Beating the barrel bandits

By Nigel Huddleston

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Keg Barrel British beer & pub association

Barrels: a lost keg equivalent to 5,000 pints
Barrels: a lost keg equivalent to 5,000 pints
The BBPA is determined to do something about the long-term problem of the theft of empty beer kegs, reports Nigel Huddleston.

Theft of empty beer kegs has been a major problem for the drinks trade for many years, but now the British Beer & Pub Association is determined to do something about it. Nigel Huddleston reports

The security of empty beer barrels doesn't motivate on-trade opinion or grab the headlines in the same way as, say, supermarket pricing or drinks duty, but it's one of the longest-running thorns in the industry's side.

Kegs are an appealing target for professional thieves who can sell them for scrap, and opportunists who run off with unguarded kegs after considering some alternative use for them. Some do it for the hell of it, similar to students nabbing traffic cones.

It may seem a relatively harmless and victimless crime to the outsider, but to the brewing and pub industry it's a serious drain on the coffers at a time when the on-trade is facing one of the biggest economic battles in its history.

At any given time, there are around 8 million kegs in use in the UK, but with several hundred thousand going missing each year, the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) says the cost to the industry is in the region of £50m.

"It's a big problem caused by a combination of factors," says Neil Williams, the BBPA's communications manager.

"There are people who target kegs and there is a lack of awareness in the industry of what a precious commodity they are."

In a bid to change that situation, the BBPA this year launched Keg Aware, a campaign to raise awareness of keg theft and misuse, and persuade licensees to take better care of barrels between delivery and return to the supplier.

The BBPA hopes that by avoiding the loss of kegs, the cost burden through the beer supply chain can be eased, with benefits in price and/or margin.

It could also help to avoid the supplier base taking other steps to tackle the problem, such as a Continental-style keg-deposit scheme.

Implications of keg loss

Maintaining the efficiency of the draught system also has environmental implications, the BBPA says, avoiding the use of around 7.5 billion bottles and cans a year.

Molson Coors' UK container manager Gavin Jones spelt out the implications of keg loss to a brewer of its size.

"We make 2p profit per pint," Jones says. "We need to sell about 5,000 pints to make back the average cost of a lost keg. 

"Kegs are a third of our asset base, so we need to make sure we are fully utilising the assets we have and ensure everyone recognises the impact of lost or stolen kegs."

Jones adds: "It's difficult to say what our exact percentage loss rates are, but we are confident of moving to a solution in the next few months that will enable us to measure cycle time and loss rates with far more accuracy. 

"Since the start of 2009 our aim has been to halve our estimated loss rates by the end of 2011.

"Clearly market influences will have an impact on this, but we have tried to proactively reduce losses by implementing best practice measures wherever possible.

"Our sales force is engaged with our customers on the importance of getting our empty kegs back securely and our order capture teams, stock controllers and distribution partners are working to get accurate data for reporting, as we see this as a key measure to enable us to have the right conversations."

The launch of Keg Aware reflects a desire within BBPA ranks to tackle a long-term pub-trade problem rather than any new or emerging trend, says Williams.

"Concern waxes and wanes according to the current state of play, but it has been an ongoing concern for the industry for many years.

"Kegs can be sold by thieves for scrap when scrap metal prices are in their favour, but it's a more widespread problem than that.

"You see kegs lying at the side of the road just because they haven't been looked after, and sometimes they're taken by individuals just because they think they'll make a nice planter for the garden or something like that."

Keep the kegs for beer

The campaign also encourages licensees to resist the temptation to recycle kegs for anything but their original purpose, such as using them as a base to make outdoor benches for the beer garden.

Keeping them in the supply chain helps keep beer costs down and works to the overall benefit of the greater good.

The campaign has a dedicated web domain at​, which includes handy tips on best practice on keg security and a searchable database on keg colour codes, enabling licensees to identify which brewery any rogue kegs may have originated from.

Jones, at Molson Coors UK, says awareness of keg security is an important part of its internal communications.

"Making sure everyone in the company knows the size of the problem is paramount and we do this by communicating with our employees using the Keg Aware materials," he says.

He adds that co-operation from trade customers is paramount in helping reduce keg loss for the company.

"While we've tried our best to put steps in place to gain better control of our kegs, we are definitely not perfect," Jones adds.

"We will constantly need the assistance of our customers to continually improve our best practice implementation and reduce losses.

"There are numerous ways that people can help in the fight against keg loss.

"At the point of order, licensees and customers can advise us of approximately how many empties will be available for collection.

"They can ensure empty kegs are stored securely — and if all their empties have not been picked up, they can contact us to arrange collection.

"In addition, we need their help to make sure that the returns part of their delivery note is filled in correctly to make sure that our container balance data is robust."

As well as Molson Coors, the Keg Aware scheme is backed by all BBPA members including Enterprise Inns, Punch Taverns, Diageo, Carlsberg UK, Heineken UK and AB InBev UK, along with major regionals and dozens of other smaller brewers and pub companies.

But Williams at the BBPA emphasises that the impact of a successful campaign will go much deeper than the big players.

He says: "The aim is to make people aware that taking a few simple steps can have benefits for everybody in the industry, including individual licensees."

Best practice

1. Keep them safe​ — Store kegs in a secure place, preferably inside, from delivery time to collection.

2. Secure them​ — If containers have to be left outside, make them secure and don't use them for any other purpose.

3. Prompt return​ — Always return containers on the next delivery and request the collection of surplus empties to ensure containers always move efficiently through the system.

4. Check paperwork​ — When empties are collected always make sure the right numbers are entered on the delivery note.

5. Always sign​ — It is important that you always sign your delivery note for both full and empty kegs.

6. Ask for ID​ — If in doubt, ask for driver ID — only authorised staff will collect your empties.

Source: British Beer & Pub Association/Keg Aware

Keg Aware

If you're having problems getting your empties collected, call Keg Aware on 0808 100 1945.

For more details on the Keg Aware campaign and how you can do your bit to help see​.

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