A Blog by Jonathan Low

 

Jun 29, 2018

We''ll Drink To That: Mobile Sensor Tracks Errant Beer Kegs

The craft beer trend is stressing the keg supply chain.

But even though they both effect the bottom line, knowing where your beer keg is still not as important as knowing where your beer is from. JL


Mike Cherney reports in the Wall Street Journal:

Breweries buy tens of thousands of steel kegs every year, at about $100 apiece. As many as 10% go missing annually. The sensor transmits data about a keg’s location using a new mobile network for low-power devices. Brewers can track the locations of their kegs in real time on a computer or smartphone and access information like temperature, so they can evaluate whether their beer is being stored correctly. It reduced its keg-loss rate to 2%, using radio-frequency ID tags and bar codes on its more than 400,000 kegs.
New technology could help brewers hold on to kegs until the bins are truly tapped out.
Startups from the U.S. to Australia are developing sensors to help beer companies keep track of their kegs, which frequently go missing en route from brewery to bar and back again.
“I think that most of the time people don’t understand that kegs are really valuable to breweries,” said Phil O’Shea, owner of Five Barrel Brewing in this city south of Sydney. “If a keg is looked after, then it can last 10 years or more.”
Large breweries buy tens of thousands of steel kegs every year, at about $100 apiece. As many as 10% go missing annually, brewers say. The barrels, often stored outside when empty, can be mistakenly collected by another brewery or stolen for home brewing or other purposes. Internet videos show how to make a fire pit, a pot and even a urinal out of a beer keg.
Mr. O’Shea, whose brewery has about 300 kegs, said 20 to 30 kegs have gone missing since it opened more than two years ago. That loss led him to help Binary Beer, a Wollongong startup, test an early prototype of its keg sensor.
Designed to run on batteries that will last up to 10 years, Binary Beer’s sensor transmits data about a keg’s location using a new mobile network from Vodafone Group PLC for low-power devices. Brewers can track the locations of their kegs in real time on a computer or smartphone and access additional information like temperature, so they can evaluate whether their beer is being stored correctly.
Some investors think early results are promising. Binary is backed by global venture-capital fund Artesian, while Kirkland, Wash.-based startup C-Keg has support from Seattle-area tech investors, according to C-Keg Chief Executive Greg Herlin. Kegstar, a Sydney-based keg-rental business owned by logistics giant Brambles Ltd. that recently expanded to the U.S., is looking to develop a similar sensor.
Companies world-wide are connecting everything from refrigerators and cars to the internet, though it remains to be seen whether high-tech kegs will be successful.
Mr. O’Shea said he is interested in the new technology but that cost will determine whether he purchases any sensors. It isn’t clear how much pricier these “smart kegs” will be. Breweries might be able to buy the sensors outright or pay a subscription fee.
The sensors must also broadcast from diverse environments: a refrigerated storage area, a basement cellar or an alley behind a bar where empty kegs are often left. And “security of data would be an overarching concern,” said Costa Nikias, a brewery consultant who founded La Sirène Brewing near Melbourne; he isn’t involved with any of the startups. A competitor with unauthorized access to the data might be able to see where a rival is selling beer, he said.
Kegstar said it reduced its keg-loss rate to about 2%, using radio-frequency ID tags and bar codes on its more than 400,000 kegs. An average brewer “doesn’t have a team of people sitting there ringing up venues, ringing up warehouses and chasing up empty kegs,” said managing director Adam Trippe-Smith.
Still, Kegstar’s trackers must be hand-scanned by a device and they don’t broadcast locations in real time. Mr. Trippe-Smith said the company expects to invest in higher-tech sensors, which may connect to a low-power mobile network. Kegstar is in the process of testing prototypes.
So-called active tags, which automatically send data in real time and might use Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technology, can cost significantly more than passive tags that need to be scanned.
Richard Aufreiter, director of product management for identification technologies at HID Global, an Austin, Texas-based manufacturer of radio-frequency ID tags for kegs, said brewers may resist paying extra for active tags, even if they can read temperatures.
“It’s nice to have, but it’s a question of how much you’re willing to pay for it,” Mr. Aufreiter said. He estimated that active tags could be at least 10 times more expensive than the passive tags currently used by companies like Kegstar.


A brewer on
his cellphone
Cell tower
1
3
A device welded
to the keg beams
out location
data.
The data is relayed
from the network
to the cloud.
2
4
The data is sent over
a new mobile network
for low-power devices.
Batteries can last up
to 10 years.
A mobile-phone
app displays the
keg’s location in
real time.
Beer kegs with
tracking sensors
Cloud storage


A brewer on
his cellphone
Cell tower
1
3
A device welded
to the keg beams
out location
data.
The data is
relayed from
the network
to the cloud.
2
The data is sent
over a new mobile
network for
low-power devices.
Batteries can last
up to 10 years.
4
A mobile-phone
app displays the
keg’s location in
real time.

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