When Kegerators Attack: Dealing With Unexpected Beer Service Failures

Four days ago I had an experience that most homebrewers would recognize: I got well and truly shafted by my kegerator.

We've all been there, right?  It's one-to-thirty hours before a party, and you're prepping for what is sure to be an event where no fewer than a dozen people will ask, "so, what have you brewed lately?" because that's your thing.  You check on the kegerator...

...and something's wrong.

CO2 tank is empty.

It's too warm.

It's too cold.

There's beer leaking all over the place.

It's way too foamy.

Or all of the above.  And you're screwed.

This week at Beer Simple we'll be talking through some ways to deal with these sudden failures that always seem to hit when you're least prepared to deal with them.  But hey - maybe you've never had this happen, and if that's the case, please e-mail me at josh@beer-simple.com with the name of the guy/gal that supplies you with your sacrificial goats.

The Slow and Quiet Death of the CO2 Cylinder

This is probably the most common.  The number of panicked Facebook posts and sudden mailing list e-mails looking for the nearest refill location is clear evidence of that, and given that we're talking pre-party, they usually come at REALLY inopportune times!  You have options, though.

The easiest fix here is prevention.  Make sure your gas connections are screwed on nice and tightly, use thread tape, and make it a habit to check in.  But even if you do that, you might get a sudden failure.

The next-easiest is to always have a spare and relatively full CO2 cylinder.  It doesn't need to be much - pushing the beer is the easy part and uses relatively little gas, so you don't need a dedicated, full replacement.  After the third such incident in six months, I decided to just purchase a second five-pound cylinder and use it for my initial keg pressurizing.  That way it has a purpose, and I always have a backup if things go wrong.

Another option is to keep on hand some of the small 16-gram CO2 cartridges and the requisite connections to make them work.  These are more than sufficient to keep your beer moving in the short term.

But let's get a little stupid.  My favorite move is to use the carbonation already in the beer to build up pressure to pour it.  I've done this for more than two hours at an event when I realized that the cylinder I'd brought was empty.  A little sloshing shake every few minutes kept the beer pouring, and no one even noticed the slowly decreasing level of carbonation.  Dumb, but simple and effective.

Fridge to Sauna

This past Friday before the party - literally four days ago - I was doing my usual pre-party faucet cleaning and check, and I noticed the beer was foaming like mad.  My first thought was that I'd developed a contamination in the keg, but then I realized the mug I was holding was warm.  Sure enough, my trusty, free, rolled-it-down-the-street-into-my-garage-after-dumpster-diving-it keg fridge had died, and my beer was rocking a solid 82F.  Hot Amber, anyone?  I didn't have a kegerator anymore.  I had a Keg Sauna.

Luckily it was a relatively small beer-drinking crowd coming, and I could get by with what I had in bottles/cans.  But what if this was just before our homebrew club's winter social?

What's essential is getting cold beer out of the keg.  For that, not ALL of the beer needs to be cold, just what's coming out.  So keep on hand a tub of any size, a large (20 pound) bag of ice, and a couple of picnic taps.

I use a large aluminum tub that neatly fits two kegs.  In the event of a cooling failure, I can pop two kegs off of the kegerator, stick them in the tub in a nice thick ice bath, and attach two picnic taps.  Since the dip tube is drawing from the bottom of the keg, it doesn't matter that the ice bath only comes up about halfway - what's down low is still plenty cold.  Voila - cold beer on draft.

Could this have been prevented?  Maybe.  I'd heard the thing making some odd noises a few days before, but it still seemed to be cold.  At the very least I should have been conscious of the probability of an imminent failure, but what can I say - apparently I'm an appliance optimist (or ostrich)!

Foam Party

There's something about beer that's pouring flat or way too head-y that makes me feel like a complete beer amateur.  I don't know what it is, but I feel like the moment someone pours a pint of head off the tap they're looking around and thinking, "oh, I see, you wanted a tap system but have no idea how to manage it..."

So I'm sensitive to what you might call the Foam Party Effect.  Cue the strobe lights and the techno music.

To start with, a lot of people screw themselves here, so step one in avoiding "heady" pours is to instruct your guests on how to pour a beer (maybe even hanging a small sign).  Angle the glass, snap open the tap fully, don't try to "throttle" it, etc.

But what if it's not you, it's me?

Sometimes (as happened with my Keg Sauna), your issue is temperature disparity.  Limit as much as possible any changes in temperature from keg to glass, which is tough if you have a long distance to traverse.  Luckily, most of you will either be pouring through a collar or countertop, but if you're going through a wall you can secure 10-12" shanks that can pass through a mounting board, the wall, and the back of your fridge.  This will keep all of your sitting-in-the-tubing beer at the same temp since it's all in the fridge, inside and outside the keg, which will help.

Also, make sure you're appropriately balancing your kegs.  Properly balanced, you should maintain a steady level of pressure/volumes of CO2 in the keg AND get a steady, easy pour out of your faucets.

If it's ALL of your taps that are making like a South Beach nightclub and foaming all over the place, then it's probably one of these issues.  If it's just ONE tap, though, you can get into some other possible explanations.

First, you might have a contamination in that keg or that set of lines.  Taste the beer - if you're getting sharp acidity, acetic/vinegar flavors, a grape-juice-like flavor, or the more traditional baby-vomit-plus-goat-shit-rolled-in-cherries, then pop that thing out of there, throw away any plastic beer lines it's touched, swap out the o-rings in the keg, and give the keg and shank and faucet a good cleaning/sanitizing.

Second, you might also have an obstruction in the line.  A constricted passage (and this can be something as simple as a bit of hop matter, a bit of silicon tape, etc.) will cause agitation in the beer and force CO2 out of solution.  When you're pouring, look for pressure/flow irregularities at the faucet, look for bubble buildup in the beer line, and check your visible connections for anything that's blocking the flow of beer, even minutely.

Last, check for kinks in your beer lines.  Shanks are solid, and beer should flow smoothly through them, but that tubing can kink faster than...some metaphor involving New Orleans and Mardi Gras.

And if your problem is beer that's barely moving, increase the pressure and then double back to balancing your kegs!

The Beer Vat

One of my brother-in-law's first beers was a massive IPA that used about a pound of hops in five gallons.  He was so excited about it, because it was going to go head-to-head with another home brewery's beer (two brothers who lived down the street) in an informal competition.

But "Brother Crusher IPA" never made it to the showdown.  It ended its short but happy life as a small swimming pool of hoppy beer inside of chest freezer, where it smelled glorious for a couple of hours before turning into a rancid mess.

The keg leak is probably the worst offender here.  First, it often also accompanies a dead CO2 tank.  But second, and more importantly, it's a massive waste of your time and effort (and beer).  And while four gallons of Oktoberfest dumped on a floor smelled incredible for about half a day, once the late September heat has a bit of time to work on it my garage smelled like I'd been storing yak corpses in it.

When this happens, it's time to check the liquid connections throughout your system.  Don't just fix the immediate problem (for me, a loose nut on a beer line connection), because if you put this system together all at the same time then another small leak could be lurking just a few days or weeks down the road.

So get in there and check the keg "Out" post and poppet, your post connector, the nut and clamp connecting it to the beer line, and the connection between the beer line and the shank.  Tape, tighten, and test it all, because if you think you're pissed the first time it happens, wait until the second time (and the Dubbel didn't smell any better than the Oktoberfest, let me tell you...).

An Ounce of Prevention

Almost every problem I've ever had with my kegs (probably) could have been prevented by better and more-conscientious maintenance.  However, I was too sold on the idea that "no news is good news" on my kegs, and that the less I touched and tinkered the more solid they'd be.

Learn from my poor example.  Take care of your kegs and kegerator, and they'll take care of you.

Keep it simple.