I love draught beer. A rare beer in a bottle is a delight; that same rare beer on draught can be momentous. Draught beer is both accessibly simple and a technical marvel, and with the country-wide ascension of the beer bar, draught dispensing systems have become the centerpieces of many businesses: all that gleaming glass, steel, and chrome.
But what about serving draught beer at home? In the context of a home draught system, we’re usually talking about a kegerator. Let's run through your options if you want to enjoy this technological marvel in the comfort of your own home.
Note: in the composition of this piece, I linked to many different purveyors of draught beer equipment, including Northern Brewer, which in October 2016 was acquired by ZX Ventures, an investor in this magazine. I also personally patronized NB for many years.
Fridge or Freezer?
“Kegerator,” that charming portmanteau, usually describes a refrigerator or chest freezer that’s been converted for use in home draught beer dispensing. If you go the chest freezer route (which I personally prefer – depending on the size of the freezer, you have a lot more room to work with), you’ll need to get and install a temperature controller.
The optimal serving temperature for draught beer is 38F, and most home freezers aren’t designed to maintain a temperature that high – it’s above freezing, after all. These controllers range in price from ~$20 for something you have to hardwire into the freezer (something I would never try without assistance) to $50-100 for “pass through” controllers, which allow you to easily control the temperature of the box: you plug the freezer into the controller and the controller into the wall; a probe you put inside the freezer senses when the temperature has gotten below your set range, and cuts power to the freezer until the temperature rises again.
Pretty simple – I’ve personally used a brandless analog model (like this one) with no problems. If you decide to go the refrigerator route, you can potentially get along without the controller, but it may take some real effort to get the temperature of the fridge optimized: adjust, test, adjust again, test, etc. But if you can get to 38F and hold it there to within a few degrees, bully for you.
To Faucet or Not: Just How Fancy Are You
Once you’ve decided on your fridge or freezer box, it’s time to decide how deep you wanna go with this thing: do you desire something approximating a bar experience in your home, with shiny chrome beer faucets, tap handles, and the inner workings of the sausage factory concealed from view? If so, you will need the faucet itself (buy stainless steel, never brass!), as well as a faucet shank, which will pass through the wall of your keg box and connect the beer line to the faucet.
In addition to these key pieces, you will need correctly sized vinyl beer line (usually 3/16”; make sure it matches your shank pieces), washers (go ahead and buy a bunch now; you can never have too many beer washers), wing or hex nuts, and “tail pieces,” stainless steel hardware that connects the vinyl beer line to the shank. None of these things cost a great deal individually, but put ‘em together and you’re starting to talk about real money – especially if you’re buying enough hardware for multiple draught lines.
For those homebrewers not inclined to go that extra mile, there is a very simple, if somewhat inelegant solution: the humble picnic tap. The picnic tap is a length of flexible vinyl beer line with a plastic lever faucet on one end, and a ball lock connection on the other for attaching directly to your corny keg. Rather than adding a wooden collar to your chest freezer or drilling holes through the wall of your refrigerator to mount faucet shanks, you simply attach the picnic tap, pour off as much beer as you desire, then tuck the tap back into the kegerator and close it up.
I had a kegerator set up like this for years, and while it’s not sexy, it works great and it’s very cheap. Just make sure (like everything else in your home draught setup) you’re cleaning that picnic tap frequently. (Note that the picnic tap route is usually only an option for dispensing homebrew, not commercially kegged beer.)
Kegs ‘n’ Couplers
If you’re pouring homebrew, you’ll want a couple-few “corny” kegs: these are five gallon kegs that likely held soda in a previous life, have standard ball lock fittings found on most draught homebrew equipment, and have a large sealable port in the top for filling and cleaning.
If you’re pouring commercially kegged beer primarily, you’re going to need to invest in a coupler, what lots of people colloquially call a “tap” or “Sankey.” If you plan to pour mostly domestic beer, you’ll need a “D” coupler (or “American Sankey” in the parlance of our times). Import keg coupler types vary by brand, region and (seemingly) the time of day, so be sure to check with your local retailer or distributor about what type of hardware you’ll need to pour a particular brand.
The last piece of the puzzle is the gas you’ll use to dispense your brew. Invest in a five pound or larger gas tank and decent regulator; you can buy these prefilled at gas suppliers, or buy empty tanks online or at a homebrew shop and have them filled later.
Most people dispensing at home use either straight CO2 or a nitrogen/CO2 mix known as “G-mix” or sometimes just “beer gas.” The correct amount of pressure to apply to effectively serve beer is going to vary pretty widely by system, but for most home setups with beer lines shorter than ten feet from keg to faucet, you’ll be in the neighborhood of ~10psi. If you bought a premade kegerator or a DIY package with all the components, the beer line is already cut to a specific length, and the setup should have instructions as to the correct serving pressure.
Draught beer systems are all about balance; to successfully dispense draught beer at home, you’ll need the system to be at the correct temperature (again, about 38F) and pressure (which varies according to the length and size of your beer line – here’s a handy overview to balancing a draught system)
If you’ve chosen to go the picnic tap route, note that you’ll need much less pressure than you would otherwise, as the line on those things is usually only a few feet long. Don’t be afraid to experiment to get things pouring correctly, and don’t assume that if you’re getting foamy beer the gas always needs turned down – too little pressure can cause foam issues just as easily.
At the end of the day, you’re looking to pour at about two ounces per second, or a gallon a minute, with little excess foam but with a nice cap of head on the glass.
You Need to Clean
A word on cleaning: if you want good draught beer at home consistently, you’re going to be doing a lot of it. Every two weeks, you should clean each part of your system with a caustic cleaning agent and flush thoroughly to keep things fresh, disassemble the fittings (including faucets and couplers), soak everything in warm water and caustic, and rinse well. And every two months, you should clean the system with an acid to remove any buildup of “beer stone,” a hard white substance comprised of proteins from beer and minerals from water.
When working with beer line cleaning chemicals take great care and follow all instructions to the letter. These are serious cleaning agents that can seriously harm you if mishandled or (god forbid) consumed. The most important part of good draught beer is cleanliness, and if you hate to clean, a draught beer setup probably isn’t for you. Homebrewing neither.
Lastly, be sure to check out the Brewer’s Association Draught Beer Quality Manual. This slim volume is the industry bible on draught dispensing, but is completely accessible and thoroughly useful to the layman, as well.