d be outraged. Oftentimes people actually protest the practice. But since decorating walls isn’t seen by many as product theft, the practice goes overlooked.

Craft breweries are small businesses, and property loss hurts. When property goes missing, operating costs go up. When costs go up, keg prices must increase to compensate for lost revenue. As keg prices increase, you’ll pay more for your next pint. Look at that wall-mounted tap handle; are you willing to pay a premium on your next beer just so you can look at it?

The next time you’re in a bar or restaurant that believes tap handles are a great fashion statement, please remind them they’re decorating on someone else’s dime. Your local brewery and this former rep thank you.

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