How the World’s Biggest Beer Garden Manages 402 Different Taps
Raleigh Beer Garden is not your average beer garden; for one, it is very much a garden. The airy, three-story space is drenched in greenery—a nod to owner Niall Hanley’s horticulture degree—in downtown Raleigh. The bar also offers more beers on tap than any other place in the world, by a long shot. Raleigh Beer Garden currently has 388 beers on tap but can hold as many as 402 beers on any given day. “With kegs kicking daily and being restocked, it fluctuates constantly,” says Hanley, who adds that around 150 of the beers remain constant. The massive operation, somehow, seems sparkly and seamless.
The hundreds of beers are strategically organized within the space. The first floor serves as the “NC bar,” featuring 144 beers on tap, which is already the largest collection of North Carolina beers in one spot. The international floor houses a couple hundred beers from the rest of the country and overseas. Hanley lets me peek into the keg room, which looks like something out of a sci-fi movie. The space is super techy with kegs and pipelines neatly organized, bearing no resemblance to my college keg party days. Like the science lab of the beer world, the keg room requires a tremendous degree of expertise and dedication to maintain.
“We have regular line-cleaning services alongside our two in-house techs that move kegs all day, ensuring replacements are hooked up daily and as quick as possible,” says Hanley. “The refrigeration system for the two main bars is a hand-built, one-of-a-kind system that involves individual gas pressure for each keg to control efficiency and quality. There are multiple ‘direct draw’ taps on the side closest to the bar, and the lines on the opposite side are as short as possible to ensure freshness—and for us, it’s less beer to lose when cleaning the lines as much as we are.”
There’s a certified Cicerone-turned-“beer manager” whose job is dedicated to monitoring inventory, placing orders and meeting with beer reps. Then there are the bartenders, friendly beer aficionados who must receive extensive training to stay up to speed with the hundreds of rotating beers. “Many bartenders actually go through the Cicerone training for beer serving in order to be a better-informed bartender when fielding the litany of questions from the patrons,” says Kevin Pelham, assistant manager. To keep stats on kegs, there’s a digital menu online that updates in real time when a keg is removed and added back in.
Of course, selecting quality, delicious beers is the most fundamental tasks. “When bringing in a new beer, we like to think about seasonal options, flavor profiles and what folks are really into at the moment,” Hanley says.
Raleigh Beer Garden’s ability to offer a humungous selection of beers means that there’s always something for every palate—even just within the category of in-state beers. “We have a large selection of North Carolina sour beers and farmhouse-style beers right now,” says Pelham. With state’s craft beer boom, you’ll find locals throwing back popular Wicked Weed Pernicious IPA and Raleigh Brewing Hell Yes Ma'am on the regular, and in the international room, people are loving Mikkeller Big Hazy and Alesmith Thai Speedway Stout, both from San Diego.
“We like to pay attention to trends within the beer industry, as well as unique and specialty beers that people may not see on draft anywhere else,” says Pelham. With new breweries opening weekly, intuiting the next big beer trend is a valuable skill.