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Moving To A Keg System

Published: 20/10/2016 11:08 am
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Before you build a keg system

For many brewers, the move to a keg system is an obvious next step to get away from laborious bottling days and for the pure indulgence of being able to pour a great beer from the tap after work. Keg systems can become a focal point in entertaining and entertainment areas as well.  While it’s all too easy to jump online and find the cheapest keg system available, it’s also a quick step towards buying the wrong gear and starting off with a system that is bound to disappoint.

Before taking the plunge, lets look at a few options and the different ways people put systems together.

The first is to procure an old fridge at the right price. Providing that fridge seals and gets cold, then it will do the job of housing the kegs and becoming home to a door mounted beer tap.

The next is what is commonly called a “Keezer” or keg freezer. Keezers take on all forms, shapes and sizes. Either way, most will need a temperature controller to run the keezer at somewhere around 2-5 degrees C.  Freezers have chiller lines and other utilities running around between the outer shell and the inner liner, so there can be an issue if you drill a hole to mount anything – it usually ends with a loud noise, soiled trousers and a room full of refrigerant gas.  Most brewers opt to build a thick timber collar around the upper dimensions of the freezer, remove the lid, then mount the new collar where the lid once sat. The lid is then mounted to the collar and that extension is now where taps are mounted, holes drilled and bits screwed on. The collar can be finished in a stain , paint, adhesive finish, blackboard paint or even tiles or orb, depending on how much bling you want.

Keezers are a good option if you have basic tools and a bit of skill in the handyman department. Probably the largest pitfall is the position you lift and lower kegs at. Not good for the back in the long term.

The next option is to modify an old refrigerator to take the kegs. They need to sit securely on a heavy base made of timber and ply wood. You can then either drill a 22mm hole in the door to mount the tap or use a hand held pluto gun for dispensing. The latter tends to be less efficient since the door is opened every time you want a beer and the fridge will work overtime at times of high use.

The next option is a purpose built kegerator. These are a tidy, though not necessarily cheap option and they present well in entertainment areas or within home décor. Kegerators can house anywhere from 3 to 12 typical 19L kegs and can be configured with a single or multiple taps.

The worst possible choice /option/not an option is to stick a couple of kegs warm in the bar area and run the beer through a chiller plate or coil inside an esky with ice. Yep, people actually do it…. but never for long. Warm beer doesn’t hold carbonation well, does not store well and while it might serve cold, it will not present well for long. It is not really an option for home use. But will get you out of strife for an occasional party or camping trip.

Regardless of which of the above options you choose, there are some things worth considering.

The first is your beer consumption rate.

If you currently consume on average 1 carton of beer a week, work it out into volume in litres.

30 x 335ml or 24 x 375ml etc…. now work out how long it takes to make a batch of beer and then the aging time for that beer. Work on 4 weeks post fermentation before a lager is going to be presentable enough to drink. Work on the same for pale ales or maybe a week less. Most wheat beers are at their best from 10 minutes in the keg until about 6-8 weeks old, so they lend themselves ideally to force carbonation and drinking them while they’re young and vibrant.

From that, you can estimate how many kegs you will need to establish your rotation. That number of kegs can be built over time. Second hand kegs are often available for around the $45-$60 mark and provided they’re in good condition and not missing posts or vital components, can still give years of use after a service and new seals are put in them. (good way to save a few $)

Next thing to consider is how many beer styles you like to drink. Some beers do not make sense to keg. An example might be a 12% abv Russian Imperial stout. If it is a beer you might have 2 glasses of every week, then there is no point in having it occupying a keg while you drink around it. If you like to drink 10 x 12% Russian Imperial Stouts a day, then you might have a problem & need help.

Once we have decided how many kegs you will need and how many beer styles you wish to have on tap at any one time plus what the keg system will be housed in, we can start looking at the nitty gritty of how to put that into a plan.

Save a few bucks

First, a few words of advice. I suggest to everyone to save money where it does not matter…but do not skimp where it does. While there is a place for budget designed gear, it is not in the critical areas. A cheap gas bottle is fine; a cheap regulator is false economy. Cheap sweatshop made push fit joiners and components are a recipe for empty gas bottles and more heartache and wasted money than they are worth. Seriously. When it comes to regulators, you will be wanting to spend about 25-30% more for a regulator that is well built, reliable and has spare parts available. We use and recommend European Micromatic CO2 regulators, knowing they give years of trouble free service and all parts are available readily if you trash it. It is exceptional gear – that is why we offer a no hassles warranty on top of the manufacturer’s warranty.

LINES

When it comes to beer lines and gas lines, there is no place for saving perhaps a few cents per metre. Use LLDPE line for ultra-low gas permeability and reliability. 2 brands stand out, John Guest and Valpar.  If you want to build a system based on John Guest style push in fittings, then do it with confidence and do it properly. Use clean cuts, C clips to retain everything and you have just built a system that should give years of trouble free service. Cut a few corners, save 20 odd cents a fitting and we will see you when your gas bottle is empty from another blown seal. For what? In the end you pay twice as much for 10 times the anguish. When it comes to lines, connectors, joiners etc, buy once and buy well. (Read on for more about the John Guest fittings.)

Our recommendation is to use thick 3/8” OD on the gas side, this allows compatibility later with inline secondary regulators should you expand that way in the future and it provides line thickness that will not kink easily in a cramped fridge leading to weak spots and potential for leaks. On the dispense side for the beer, then 5/16” (5mm x 8mm) line in a 3 metre length will provide sufficient peripheral resistance in the line to slow the beer down a little and provide a decent pour at the tap. Shorter lengths can be used if you have flow control taps, but making up a small coil with a couple of zip ties, keeps it all tidy in the fridge. (more on these later)

Not everyone is a fan of, or understands the benefit of push fit style systems. In that case, then use Oetiker style single ear clamps and make sure the line size suits the barb size for the fittings. Most barbs are better suited to 6mm ID lines than 5mm, which requires heating and stressing to get them to fit. Clamping offers a slightly cheaper but secure way to put together a keg system, but each time the system is modified or added onto you end up cutting and shortening lines etc. We recommend 6mm x 10mm Valpar or 3/8” OD John Guest LLDPE Line for all gas side lines when barbed fittings are used. These lines are heavy duty and offer a level of protection that stretching thinner lines over barbs do not. A ruptured CO2 line will empty a CO2 bottle in minutes at great expense.

DISCONNECTS - Disconnects are the main connection between lines and the actual keg. We’ve trialled and tested a fair range of them over the last 6 years. One batch we binned over 150 disconnects with leaking or missing seals, faulty design and worse. There is disconnects and then there is disconnects. It is not an area to look for savings of a few cents. CMB out of Germany are a time proven manufacturer of exceptional quality disconnects and other fittings and taps which have been giving trouble free service for many years. They are outstanding quality and backed by the manufacturer, plus we offer a no hassles warranty above that. Choice of the disconnects is either a mfl threaded connector suitable to use with John Guest fittings for adaptability or a barbed fitting. (see pics below)

Regardless of which fit-out you choose, we recommend at least 1 x check valve (1 way valve) in the gas system plumbing. If you have an overfilled keg and liquid does enter the gas line in a brain fart episode, then everything will need stripping and cleaning. The last thing you want is a lacto or aceto infection being passed into every subsequent keg. It is especially important to have a check valve built into the line if you intend to force carbonate kegs via the liquid inlet side.

We have German made / USA assembled gas disconnects with built in check valves available to offer the ultimate in protection. But for force carbonation set up to take a liquid disconnect and pass gas down the dip tube, you will need a separate inline check valve immediately before the black liquid disconnect.

Plan ahead

Building in the ability to expand, reduce or modify your system. Every week, we talk with brewers who have made budget based decisions to buy cheap gear that is either failed or failed to impress and which does not allow for expansion. Once you buy one of those solid alloy block manifolds with small ball valves, you have pretty much limited to the number of gas lines you can run. That means a discard or sell off to recover some costs and starting from scratch on the new build. Buy once, buy well.

Thinking far enough ahead, do you like a wide variety of beer styles? Do those beer styles all require the same carbonation levels to be presented at their best?

If not, then it becomes a major juggling act to be able to enjoy a stout, pale ale and Belgian golden strong ale from the same fridge if you do not cater to those needs.

Enter the role of Micromatic Secondary regulators. Secondary regulators are placed inline within the fridge after the Primary regulator and before the keg. The primary regulator is set to the highest setting necessary to suit whatever beer needs the higher level of carbonation, then a secondary regulator drops the pressure for a beer requiring lower carbonation. Brilliant!

Micromatic secondary regulators can be built up (see pic) into a manifold system or used as a single unit inline to other kegs. In a perfect world for the brewer who wants the ultimate in adaptability and regulation, then 1 can be placed for every keg and adjusted to suit. These units use 3/8” push lock fittings and are 100% compatible with John Guest fittings and 3/8” OD lines. Reducers can be employed to make them compatible with existing 5/16” OD line if necessary.

Taps: now there are taps and then there are taps. Over the last 4-5 years, we have seen a procession of cheap stuff flow through the market. Some are OK, some are crap and some are worse than crap. I really do not know how to put that into better terminology. There are about 4 main brands that particularly stand out for quality and reliability. We will start at the budget end with Krome Dispense. They know how to turn out nice gear. Machined surfaces are well finished and they just work. Not the prettiest of taps necessarily, but they are priced about right, are functional and have been around for eons. Perlick taps generally have a great reputation. They had a series of taps that were problematic with some poor seals and a challenge with patents soon saw new and improved models released which is what we see with the 630ss and 650ss flow control model. These are both fine taps. They work, they are well finished, the flow control is slick and they are priced about middle of the range for a full stainless steel tap. Seals and kits are readily available and for those who have them, they will give decades of faultless service.

Next up the line into a more stylish tap is the Micromatic range. Slick, tidy, modern design, parts availability and serviceability has improved dramatically recently for customers outside of the USA and Europe. (yep, everything is now available in Australia). Solutions are being worked on at the moment to allow these to be fitted up to standard gauge US Stainless shanks & collars.

At this stage, I have probably raised more questions than I have answered for you. Great. Now we can save you a lot of headaches $ and disappointment. It is time to sit down and decide if you can afford to buy twice or 3 times, or if you want to hold off a little while and build a worthwhile system that will work for years to come.

Next step is to think through the entire build. Initial keg numbers, gas system and dispensing system. Save a few $ where you can, but do not skimp the Cents and pay more later (soon)

Once you do that little bit of homework covered above, decide exactly what you want and you are ready to start, you can save it to the cart, type “lay-by please” into the notes section and we can create a lay-by for you with $0 interest, pay it off over a term that suits the budget and get an affordable top quality system together in a reasonable time frame.