Beer Stone Levitation glass

BEERDOM 2010


"Beerdom, Beerdomuhum... B'dumb, B'dumb" - The Buzzcocks

 

It's been several years since I've brewed beer. All the batches came out fine, and the stuff was good, but I think the biggest deterrent to brewing more was the amount of work and time it took to make 5 gallons, how quickly I could drink it, and how easy it is to buy beer at a store.

Another factor was the means of dispensing. The first time through, we bought a Tap-A-Draft setup. This lets you bottle your 5 gallons of homebrew in 3 large plastic jugs-- not too bad, compared to cleaning and filling 48+ glass bottles. The jugs connect to a compact CO2-powered dispenser that sits in your refrigerator. It's a neat option if you don't have a dedicated keg refrigerator ("kegerator"), and it's a portable system, for social occasions. On the downside, I had some trouble with a few CO2 cartridges not seating properly and venting precious CO2: Powerlets are not an economical way to buy gas, and those occasional problems made me doubt the system's reliability. At any rate, it always felt like it was a stop-gap measure, and what I really wanted was a full-blown kegerator with a refillable CO2 bottle.

I don't know what started me down the jonesin' path again, but it happened-- I drank some of Lagunitas' Hop Stoopid ale, and started reading about kegerators. I learned that the local brewpub (NXNW) would fill homebrew Cornelius kegs for a very reasonable price, so I brought home a Growler of their Py Jingo Pale Ale to confirm that it tasted as good as I had remembered it. I also confirmed that Specs would sell kegs of commercial brews without enforcing a strict return time limit on the keg deposit. Of course, I kept SWMBO informed, as if she were onboard for this and wanted to know all the gory details. Despite the fact that she turned me on to the IPA thing, I think kegerators are mainly a guy thing... but nevertheless, once I started researching kegerators online, she got to hear all about them.

Buying A Kegerator

Much to my surprise, it's not that easy to buy a Kegerator. I saw plenty online, but in many cases, the shipping cost was much more than I could stomach, and having to pay extra to have the delivery guys unload it didn't help. One of the sources that did offer free shipping was in Texas, which meant sales tax-- isn't the point of Internet shopping to avoid sales tax?

I briefly considered the used refrigerator/craigslist option, but decided that I didn't want to risk investing time and effort converting a unit that might be near the end of its lifecycle.

I went to several big box stores to see what they had, thinking that I might find an appropriate compact refrigerator to convert into a kegerator. Nada. A prospective kegerator compact refrigerator has specific requirements, like enough space to fit the combinations of kegs that you might host, and you don't want one with a freezer taking up headroom.

Surprisingly, Internet research doesn't point you to a specific model that everyone recommends and that's easy to find in a brick and mortar store. While some major stores with online/B&M presence offer free shipment to the local store, I'd rather see and measure beforehand, just to be sure.

Back to square one-- online shopping for kegerators. One could argue that the onerous shipping and handling fees are offset by the good prices and by not paying sales tax. The forums are full of postings from folks who are very happy about their purchases... but then there are plenty of postings about problems, mods, and fixes, usually for the most economical of the ready-made kegerators. I was concerned that this might be one of those cases where you get what you pay for: If the low prices were due to construction quality and came at the expense of longevity, I wasn't really interested. I intend to drink beer for a long time, and the hassle of having a short-timer shipped/transported to the abode would be mirrored at the tail end; the hassle of getting rid of it when it died would add insult to injury. I'd also read complaints about dinged and dented kegerators being delivered, no doubt due to their bulk, weight, and budget packaging. By this time, I'd pretty much resigned myself to the old Tap-A-Draft system. I ordered some new jugs and reconditioning kits to see if I could make the taps not vent CO2.

I guess I forgot to tell SWMBO about that (I hate to admit defeat). While we were out and about, she stopped at a restaurant supply store because she knew that my search hadn't been going well. Sho 'nuff, I found everything I'd been looking for in a kegerator, but unfortunately, at about twice what I'd planned on spending. Let me just say that I have a very good wife; either that, or it appears that incessant and too-much information can produce results. (There's a thin and indistinct line that separates enthusiasm from a torture tactic.) Regardless, I'm obliged to drink lots of beer now on a regular basis so the beer won't go bad and the kegerator won't go empty. (For what it's worth, the unpacked, floor sample True TDD-1 wouldn't fit into either of our vehicles, so I had to rent a U-Haul van and do the delivery/unloading of the 100+ lbs behemoth. So not only did I pay for delivery, my back paid for the labor, and her wallet paid for the sales tax!)

  kegerator True TDD-1

True- The Straight Poop, @ 1 Month: On the forums, the True TDD-1 is a statusy kegerator: It's a commercial unit and twice-plus as pricey as many popular consumer models. It's true that it does have a beefy compressor that will probably outlast the consumer models', it's roomy enough for a fullsize keg (or 3 corny kegs), and it does have some amenities like a forced air chilled tower, a plumbed spill tray, rugged construction, and industrial-strength casters. However, from my experience, it's not all sunshine.

One of the things that many owners mention is how noisy it is. I concur. It's not that the interior circulation fans stay on all the time-- they're very quiet, and constant air circulation is a good idea for any kegerator to keep even temperatures. The noise problem is due to the compressor, which is big and makes a very noticible hum when it kicks in and runs. The hum is tolerable, since we keep ours in the utility room adjoining the kitchen. What was really annoying was that sometimes the compressor caused a metal part, somewhere, to vibrate. It was a grating, treble sound that stopped when I touched the tower, pushed the kegerator, or touched the drip tray underneath. I tightened screws, but due to its intermittent nature, I had a hard time figuring out what actually caused the noise. Eventually, I found that setting the drip tray on the underside just right fixed it.

I'm very aware of how often the compressor kicks on and off... and this made me concerned about how much power the thing consumes. According to some sources, it draws 4.4 amps with its 1/5 HP compressor, which is roughly equivalent to adding 4 or 5 100-watt incandescent bulbs to your electric bill. The compressor doesn't run all the time, but between the cut-ins and cut-outs, it probably runs about 50% of the time, day in and day out. [Despite this and months later, I can't say I noticed-- we always expect a brutal electric bill during the summer in Texas.]

Another cause for concern was the temperature. When I first turned it on, the tower and interior temperature bordered on 31/32 degrees fahrenheit, with the thermostat set on 1 (the warmest). A month later, the tower temperature at cut-out was 38F on a thermostat setting of 1 (cut-on is approximately 44F). During the month, I experimented with the thermostat, trying to get 36F, and learned that turning the thermostat to 6 caused the evaporator fins to ice up, thus decreasing cooling efficiency and raising the temperature. I also discovered that the spill tray hose had been condensing water, which had filled the interior drain bottle to be about 1/4 the way full (it wasn't beer). I plugged the spill tray hole, did a minor defrost, turned the thermostat back to 1. I was nervous about turning the temperature down much lower: Did I mention that this expensive commercial kegerator doesn't have automatic defrost? I finally ended up setting the thermostat to 4/5 (as the manual suggests) and got the compressor to cycle between 44 and 31 degrees, measured in the tower chilling tube. Good 'nuff for me.

To be honest, I felt slightly hoodwinked at first. Sure, it's a commercial unit, and that implies a "workhorse" capability that's absent in the consumer models. Plus, it's made in the good ol' U.S. of A. (These days, I'm not so sure if that's a good thing.)

I'm reminded of a similar situation as it applies to A/V equipment, decades ago. Back in the day, a school could buy consumer grade Sony cassette players that had tons of bells and whistles for a very good price. However, if you sourced cassette players intended for the institutional/educational market (a "commercial" unit), you paid considerably more for a clunky Califone that looked like it was designed in the '60s. Presumably, the selling point was durability, but the innards were not particularly robust (with soft metal parts); however, the electronics were much simpler, so presumably easier for someone with a soldering iron to yank parts and fix (and reflow the cold joints). Through the magic of rubber band 'n paper clip surgery, those suckers could outlive those fancy Sonys.

The True TDD-1 reminded me of that, as I poked around, removing off-angled sheet metal screws and seemingly symmetrical stamped metal parts that should fit flipped around, but don't. I'm guessing that the manufacturing technology used to produce it hasn't changed much in the last 20 or 30 years. It's kind of crude and brute force-ish, compared to tighter tolerances of the low cost production stuff that rolls off the Asian assembly lines for the consumer market. Like muscle cars, the TDD-1 is designed for horsepower, and to survive. No fancy LED displays or power-wasting defrost circuits on this sucker! This isn't a complaint, just an observation: It does what it's supposed to, which is to dispense cold beer. Once you get over the "Nervous Nellies", stop opening the door, and figure out how to balance your kegerator, you can forget about fiddling with it and get down to the business of buying, brewing, and drinking beer.

Verdict @ 6 Months: It's wunnerful. It's trouble-free, I've stopped looking at the thermometer, and if it lasts for a substantial portion of our beer-drinking careers, I will consider it (my wife's) money well-spent.

Why We Need Kegerators

Although we may try to justify it as a money-saving measure (like homebrewing), it's really not. First, there's the cost of the equipment: The kegerator, the corny kegs, the fittings for kegs, the hoses, the CO2 tank (which has to be recertified for refills every 5 years), the CO2 refill, the regulator, the tools, and the cleaning supplies. Though there are some savings from buying beer in volume, you'd have to drink an awful lot of beer to cover that! Also, having it on tap seems to encourage more beer drinking, and more beer drinking = higher beer bill. It also depends on the beer: It's unlikely that you'll save anything if you're buying 1/6 kegs of Miller High Life since you can get two cases of cans for less than $30. However, for something like Stone IPA at $10 a sixpack, a full keg's worth in bottles (approximately 7 cases) will cost $280. Buying it in a keg costs about $200. Homebrewing 15 gallons of a clone from extract kits costs about $150. Having that much expensive beer around kinda obligates you to drink it, so that ratchets up the cost of your lifestyle.

On the other hand, a kegerator gives you much more control over how much and how often you drink. You can drink smaller samples, so you don't have to worry about the beer getting warm or flat. I have sampled small Dixie Cups at 4 a.m. (for testing purposes) and throughout the morning. I probably wouldn't do that with 12 ounce bottles. I usually don't fill pint glasses in the evening since a smaller sample does the trick, and I can always go back for more (Hey, it's exercise!).

Mainly though, I've come to realize that the best justification is the taste! I now know that it's not a fluke: Fresh beer just tastes better... and a kegerator gives you much more control over what you drink. If you homebrew or buy directly from the source, you know that it's fresh. You don't know how nationally distributed kegs or bottles have been handled prior to ending up in your pint glass. Some bars don't do a particularly conscientious job of taking care of beer, so bar beer "on tap" doesn't always mean "good-tasting".

Temptations...

On my drive home from work, I have the option of driving by Austin Homebrew, Specs Liquors, and North by Northwest Restaurant and Brewery (NXNW). At NXNW, we can drop off a corny keg and pick it up the next day, filled with 5 gallons of Py Jingo Pale Ale or a seasonal (like Green Menace IPA) for $45/$55. Maybe it's the freshness of the local brewing, but it passed SWMBO's two blind taste tests comparing to our bottled faves, Full Sail Pale Ale and Stone IPA (the draught Stone IPA at Opal Divine's wasn't as good either, but it didn't taste much like the bottled version). NXNW is the only local establishment I know of that advertises keg sales of their own brew, and it's great stuff.

Specs has a huge selection and good prices on kegs. Given NXNW's prices, the freshness of their brew, the fact that they fill 5-gallon corny kegs, and the convenience of 1-day turn-around, I don't think I'll be buying kegs from Specs... but I like having the option. It's the place to go to get something different in a bottle (like Hop Stupid, Ruination Ale or Little Sumpin' Sumpin').

Austin Homebrew has a big Internet presence, but it's nice to have the mothership nearby (even though that costs you in sales tax). They got me started back in 2006, so I already had most of the homebrew stuff to start that up again. They also had nearly all the kegerator stuff that I needed, including cornie kegs and the filled CO2 tank. Once I had that stuff taken care of, I bought one of their kits for a Stone IPA clone. Very helpful and knowledgeable folks there!

While they're distinct areas of interest, Kegerators and Homebrewing go together like Frick and Frack. Homebrewing can steer you towards kegerators, and vice versa. Since I could refill corny kegs on short notice at NXNW and the kegerator could hold 3 kegs, it only made sense to start a homebrew (one live, one backup and one homebrew experiment). The long wait for homebrew to "mature" becomes irrelevant if you've got something on tap, and being able to carbonate with CO2 means one less thing to worry about. Of course, having the maturing homebrew in a chilled, carbonated keg means that it's easy to steal samples to see how it's doing.

Homebrewing Revisited

Like I said, I hadn't done one in about 4 years, so I had to relearn the process all over again. I thought I'd done a good job studying and planning all the steps, and based on what I'd learned the last time, managed to chill the wort down below 80 degrees in less than 15 minutes (using ice and 5 gallons of kegerator chilled water for the tub). The one thing I hadn't considered was that we run our AC at a higher setting than we did 4 years ago, and I totally forgot about the optimal temperature for fermenting: It's not 80 degrees Fahrenheit. I realized this a few days into the secondary fermentation (after a particularly ugly siphoning session due to a leaking hose) when the beer showed absolutely no signs of clarifying. I don't know exactly why this happened, but I freaked and put the carboy in the kegerator, along with some Isinglass finings. The dry hops did very well and sank to the bottom, but the beer remained as murky as ever, up until the time that I racked it to the keg.

I gassed it up to 30 psi and let it sit; When I sampled it a few days later, the gas had been absorbed and the beer was still flat. It was truly vile stuff, and I was ready to consider it a failure. A few days later under some more gas, it tasted much better, and a few days after that, I thought it was tasting pretty damn good! Unfortunately, it didn't look any better and resembled miso soup. (When you drink miso soup, you expect it to taste salty, not hoppy.) Consequently, when I let SWMBO do the blind taste test, it really needed to be an eyes-closed taste test. Much to my surprise, she preferred it over the NXNW brew because it had "more bite" (probably, carbonation). I rated them pretty close in flavor; certainly closer than our bottled faves. I guess that the lesson learned is that you can screw up pretty badly and still turn out a very good-tasting beer... even if it doesn't look pretty. (After we formally tapped it a few weeks later, it had totally cleared up after the first few pours, and tasted great.)

Dedicated Fermenter: I was concerned about the high/borderline fermentation temperatures, so I recommissioned an ancient compact refrigerator (too small to have converted into a kegerator) to serve as our fermenter for our next batch. A 7.9 gallon plastic fermenter bucket fitted exactly, with additional clearance to the side of the interior freezer shelf for the airlock. The temperature doesn't need to go very low for ales (70s F) and only for a few weeks, so the additional electricity cost wasn't a concern, and the Johnson Controls external thermostat does a great job for something like this. Verdict: Unknown. The batch that fermented at 80 degrees tasted better, but it may have been due to the extra yeast I added to the 2nd batch (which made the fermentation start too fast and furious). That disappointment nudged me into the direction of buying from NXNW, since it's always good and only takes a day. Less work too. However, having a free keg in the rotation makes it easy to get back in the saddle again.

Austin Homebrew Supply The spare bathtub's where a lot of the homebrew action takes place. The wort's made in the kitchen, then put in the bathtub filled with chilled water. The sink's filled with a prechiller (coiled copper tubing connected to the spigot) and ice, which sends chilled water to the wort chiller; the heated water drains in the commode. The wort has to be brought down to 80 degrees (or lower) ASAP. Once that's done, it's transferred to the primary fermenter, yeast (and hops) added, sealed up with an airlock and left to ferment for about a week. Siphoning it to a secondary fermenter (or keg) cleans up a lot of the nasty junk and lets you add more hops.

Our bathroom's a good place for fermentation since it's dark and relatively cool (depending on the airconditioner's settings). When you're not making beer, it's a good place to store hardware.

The number 1 rule for brewing beer is sanitation. Some of the tubs are strictly for the sanitizing ritual, since anything and everything that touches the wort has to be sanitized.

Real hopheads take Hydrometer readings to figure out/predict the final alcoholic content, but IMO it's not really necessary. My philosophy is that the beer's going to do what it's going to do and it'll either taste good or not, regardless of what the numbers say. (Besides, I've never come across anything that tells you what to do if your numbers aren't where they should be.)

Balancing the Kegerator

Beerdom does have its geekish side, and there are folks out there who have memorized the calculations for the proper beer line length/diameter and CO2 pressure to get a beer to its ideal CO2 mix ratio at a particular altitude and temperature. That's for the die-hards and pros... but it's a good idea to read through that stuff so that you have an idea of what's going on. I believe that most casual kegerator owners (like me) just want to get a good pour of beer without too much foam at a temperature that's refreshing. As long as it's not flat or all foam, "ball-park" is good enough for me. I don't want to be perpetually fiddling with adjustments since that takes away from the beer enjoyment time.

Standard ball-park figures for a Pale Ale/IPA are in the neighborhood of 12 psi of CO2 at about 38 degrees Fahrenheit. That's a good starting point for "winging it", but we started having foam problems after a few weeks of decent pours (...and after too much dickering with the settings when we added a second keg). Due to the lag between dickering and seeing the results, it's difficult to tweak blindly, by feel. However, learning the adjustable parameters helped us choose what and why to tweak to balance our kegerator.

Temperature is one of those things that can drive you crazy, if you let it. The thing most people are interested in is the temperature of the beer, but unless you've got a thermometer inside the keg, you'll need to pour two beers to get a true sample of the interior temperature. You can't wait too long either, because temperatures rise quickly outside the refrigerated environment. That's not exactly convenient-- when I'm pouring beer, I want to enjoy drinking it, not guzzle two pints just so I can measure its temperature.

Since I'm taking the ball-park approach, I thought it would be appropriate to learn what the kegerator was doing rather than trying to get an exact temperature reading of the beer. The kegerator is the source, and the beer's temperature depends on what the kegerator is doing: You can easily monitor the kegerator's temperature continuously in real-time with some semi-permanently installed thermometers. Therefore, learning the kegerator's behavior between the thermostat's cut-in and cut-out temperatures should lead to an intuitive feel for the beer's temperature, as well as alerting you when something is amiss. In other words, if I get a satisfyingly chilled beer when the compressor kicks in at 45 degrees F and cuts out at 31 degrees F, that's good enough for me.

The other main tweakable thing is the CO2 pressure. This not only sets the carbonation level of the beer, but also the delivery speed. If it pours too fast, you may get a lot of foam. If the pressure is set low to get a slow pour, the beer might not get carbonated enough. The two properties are linked, but can be adjusted separately, to a degree. To slow the beer flow, use small diameter (3/16") beer line, and adjust the length to fit (longer line= more resistance = slower beer flow).

Unless you're really fond of dickering or are really fussy, or want a variety of very different beers, it's more practical to make one beer line and use it for all your kegs. Generally speaking, 4 or 5 feet is a reasonable length for pale ales (If you drink highly carbonated beer, you may want a longer beer line). With that parameter set, you can adjust the CO2 pressure to produce an acceptable level of carbonation.

That can be kind of tricky, especially if you're using pre-pressurized kegs or attempting to rapidly force-carbonate a keg of home-brew. If the keg is pre-pressurized (like store-bought), vent the keg before connecting it to your CO2 tank. That will keep a higher pressure keg from pushing back a tank's lower CO2 setting (and pushing beer into the CO2 line, if it doesn't have a one-way valve).

The important thing to remember is that the beer and empty space above it can have different levels of carbonation pressure. It takes time for the two to equalize. If you rush and try to tweak and test, you'll get confused or be misled. If you're in a hurry to change carbonation pressure you can rock & roll the keg-- the agitation transfers CO2 between the headspace and the beer more quickly. If you're not in a huge hurry, it's better to start on the low side, wait, and see how it tastes; if it tastes flat, then increase the pressure slightly. The keg's air space will pressurize to the CO2 tank's setting, and the beer will gradually carbonate to the air space's pressure. If you start with an overcarbonated beer, bleeding the pressure only vents the air space CO2; it will take a while for the carbonated beer to shed carbonation into the air space where it can be vented. This process should be done with the CO2 tank disconnected since you don't want to replenish pressure in the air space from the tank.

If foam is a problem, make sure that you have about 4 or 5 feet of narrow 3/16" beer line to slow the flow. The inside diameter is a "set & forget" thing (obviously)-- it's fixed, and you can't dial it in. However, the length is something you can adjust, depending on the pressure you're putting on the beer. However, with my "ballpark" it approach, I don't want to be changing beer line lengths each time I change kegs, so 4 or 5 feet is a reasonable length to draw the line and remove variables. Also, bear in mind that the first draw from a keg (after sitting dormant) usually has more foam.

Final Thoughts

Beerdom is a hobby, a vice, an expense, and/or a lifestyle feature... Whether it's a vice or not depends on your views, the degree of indulgence, or the person doing the drinking. As a hobby, there's a huge breadth to the homebrew aspect (just look at some of the computer programs and literature devoted to the subject); the kegerator aspect may appeal to the do-it-yerselfer, the home-improvement guy, or the collector of beer memorabilia. At the other end of the spectrum, it can be about just drinking beer, with a minimal amount of time spent on routine maintenance, and periodic purchase of supplies. Simply put though-- I'm glad my wife got the kegerator, it's been fun, and we're putting it to good use!

--08/11/10


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