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Hundreds of kegs have been stolen from D.C. bars over the past couple of months, but the thief isn’t after a free buzz—the stolen kegs have been empty.

At one victimized tavern, Adams Mill Bar & Grill in Adams Morgan, the culprit’s MO has been to bust through the bar’s locked fence around dawn and pile the stack of empty kegs into a vehicle and drive away. Police suspect that the perp is recycling the aluminum kegs at scrap-metal companies for cash or turning them in to liquor stores for a deposit.

“At first we let it go, because it was just a few at a time,” says Adams Mill owner Darrell Green. “It has become a serious problem.”

More than a dozen kegs have been stolen from T.S. Muttly’s, which is located a block down from Adams Mill on 18th Street NW. Premium Distributors, who supplies both bars, filed police reports on April 12 for the thefts. The Adams Mill report cited 15 stolen kegs valued at $250 each; T.S. Muttly’s was missing 5 kegs.

The latter police report says that unknown suspects have stolen an additional 10 kegs from the bar over the past month, but no one had filed a report for those.

“Darrell gave me a call the morning he had 15 stolen from him and said, ‘Mike, see if you had any stolen,’” says Michael Polvani, manager of T.S. Muttly’s. “I looked back, and five were gone.”

The thefts haven’t been limited to Adams Morgan. The Ugly Mug, on 8th Street SE in Capitol Hill, has been hit hard by keg thieves. In February, someone used a car to ram into the bar’s locked shed in order to get to the empty kegs inside. The thief parked out of view of the back alley’s security camera and got away with 10 to 20 kegs.

“It was a pretty good effort,” says Ugly Mug general manager MaryBeth Hamel. “He had a lot of work to do to get in there.”

Because the bar’s shed was reduced to splinters, Hamel has been storing empty kegs in a hallway inside. They pile up quick, so she has had to increase the frequency of her pickups to about three times a week rather than just one or two.

Her Capitol Hill neighbors have upped their empty keg security, too, Hamel says. “We learned that he traveled across the city because everyone got smart on the Hill,” she says.

When the thief was still canvassing the Capitol Hill neighborhood, Hamel heard reports of him driving around in a blue pickup truck. “People were looking at him like, Hmm, I wonder what that guy is doing,” she says. “Just an individual driving around with a gigantic stash of kegs.”

Police Officer Andrew Zabavsky, who walks a beat in Adams Morgan, says the keg-thievery trend was first brought up at a 3rd District crime briefing earlier this month. When he first heard of the thefts, Zabavsky says, he “thought it was kind of funny.”

Jim Kane, a manager at Premium Distributors, first noticed the problem in February. While making their rounds, his drivers would expect to pick up 25 or 30 empties at a bar but find only a few.

Kane estimates that “hundreds” of kegs have been stolen so far; Green specifies that the number’s somewhere between 300 and 400. The police do not have any leads, but Green suspects that the culprit is a beer-distribution insider. “It’s someone who knows where empty kegs would be and what accounts get the most,” he says.

Though the breweries own the kegs, which cost hundreds of dollars each to buy new, bars pay a $10 to $20 deposit per keg, which they lose if the keg is not returned. Domestic brews like Budweiser and Miller require a $10 deposit; fancier beers like Magic Hat No. 9 and Guinness cost $20. Green says the thief has passed on the Miller Lite kegs, possibly because they’re covered in rubber.

“You could probably go to a liquor store or beer store or anywhere that sells kegs and return it for $10 or $15,” Kane says. If the thief goes the scrap-metal route, an empty aluminum keg would fetch only $3, according to a company in Upper Marlboro.

Green fears the situation is only about to get worse with the coming summer: His bar serves as a hub for local adult kickball teams, and, Green says, “kickball goes through a lot of kegs.” His lock has already been broken four times.

A police investigator will probably look into the thefts, Zabavsky says, but “it’s definitely not a staying-up-all-night thing. There’s not going to be any 3 a.m. stakeouts.”

“Other than try to keep an eye out, it’s hard,” he says. “If I see a truck loaded with kegs driving down the street, I’m going to investigate at this point.”CP