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 [email protected] 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.

JJW

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Clubbing: A Brief Introduction to Brewing Clubs v. Beer Clubs

If you’ve been brewing for a year or more, there’s a good chance you’ve started looking into joining a homebrew club.  Depending on how anal-retentive you happen to be – or what the options look like in your area – you may or may not have previewed and auditioned more than one club. 

It shouldn’t come as any surprise to hear that not all homebrew clubs are created equal.  I’m not talking about size, the kinds of activities they engage in, or even brewing quality.  No, what I’m talking about is the difference between a brewing club and a beer club.

They sound basically the same, right?  Trust me when I say that they’re not (or don’t, and just keep reading!), and the differences matter. 

I’m not passing judgment, or arguing for one type over the other, but being able to spot the difference might mean a much more satisfying experience as you hunt around for a club to call home.

THE BREWING CLUB V. THE BEER CLUB

Brewing clubs are pretty easy to spot.  Beer tasting and evaluation tends to be more structured and is present at every meeting.  You’re likely to find a significant number of BJCP-certified beer judges.  Members brew at least once a month, and often more.  The club tends to sponsor intra- and/or inter-club competitions that encourage members to brew outside of their comfort zones.  For example, my club, Stoney Creek Homebrewers, has a “duel” program in which members can challenge any other member to brew a specific type or style of beer (or a beer with a specific ingredient), and the challenged member MUST accept.  The result is an opportunity to engage in a bit of friendly competition while at the same time forcing you to get creative and challenge yourself.  Duels have included everything from a boring-but-tasty English bitter duel all the way up to the surprisingly-good malt liquor duel. 

Brewing clubs also tend to have a substantial emphasis on education and technical development of their members.  You don’t need to pay for luminaries to come visit, either: conscientious members can volunteer to engage in some basic research and provide a brief class to the membership, at which point a general discussion can evolve. 

Brewing clubs are about brewing. 

The beer club is a different animal entirely.  While it is comprised of (mostly) homebrewers, it lacks an emphasis on brewing.  Evaluation of beers tends to be a bit haphazard, sometimes with nothing more formal than members roaming the room with a growler and pouring samples. 

They also tend to be heavily social, with very little organized activity, either at meetings or in club activities.  Education is often reserved for specific events external to the club’s normal meetings, and sometimes includes larger-scale talks with outside experts.

Beer clubs are about lots of things, including brewing, but usually lack a particular focus or strategy, which can make them seem a bit more ad hoc and freewheeling.  And the focus is more on beer than brewing.

FIND YOUR FIT

Finding the right homebrew club for you is, like many things in life, about finding the right fit. 

To a highly social, extroverted, or casual brewer a more-structured club like the stereotypical “brewing” club described above will likely seem a bit dull or stiff.  It will seem too obsessed with rules and agendas and the technical minutiae.  You’ll likely be bored.

To a more technically-minded or – let’s just say it – neurotic brewer, the typical “beer” club described above will feel like a waste of time.  You’ll want to give and receive feedback on your beer but might get nothing more than a nod and a two-word response.  You might also find that large beer clubs get clique-ish and can be a bit unwelcoming to new members – maybe not deliberately, but it can still feel that way to someone without a lot of friends in the room. 

Find your fit. 

MAKE YOUR FIT

If you’re lucky enough to live in an area with multiple homebrew clubs, then it’s probably a good idea to audition all of the ones that are a reasonable distance away rather than just jumping into the first (or closest) club you find.  If you’re not, then don’t be afraid to start your own club!  Stoney Creek was created because a few people in the same area that were already acquainted formed a club around a kitchen table – and what started with four attendees now draws ten times that many regularly, has a main and satellite chapter, and is a significant contributor to its local community.

But don’t settle.  A supportive and helpful club – whatever kind you prefer – is a great way to keep yourself motivated and interested in brewing.  It will bring you into contact with like-minded people in your area, and connect you to the larger brewing community.  It may end up being an important part of your social life or be a priceless resource to develop your brewing skills.

KEEP A WANDERING EYE

It should also be noted that clubs don’t all fit into neat boxes.  There are large and decentralized clubs that are highly focused on the technical aspects of brewing.  There are small clubs that function as social clubs more than brewing clubs even if they follow Roberts Rules of Order to a T.  And clubs evolve over time: what starts as one type may develop into another, depending on the wants of its membership or the actions of its leadership.  So be flexible, and be willing to bail.

Hell, you should also be willing to join more than one club!  I’ve known lots of homebrewers that belong to multiple clubs as a way to take advantage of what each has to offer.

So keep looking until you find (or found) what you want.  There are few things that will do more for your enjoyment of homebrewing than joining a homebrew club, and the effort to find a club you like will yield benefits for years to come. 

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).