Updated: Apr 7
In my short time as a brewery taproom manager, I got very tired very quickly of doing inventory. I started off each with inventory - counting every single keg in the cooler and recording the numbers to a hand-written inventory sheet. Luckily, the brewery I worked at had a relatively small cooler, so it only took me about 5-10 minutes to do the count. But even those 5-10 minutes were tedious, time-consuming, and likely riddled with human error and miscounts.
Keg inventory is critically important. But many breweries still do inventory the old fashioned way...with pencil and paper. With today's tech-driven world, solutions exist that lessen the difficulties you face doing inventory.
Click HERE to jump to a demo video of Keg Punk - a taproom inventory system that provides brewers with a modern approach to draft beer management.
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THE IMPORTANCE OF CELLAR INVENTORY
For the most part, cellar inventory in a brewery is fairly straight forward...
You brew a batch of beer and fill some kegs
The kegs are put into the cellar
Kegs are taken from the cellar and sold through the taproom or some other channel (such as distribution)
The number of kegs going in should match the number of kegs going out
It's a simple process and yet such a vital aspect of brewery operations. At it's core, inventory attempts to keep accountability of what goes in (how much beer did we keg?) and what goes out (how much beer did we sell, waste, or give away?).
Beyond internal accountability of your beer and kegs, there are several reasons inventory is such a critical process in a brewery.
Typically (I won't speak for all states), certain values form your inventory have to be reported to the government for gallonage, taxes, fees, etc. While nobody (I hope) would intentionally skew numbers on these reports for their benefit, it's always a possibility that errors were made and false numbers reported. If audits occur, your brewery could be in a world of hurt. Accurate counts and the ability to trace your records back is vital to keeping things on track and keeping you out of trouble.
KEEPING STAFF INFORMED
The cellar inventory plays a critical role in the business aspect of things for sure - but it plays a critical role in the operational side of the brewery as well. Generally, inventory is referenced by two sides of the brewery - the brewers, and the taproom staff.
Keg counts are a telling sign of when brewers need to brew (or not brew). Running low on kegs of your flagship blonde ale? Time to brew! Still got a bunch of kegs of the imperial stout hanging around? Probably don't need to worry about that for a while. Inventory drives the brewing schedule, so having an accurate and up to date count of your stock contributes to an efficient production operation.
On the front side of the house, taproom staff needs to be in-the-know of what's available to sell. Keeping the bartenders up to date with counts helps them plan what to tap if something runs out. It also eliminates the need to look for something that doesn't exist. If a keg empties and the bartender KNOWS that it was the last keg of that beer, then they don't need to waste time searching around the cooler looking for the same thing, they can just grab a replacement and move on.
Inventory plays a big role when it comes to planning events or any day you expect to be busier than normal. Say your brewery is doing a charity event and you're expected to have a big turn-out. It's easy to change a keg during a rush, but it's hard to tell customers that you ran out of something completely. Being up to date on the inventory can help taproom staff curate the tap list to fit the scenario. If you know you only have a few kegs of the Amber Lager available, maybe switch that out beforehand with something you have more of.
Inventory is data, and we live and work in a data-driven world. It's not enough to take the numbers, report them to the government, and store the sheets in a file cabinet to gather dust. No - take the numbers and do something useful with them. Basically every professional brewery makes good beer - but not every brewery puts effort into data analysis. The number you record could reveal strengths, weaknesses, or trends in your brewery that you can work with to get the upper edge over your competitors.
INVENTORY PROBLEMS & SOLUTIONS
Problem: Keeping Staff Informed
As I stated above, it's important to keep the brewers and taproom staff up to date on cellar inventory. In my experience, the brewers where more informed than the taproom staff about what was in the cellar, simply because they were the ones making and kegging all of it. On the other hand, the bartenders (for the most part) relied solely on the taproom manager to inform them on what was available, running low, or out of stock. While I didn't mind giving them updates each shift, I wished for a more modern way for the bartenders to stay up to date without having to look at a handwritten inventory sheet or asking me to check the cellar.
Find a way to keep the inventory numbers close to the bartenders. This is a great way to keep them up to date on what's new, available, low, or out of stock. If you're like me, remembering what's in the cellar doesn't always work out, but having the numbers at your finger tips ensures that nobody gets caught off guard.
Problem: Human Error
Humans are incredibly inept when it comes to repetitive, tedious tasks. In my time at the brewery, there is no way I did not commit at least a few counting errors, or simply wrote a 1 when I meant to write a 7. To make matters worse, we had three different groups of people maintaining the inventory sheet:
During the day, the cellarman would fill kegs, count and record them to the sheet, then move them into the cellar.
Before a shift, a taproom manager (such as myself) would count the entire cellar and record the quantities.
Then during the shift, bartenders would manually tally any kegs removed from the cellar.
There's a lot of opportunity on all sides for counting or recording errors, especially when using pencil and paper.
Eliminate pencil and paper as the primary means of recording inventory. Computers running specialized and affordable inventory software are great for reducing human error. Gone are the days of messy handwriting and lost or damaged papers.
Problem: Manual Data Entry
Eventually, the hard-copy inventory sheet will have to be transcribed into a digital form. This may be for government tracking purposes, taxes, or simply for your own reference. Whatever the reason, data entry is notoriously time-consuming, error-prone, and just generally obnoxious. I've already mentioned above how numerous people contributed to the hard-copy sheet and I'll be the first to admit that my handwriting is atrocious. I imagine that the person inputting the inventory data into the computer had difficulties translating multiple peoples handwriting - likely leading to further errors and frustration.
Combine all inventory processes into a single system that is accessible to everyone. Rather than having two processes - one for recording numbers and another for transcribing them into a spreadsheet, do both at the same time. Ideally, the computer you run this on should be available to everyone - tablets or wall-mounted touchscreens are great for this.
Problem: Taproom vs. Distribution Inventories
The brewery I worked at had two coolers: one for the taproom, and one for distribution. Each cooler had its own inventory sheet. As you can imagine, there were times when the taproom staff needed to take a keg from the distribution cooler to replace an emptied keg that wasn't available in the taproom cooler. While recording this transfer wasn't exactly rocket science, managing two separate hard-copy inventory sheets seemed like a perfect entry point for errors to slip in. I constantly wished for a unified inventory system that combined inventory for all kegs into one process.
Ideally, you would combine the two inventories into one - but there may be a reason you are keeping things separate. Regardless, making things as clear and error-proof as possible for staff can help out. I'm a big advocate of going digital, even if you don't combine the two spreadsheets, software, or whatever you're using to do inventory - this will help in reducing problems or confusion when kegs are transferred between the two coolers.
Problem: Doing More With Inventory Data
You have to keep inventory. And you have to submit some figures to the government. But after that the numbers are still there, waiting patiently for someone to do something useful with them. Inventory numbers seem pretty boring on the surface, but look at what they consist of? Dates and keg counts. There is SO MUCH knowledge you could extract from those two things alone. The difficulty is not in analyzing these numbers, it's in structuring them in a way that allows you to easily analyze them. If you're good with Excel and don't mind a little manual entry, then you're well on your way. But this is error-prone and takes time.
Professionally made spreadsheets are the way to go here. Whether you are entering inventory data manually, or importing data from software, the spreadsheet will make things easy, error-proof, and structured in a way that you can understand. Compiling inventory data can give you a wealth of knowledge about the good, bad, and ugly of your brewery operations.