By Eric Peterson | Oct 20, 2017
Draft beer systems and equipment
Before getting into beer, Buck worked in construction and injured his neck. While still wearing a brace, he went to Coors' in-house draft academy with a friend who was the brewery's national draft manager. "I really got into it," says Buck.
That's a bit of an understatement: He soon was maintaining the program's equipment and teaching classes himself, then pivoted from from building homes to building draft systems in the early 1990s.
"What really kickstarted us was Coors Field," says Cheryl, Buck's wife and business partner. "Downtown Denver just blew up. We went from doing a little on the side to doing it full-time."
The constants in the quarter-century since: innovation and growth. "The beer industry was kind of behind," says Buck.
It follows that Thirst Aid was built on making draft systems with components from a wide range of vendors and contract manufacturers. "The way other companies do it is a one-size-fits-all kind of a thing," says Cheryl. "Nobody was doing anything custom."
Thirst Aid filled that niche with increasingly complex systems, sometimes with as many as 100 draft heads and a budget of $150,000. But no job is too small: The company also builds small systems for home kegerators. Says Buck: "We pimp out your box."
Today, "Nine out of 10 systems is a custom job," says Cheryl. "We don't think going out of the catalog is the way to go."
About 85 percent of projects are local, but the company has installed systems all over the country. Thirst Aid's customers include such Colorado breweries as Left Hand, Great Divide, Breckenridge, and FATE, as well as restaurants and bars like Parry's Pizzeria and Old Chicago locations coast to coast.
Cheryl does the books and handles the business side of things, and Buck fabricates and installs the systems with his son, Dustin.
"We usually have four to six jobs going at the same time," says Cheryl, noting that sales hit $1.5 million in 2016. "Each year, it's grown a lot, especially the last seven or eight years."
The Cooks source materials from a wide range of suppliers and utilize everything from glass-lined tubing to custom stainless steel in pursuit of a good pour.
Buck's experience in construction comes into play: Sometimes he sees plans for a system that involves four-inch holes in load-bearing walls. "We're also motorheads," he adds. "We turn wrenches, too. Your draft system is like a racecar." Bad mechanics can "make or break a beer system," just like the cars on the speedway.
"Beer is super complicated, because we're not controlling a liquid, we're controlling a gas," he adds. "It is not uncommon for a beer system to lose half of a keg."
To minimize waste, the Cooks leave nothing to chance. "We hand-build all of our trunk lines using a lot smaller tubing," says Buck. "We build the beer heads, too. We hand-build everything in the cooler. We want the inside of the cooler to look as good as the outside."
It usually takes two days to two weeks to build the system at the Thirst Aid shop in Englewood, but the Cooks aim for efficient installations in what are often construction zones. "We try to make it easy," says Cheryl, noting the typical installation is done in a day or less. "It takes a lot of coordination."
Altitude complicates things. "It affects everything -- cooking, your car," says Buck. "A lot of beer technicians don't know how to handle it."
"Time and time again, we're told, 'We're down to hardly any loss . . . It's like night and day,'" says Cheryl. "In 25 years, we have never advertised. It's all word of mouth."
Cheryl and Buck's son, Dustin, came on board full-time in about 2010 after watching his dad build draft systems since he was a kid. "The cool thing was seeing my dad's reputation build up over the years," says Dustin, who studied fine arts before getting his EPA certification to work in refrigeration, an apt background for Thirst Aid's functional art.
"We like having total control," says Buck. "When we build something, we don't want to be fixing somebody else's mistake. Our motto is: 'We trust no one.'"
He says he cringes when he sees a poorly performing draft system. I say, 'Guys, you're dumping money down the drain. We can make it pour like water.'"
Favorite beers: While Cheryl isn't much of a beer drinker, Buck gives a nod to Breckenridge 471. "I'm more into IPAs," he says.
Dustin has a much different palate than his father's. "He loves IPAs, and I don't care for IPAs," he says. "I'm really big into sours, and he can't stand the sours." Crooked Stave is one of his favorites.
Adds Buck: "We actually trade out for beer. Some people say, 'We work for beer’ -- we do!"
Challenges: "Getting equipment," says Buck. The craft brewing boom has made it more difficult to source everything from tubing to glycol chillers. Notes Cheryl: "There's not a lot of it that's local."
Dustin says initial bar designs need to include the draft system. "It's always looked at as an afterthought," he says. When it's part of the initial plans for a bar, "It looks like it was designed to be there and it works great for the bartenders."
Opportunities: Showstopper draft systems. "It's what brings them in," says Buck, noting that 100 taps with rotating five-gallon kegs are "what people flock to."
"There's nothing out there mass-produces when you get over 20 taps," notes Dustin. "It's all about the quality of the beer. The brewmaster is working hard to brew it."
A second market for kegged beverages is also starting to drive Thirst Aid's growth. "We're getting into wine," says Buck. "It's a piece of cake -- it's not carbonated."
Needs: "More time to do all these jobs," laughs Buck. "We don't care how big or small, we just want to do it good."