Ban the Can, Tap the Keg

Fraternities consume dozens of 30-packs each weak, creating waste and enabling high-risk drinking. Photo courtesy of threeforship.com

Fraternities consume dozens of 30-packs each weak, creating waste and enabling high-risk drinking. Photo courtesy of threeforship.com

In the years since Dartmouth distanced itself from its erstwhile official Indian mascot, an anthropomorphic beer keg, aptly named, “Keggy,” has served as an unofficial mascot of sorts for the College. In spite of the impression our unofficial mascot may give, the supposed prevalence of kegs on Dartmouth’s campus is now an antiquated cliché. Kegs, once the primary means of serving beer at parties at Dartmouth, are now a rarity in fraternity basements. They were banned suddenly in 1991, and although the prohibition of kegs was subsequently lifted, permanently-installed beer taps remained banned. Furthermore, President Wright’s decision to enforce “the strict keg-use formulas that appear to be circumvented with great regularity,” as outlined in his well-intentioned, but misguided Student Life Initiative of January 2000, further marginalized kegs as a means of distributing beer.

Under current College regulations, fraternities are required to register all kegs with the GLOS (Greek Letter Organizations and Societies) office by 4 PM on the day of a registered event, or by 4 PM on Friday if the event is over the weekend. GLOS then provides fraternities with keg tags, which Safety and Security uses to monitor fraternities’ beer consumption through kegs. If a fraternity registers a Tier 3 event (the largest possible event registration), they are allowed to purchase a maximum of five kegs of beer or cider, and can only have two kegs tapped at any given time. Tier 3 social events are an anomaly; for more commonplace social events, the calculation used by the administration to determine how much beer to allow is that each student over the age of twenty-one will consume a maximum of one beer per hour.

Assuming that Dartmouth students will drink beer at social events, an assumption that only the most unrealistic administrator would deny, the goal of the College’s alcohol policies should be to ensure that beer is being consumed in the safest and most moderately paced manner possible. Kegs were originally phased out because they were associated with the rapid and excessive consumption of alcohol; however, in their absence, the void in Dartmouth’s market for beer was filled by the heretofore unfamiliar 30-pack of Keystone Light. In an interview with The Dartmouth Review, Jack Stinson, Hanover’s longtime purveyor of Keystone and owner of Stinson’s grocery store, said, “Hanover didn’t know what a 30-pack was, literally, there was no need. [With kegs] beer was cheap, there was a lot of it… But it was controlled, because if you were at an event beer could only come out of a keg at a certain rate.” The move to 30-packs has not only exacerbated high-risk drinking, but has also caused a variety of other problems. Among these, the most prominent are the tons of waste produced by the millions of beer cans consumed and discarded annually, and the undue costs borne by Greek houses—30-packs of canned beer cost significantly more money than their equivalent amount in kegs.

Bill Mitchell, a member of the Class of 1979 and longtime house advisor for Bones Gate fraternity, has been a prominent champion of the reintroduction of kegs at fraternity parties. In 2013, he launched a campaign called “BanTheCan, TapTheKeg,” whose mission is self-explanatory. Mitchell says the impetus for the campaign “started all around waste and the environment,” but throughout his time spent observing social life at Bones Gate and other fraternities, he realized: “Man, you can really fill up beers quickly out of cans; of course no one wants kegs, they slow the whole activity cycle down!” Thus, the most significant factor behind Mitchell’s campaign to “Ban the Can” became “slowing down drinking at Dartmouth” and “constricting distribution [of beer] down to a hub.”

The maximum possible rate of distribution from kegs is, quite simply, much slower than that of cans. Indeed, even at a one-to-one comparison (with one person filling cups for a pong game with cans, while the other fills from a keg), cups can be filled much more rapidly with cans than with a keg. Then, once you consider that at any given moment during a social event, dozens of beer cans can be opened and poured simultaneously for games of pong, assorted drinking games, and casual social consumption, it becomes abundantly clear that cans enable a highly scalable and nearly unimpeded flow of beer throughout the basement.

Back when kegs were still the primary mechanism for beer distribution, the consequences of the limited scalability of kegs and their fixed distribution rate was easily perceived. “Back in the day, the lines for a cup of beer were 17 people-long,” Stinson said. “You could get two beers in three hours. Is that control? I mean, isn’t it?” Furthermore, when half-full 30-packs of beer are scattered throughout the basement, the access to beer can no longer be feasibly controlled by the brothers or sisters of the host organization. With kegs and taps installed behind bars in fraternity basements, the centralization of alcohol made it easier for members of the host organization to discern who should or should not be receiving alcohol. Taps generally gave fraternities greater control over the consumption of alcohol at a party.

As Bill Mitchell points out, the reintroduction of kegs as a means of slowing consumption may seem, at first glance, “a counter-intuitive solution, because when you tell people that you think switching to kegs will slow drinking down, most people look at you like you’ve been drinking too much already.” Although a measured, rational approach to the logistics of beer distribution would prove these fears to be unfounded, the environmental detriments of a can-based method of distribution at the College are more easily discerned.

In his research for the “Ban the Can” campaign, Mitchell measured the scale of environmental waste produced by cans with two methods. First, he used 2001 and 2008 alcohol consumption surveys taken by Dick’s House to approximate the average annual consumption of beers at Dartmouth; and second, he used an extrapolation of fraternity social dues expenditures to approximate the money spent by fraternities on 30-packs of Keystone. According to the Dick’s House surveys, forty-five percent of students drink beer on a regular basis—undoubtedly a lowball estimate. However, for the sake of simplicity, this figure can still convey the issue at hand. In his other method of measurement, the social expenditures of the thirteen largest fraternities on campus, Mitchell determined that the average termly expenditure on beer is roughly $15,000 per fraternity. Mitchell also assumes that one-third of drinking on campus occurs outside fraternities. By averaging his two methods of measurement, Mitchell estimates that the annual consumption at Dartmouth is roughly 1,800,000 beers. This figure is likely a conservative estimate; in reality, the number probably exceeds 2 million beers annually. By Mitchell’s estimation, about 75% of these beers consumed on campus are in cans (again, probably a low estimate).

Assuming all these factors, Mitchell calculates the waste produced by beer cans to be a staggering 19.8 tons, or 39,600 pounds, annually. Furthermore, according to Mitchell, “a little dark secret is that the College gets all the money from the recycling, because the recycling folks pay money… to collect all our recycling.” While it would be a far stretch to claim that the administration favors cans over kegs to turn a profit from the waste produced, this certainly presents a conflict of interest—not necessarily because the recycling of cans is a motivation in and of itself, but because the reintroduction of kegs would be an uphill battle in the first place. Given Dartmouth’s stated commitment to sustainability, the elimination of cans in fraternities would be a step in the right direction; while it is not a top priority in the College’s sustainability efforts, it would be a positive development nonetheless.

Then, there are the economic advantages of kegs over cans. A 30-pack of Keystone Light currently fetches $17.50 at Stinson’s. A keg of Keystone Light costs $69.00, and holds roughly 165 beers. Thus, the equivalent amount of a keg’s-worth of beer, if purchased in 30-packs, costs $96.25. That is nearly forty percent more expensive than a keg. The savings posed by a transition from cans to kegs in fraternities would be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. To make the transition more palatable for the administration, a condition of the reintroduction of kegs could be that all money saved on purchases of kegs instead of 30-packs must be spent on charitable donations or beautification measures—but not the purchase of more alcohol.

Kegs are not banned on Dartmouth’s campus; however, the onerous regulations limiting their use in fraternity basements makes them an unattractive option. Furthermore, once a fraternity has jumped through the necessary hoops to procure a keg for their basement, the existing ban on permanent taps forces fraternities to use laborious hand-pumps that produce warm and foamy beer. The Dartmouth Review encourages the administration to once again allow permanent taps, and to reform the stringent policies regulating keg use. At the very least, the College should investigate the practical advantages of kegs more thoroughly. Contrary to the image cultivated in popular culture, kegs substantially limit the rapidity with which beer can be distributed to partygoers, and enable Greek houses to better ensure the centralization of distribution. Additionally, their environmental and economic benefits cannot be overlooked. The Dartmouth Review hereby encourages all members of the Dartmouth community to join in Bill Mitchell’s rallying cry: Ban the Can, Tap the Keg!

John Hammel Strauss also contributed to this article.