Pressure Gauges – A Chat with Atlantic

So – I had a call from Atlantic. They’d had a read of my previous post. (Go on, go read it.)

Atlantic are a major installer of cellar kit in the south east and are responsible for some of the installs I’ve been having a grumble about. I had a conversation with a chap there who was remarkably civil in his defence of what they do. (Considering the scathing tone in what I wrote regarding UK cellar installs.)[1]

Amongst many points[2] discussed one seems key:

Atlantic do not fit gauges on regulators because the gauges on UK[3] regulators are crap. (Not a direct quote, but it captures the gist of things.)

Now… better gauges _are_ available, but they’re not the standard, and if it comes down to a choice between no gauges and gauges that are unreliable they’d rather leave the gauges out. Completely understandable – and I see where they’re coming from. It is a proper conundrum.

The better gauges? Very few folk getting quotes for installs want to pay more than whatever the rock-bottom pricing option is… BrewDog will, and the odd one or two other outfits in London. But elsewhere it comes down to offering a higher quote for a job that a competitor will simply undercut by offering cheaper “equivalent” equipment. (A comparison of £4000 versus £9000 was given, albeit I doubt that can be entirely about the gauges!)

Thing is, whilst I understand all that, I still don’t see this as being a “craft beer” quality of install. And I don’t believe a one-size-fits-all approach to PSI is “craft beer” ready.

I understand where Atlantic are coming from on this however and it sheds a lot of light on the situation.

Two other points are integral to thinking about keg pressures:

  1. The install without cooling for the kegs is fundamentally not “craft beer ready” either. I dislike seeing kegs as high as 12C, let alone ambient. This instability of temperature adds another variable that causes further requirements for pressure adjustments. The best I can do is not deliver too much beer at once, so such a place has only the kegs on plus limited reserves. (And ideally convince them to put kegs in some sort of cooler.)
  2. Many breweries basically haven’t a goddamn clue. They can’t even tell us what their vol CO2 levels are. This is a persistent problem, as per my “Summer of Fob” post. I’ve come across some seriously dangerous kegs.

In my view the way forward is three-fold:

  1. Breweries need to get their technical shit together and move away from this “craft beer” is “random WTF oh whoops!” beer… get vol CO2 _right_ for the beer you’re brewing, don’t keg it when there is plenty more secondary to go, stick the target vol CO2 on the keg label. If you can’t do that then bloody well sterilise it, before one of your kegs kills somebody.
  2. Breweries/Distrib/Pubs need to get their storage shit together. I’ve a 4C coldstore for keg now – in an effort to fight over-carbonation. Breweries ought to have the same. “Live” beers, especially ones with wilder yeasts, will almost certainly be able to attenuate further in the keg. Pubs are in a harder place here and the simple answer is: DON’T BLOODY STOCKPILE “CRAFT KEG” IN YOUR WARM (12C) CELLAR FOR WEEKS! (They do it just to bulk-order and save a few bob.)
  3. Breweries/Distrib need to be a _lot_ more hands-on, and a _lot_ more supportive. Standards need to be set for cellar installs, and guidance and support in using the kit needs to be offered. (If the UCB can do anything this might be it… not piss farting about trying to define and “protect” daft terminology.)

Step 3 is part of what I am trying to do with Jolly Good Beer. I’m not bloody DHL-for-beer – I don’t just lob kegs at you. Hell – I can check that your pressure gauges are not too far out and replace them if they are. I definitely will be now that I know they’re considered so unreliable. (My US ones are still reading fine and they get carted all over the shop rather than just being stuck to a wall.)

Anyway… there’s always food for thought available. My take on this is that leaving the gauges out because the standard gauges aren’t good enough is not good enough. But that’s perhaps not a role that Atlantic ought to be taking – unless the customer is willing to shell out for a fully supported system. I’m happy to, and able to, test pressures and help get beer pouring – breweries ought to be the same. And more than that, the vast majority of publicans need more knowledge and information, something we in the business of putting beer in their pubs should also be providing.

It’s what’s best for the beer.


[1] I’ve always thought the Atlantic installs look really well put together. And when I hear folk are getting Atlantic in I’ve said: ah, they do nice installs – just make sure you get pressure gauges. (And some subsequently have.)

[2] We also discussed and agreed that KeyKegs are great for getting around a huge part of the whole carbonation problem. All you need is “enough” pressure to keep whatever carbonation is in there in solution. Of course this would be easier if breweries weren’t so frequently over-carbing kegs. I’m so/so on KeyKegs – I think this is a strong point in their favour. But I still see a “proper” steel keg as the best option. Robust and reusable… but top-pressure becomes much more important with them. The problem with temperatures was also agreed on.

[3] It does make me wonder about the US kit a bit. The ganged Micromatic regulators I buy work out at a good price. They’re the “premium” model. Although they still have the usual non-liquid-filled gauges. I’ve always tested mine against reference pressure and never had a problem aside from a recent pair that seemed to have been damanged in transport.

Keg Beer Pressure in the UK

Regulators with gauges

I am heard to say, with increasing frequency:

The UK is a decade behind the US in keg beer dispense.

Yesterday an American friend of mine responded to this with a scoffing “… at least.” Maybe I should start saying it is decades.

This comes to the fore more and more often lately as I deal with customers who’ve had “craft keg” installs that are, frankly, not fit for purpose. There are multiple factors to this and multiple “WTFs” I’ve seen in installs. But this post will focus on pressure.

I am not a “qualified” cellar-build person. I’ve pondered doing the course but I gather it is basically just a how-to-plug-the-bits-together, that’ll be £1000 please, here-have-a-certificate. The only qualifications I can claim are practical experience, a hell of a lot of research & reading, building bars, getting many varied keg beers pouring, and – probably most important – a sufficient background in physics. (I’m not talking physics major or anything, but I studied some physics through to university level and gas behaviours, flow, dissolvability, etc, are all fundamentals.) I’ve spoken to qualified cellar installers and, so far, not met one who knows anything about vols of dissolved CO₂ in beer. I guess you don’t need it if you’re always setting up to serve unchanging Foster’s et al in a 12°C cellar to standard parameters. (Cellar/keg temperature is another issue… deserving of a large post of its own.)

Everything changes drastically when it comes to “craft beer”. It’s not all just pasteurised lager with a “standard” 2.2 vol CO₂ (or whatever it is) – suitable for a one-size-fits-all sort of configuration. It is *part* of the definition of some beer styles that they are at certain carbonation levels, and your top-pressure should be set accordingly. And then there’s KeyKegs, another ballpark – another game – entirely. If you have just one “craft” line for keg you’ll probably find yourself switching between KeyKegs and top-pressure kegs. (One reason many UK craft brewers are keen on KeyKegs is that it is less likely that crap cellar installs will cause their beer to be served under- or over-carbonated, KeyKeg basically eliminates one piece of fine-tuning at the pub end of things.)

What this boils down to is: every beer line should have a dedicated secondary regulator, and every secondary regulator should have a pressure gauge on it. (And the primary should have an out-side gauge allowing a safe maximum line pressure to be set (<50 PSI, <45 for Pet*cough*crap*cough*ainers) – albeit this can be set once at install and the gauge not needed. But the gauges aren’t an expensive upgrade and it is a useful bit of info when debugging cellar issues if you don’t have a pressure checking gauge handy.)

KeyKeg dispense flow chartTo add some credibility I’ll point you somewhere else at this juncture, go have a look at what Magic Rock, one of the UK’s top modern breweries, have to say about KeyKeg dispense: KeyKegs, differences & dispense issues…

So – what happens when you want to follow Magic Rock’s advice and have no gauges? You’re buggered is what. I’d not touch the thing, as you have no idea what the pressures are you could well take it past the safe limit.

But say you do take the risk and nudge it up a bit. That keg runs out. You want to put a normally carbed top-pressure keg on, you switch couplers, connect up. Over the next 2 days that beer gets increasingly carbonated and the last third basically pours foam. Bugger.

IF THERE ARE NO GAUGES SIMPLY DO NOT EVER TOUCH THE REGULATORS.

Jolly Good Beer wall

Jolly Good Beer wall

Folk in the US with these “Flux Capacitor” setups aren’t spending all their money for shits and giggles. The kit on display is normally in the cellar/coldroom – putting it on display is a bit of marketing really – but the reasoning behind it is to highlight that these things are actually important & the bar takes it seriously. Albeit it does concern me a little, pressures should not need fiddling with – pressure should be set suitably for beer being plugged into the line and then that stays the same until you’re done. I think that functionally the kit is better off in the coldroom. But hey, it makes a good talking-point. This inspired me to put regulators on the front of my own mobile bar. (Although there are other good practical reasons for that, the front of the bar is easy to get to compared to the back through a stack of kegs and tangle of lines.)

Shiny new "craft keg" install... wot?! No gauges?!

Shiny new “craft keg” install… wot?! No gauges?!

In this calendar year I’ve come across 5, *FIVE*, new keg installs that had no pressure gauges on the regulators. THREE of these were done after I told the folk getting the installs to ensure they had pressure gauges on their regulators. In the most recent case I was multiply-insistent. But on the day these professionals were adamant this was not needed… and in the end: no gauges. One of the 1st kegs put on the system was a KeyKeg, which was triggering the fob detector, and needed the pressure increased. Yet these professionals told the customer that my advice to them was wrong, that I didn’t know what I was talking about. (Oh, and this setup has kegs at ambient temp… *grumble* … but this means even more need for pressure adjustments! More chance of fobbing.)

So… in an attempt to basically explain that the professionals don’t have a sodding clue: here are some guidelines for the different kegs out there…

KEYKEG (and other bag-in-container type pressurised kegs)

Slimline KeyKegs stack nicely.

Slimline KeyKegs

The great thing about KeyKeg is you cannot screw up the carbonation of the beer with top-pressure. Hell, you can use compressed air and save on the cost of food grade CO₂. (It’s up to the brewery to screw up carbonation, it does happen, too often… usually to the over-carbonated side… in which case KeyKegs can be vented.)

I can offer no better advice on KeyKeg to what Magic Rock have published. So pop along to their website to get the low-down on this topic.

The only addition I would make is that I tend to run KeyKeg at 35 PSI by default, and this works in almost all cases. If needed I will increase pressure up to 45 PSI. If you need more than 45 PSI then your beer is either over-carbonated or the keg is too warm. (And KeyKegs are rated for a maximum of 51 PSI… NEVER EXCEED THIS!)

TOP PRESSURE KEGS

Top-pressure kegs

Top-pressure kegs

This is where the real problem with some of these keg installs lies.

In light of hitting issues so frequently I have derived my own CO₂ pressure chart. As you do. De-rusting some of the old physics in my head in the process… the key differences between this and most other charts I can find are a) it is in Celsius and b) goes above 10°C… given UK cellars are often at 12°C this is somewhat essential. (Oh, and events, ah good old craft beer events, they’re another ballgame entirely.)

The 12°C cellar makes us in the UK a bit of an outlier really, here’s guidelines for cellaring Schneider Weisse: Draught Beer Guide – note that their pressure chart maxes out at 7.5°C… well, if you want to set the correct pressure for Schneider Weisse in a UK cellar look up 12°C against 3.5 vol CO₂ here:

(Oh, and I’d double-chill the Schneider Weisse… ever wonder why UK pubs have such a nightmare of a time pouring this stuff?)

But wait, there’s more! There is stuff all information online regarding mixed gas. The prevalent use of 60/40 mixed gas in the UK is what I call “the great beer flattener” – systems seem often configured just to provide dispense pressure with no mind to carbonation level. You need quite high a pressure to get 60/40 dispense working perfectly for well carbed beers in a 12°C cellar. If you’re using plastic kegs then I would highly recommend against 60/40 gas as most kegs are rated to about 50 PSI and I personally limit them to 45 PSI. Pressurised plastic beer containers have caused injury. This chart was a bugger to derive, all I could find online was an Draught Beer Quality guideline update that is worked out for a maximum temperature of 4.4°C… in the UK? Hah! So I had to get my head around partial pressures to adjust the pressure formula, to give us:

(Any “peer review” of this would be much appreciated.)

It should be kept in mind that if you smash through kegs in 2 days then carbonation isn’t going to change much and pressure is a lot less of a matter. You may even get by with plain N2 if you’re draining kegs fast enough (NOT RECOMMENDED!) and I’ve heard of some setups using compressed air like at GBBF (REALLY NOT RECOMMENDED!!). However it is my observation that in your typical multi-tap bar kegs can linger on a line for a week or so. This is not ideal… but it makes using correct top-pressure an essential part of the beer quality formula.

In the US there is this thing called “Certified Cicerone“, it is sort of an industry qualification. And it isn’t trivial like the UK’s BIIAB ABCQ. I’m planning on doing the Cicerone exam when the opportunity arises and understanding pressures is a part of the syllabus [PDF].  (I’m a “Certified Beer Server… but that’s just an online multiple-choice test.) In fact in my opinion one of the best things BrewDog is doing for keg beer in the UK is putting many of their staff through Cicerone training and qualification. (Some of these staff are leaving BrewDog and spreading through the industry – taking their knowledge with them, this is great for everyone.)

The DraughtQuality.org website – a resource created by the US Brewers Association – is also a mine of technical information. (And key to the Cicerone syllabus.) This PDF for example is a much better overview of carbonation than my own ramblings: Understanding Dispense Gas [PDF]

Have I presented enough evidence to make it clear why being able to set the pressure level of your gas is essential if you want to serve different & varied keg beers through a beer line?

If not… what do you think. Why not?


Jolly Good Beer – putting the science in dispense!

Or maybe: Jolly Good Beer – putting the SENSE in dispense! ;)

#1: Do not exceed rated keg pressures…

Objective Definition of Craft Beer

Don’t try to define craft beer, that way madness lies… [Added 3/8/15 21:41: Please don’t read this as me insisting there ought to be some sort of an enforced definition… nor that I think I am laying down a One True Definition of Craft… it’s just a thought exercise. I do still think the concept is worth pondering.]

But hey, everyone seems to be defining craft beer again. I decided to give it a ponder, to flog the dead horse per se. Nowt better than a well flogged equine corpse. (I clearly don’t have enough to do… like accounting, inventory, and sales for example.)

The problem is nearly every definition goes into some wishy washy non-measurable territory about “quality” and ethos. This isn’t going to work… after significant thought (5 minutes, but on the back of several-years worth of feedback loop), here’s what I boil it down to from my own personal perspective. This is _my_ best attempt at a definition of “craft beer”, it gels with a lot of others, even BrewDog’s, but brings in stricter ownership rules and discards what I see as unnecessary minutiae & subjectivity.

  1. Brewery is “privately” owned and controlled.
    This is about being in control of creative direction, not being answerable to shareholders and investors. Freedom. Being an exchange listed company _definitely_ rules you out of the “craft beer club” (which, to my pleasure, takes Greene King out of the definition, huzzah!). Collective employee ownership is OK however – that’s about as craft as you can get I reckon. You can buy a brewery and have it still be craft too, so I’m not tying this down to founder-owned. Look at breweries like Moor, for example. [Disclosure: I sell Moor beer. It is awesome.] I’ll allow breweries owned by rich benefactors as well, so long as they have entire ownership of the brewery, so I’m not tying it down to brewer-owned either. If the owner(s) build it up, and sell it to Molson Coors… craft status stripped. Harsh perhaps, the beer probably won’t change in the short run (it will almost certainly change in the long run). But I believe craft is about more than the liquid in the glass.
  2. Investment companies / investors own, collectively, no more than 10%
    I think equity-investment in brewing is fine, see “rich benefactor” above, but a large corporate or institutional investor pretty much says one thing to me: where’s the exit strategy? It isn’t quite universal, perhaps, but it is nearly always the case that investment means travelling a path towards a destination of either sell-out-high or get-listed. Cash-in, cha-ching… that’s not craft. On the other hand, making lots of money by building a mega-successful brewery is perfectly OK. It’s “selling out” that I don’t believe is craft, unless the “sell out” is privately to a private owner in which case there’s room for the operation to remain “craft”.
  3. IMG_20150802_163304Beer clearly states origin and name of origin brewery.
    Origin fudging is not craft. I won’t budge on this one. Being shy about your production is not craft. If you’re embarrassed about how & where your beer is produced: it is not craft. I’ve no problems with cuckoo or contract brewing so long as it is done honestly – Yeastie Boys are an example of honest (and worthwhile) contract brewing. [Disclosure: Yes, I sell their beer. Because I love the beers.]
  4. Beer lists all ingredients.
    At a minimum top level ingredients, including brewing essentials such as yeast – so a list such as: Barley Malt, Flaked Wheat, Hops, Yeast, Blood Oranges, Otters’ Tears. I don’t really understand why this isn’t more normal, in my opinion it ought to be a legal requirement. But failing that – brewers should just naturally choose to do this! If you’re not proud of your ingredients, not ashamed to admit what goes into the beer, than you’re not craft as far as I’m concerned. I’m not saying brewers should give out the recipes to their beers – I am saying every beer should say what is in the bottle. And I want more than most here, as much as is practical. Malt types, hop varieties, yeast strain (and “our house yeast” is fine here). Whether isinglass is used at any stage too. Ideally this should be on the bottle, it can’t practically be presented for keg/cask – and sometimes hops have to change, often recipes evolve, but that’s what websites are for: 8 Wired, Hopwired [Disclosure: Hey, I happen to sell this stuff too.]
  5. Brewery meets a (to be determined) set of basic standards.
    This one needs some work. But, basically, I would lay down a set of minimum standards in addition to the core points above… I don’t think it is good to be too specific, like ruling out use of certain adjuncts, or brewing processes, etc. But there are some basics that are simple to audit. Some rough initial ideas: pays at least living wage (quality of people, I don’t think living wage is perfect but it is a start), invests in cold-storage (quality of beer), deals with wholesalers who invest in cold-storage (self-interest afoot here! But I believe *strongly* in improving supply chain in this direction – and the same applies for exporters and foreign distributors), educates employed brewing staff (owner-brewers excepted perhaps?), does not package beer in clear glass (personal enraged bugbear!) … what else? (All subject to debate…) [I’m, astonishingly, changing my mind on pasteurisation just a little, there are circumstances where I can accept it is not a compromise. Late additions of maple syrup, for example… how’s that for a subject for a “craft debate”?]

What, nothing about about size? Production volume? Etc… I think the US has shown that measuring craft by brewery size doesn’t work very well.

It may not quite be perfect… but it is “craft” as I see it, as much as I can pin it down within my own mind. Plenty of breweries I think are a bit crap fit within the definition, but defining craft beer can’t be about what I do and don’t like and it needs to be objective if it is to work at all. I use the word and if I’m to continue to use the word I ought to be able to outline what I mean when I use it… that’s one of the points of this post.

I’ve an ulterior motive in all this of course. Because I think, if done right, this can be used as a mechanism to drive change and improve quality in the UK beer industry. A proper craft beer representative body can pick up where SIBA fails to deliver, and bridge the gap to where the Beer Academy doesn’t quite seem to have the grunt to execute.

If there is to be a wider crystallisation of a concept of craft then mere definition is not enough… it needs an organisation behind it to work. Sometimes there are grey areas and a committee, perhaps, needs to make a ruling. For a definition to work lines do need to be drawn. And the organisation doing this needs to really stand up for the ethos behind craft beer… creativity and independence, and striving for quality. (We can’t make quality part of the definition, but an organisation can support and encourage it.)

This should be a membership based organisation like SIBA, where all breweries that meet the definition can join for a fairly low fee. (£250?) [But you don’t have to be a member to _be_ a craft brewer!] Major decisions are made on an open democratic basis – we have the technology to achieve this quite simply. The purpose of the organisation is to manage the membership, manage the definition, promote the concept of craft beer, and – importantly – make an attempt at defining best practice. Work to improve and modernise the world of great beer in the UK, which will be of benefit to everyone in the chain from farmer to drinker.

In the UK we’ve a lot to do to improve the pint of beer that ends up in the glass. SIBA isn’t doing it (but it does help), the Beer Academy isn’t doing it (but it does help), CAMRA isn’t doing it (and may actually have become a barrier to good quality).

Finally – “craft beer” should try hard not to look down on “not craft beer”. We’ll all have our own personal prejudices which we won’t give up (*cough*GreenKing*cough*). But we have to accept that some multinationals do make a high quality product, and sometimes it even happens to be rather tasty.

This has been a craft community broadcast brought to you by the vested-interest department… and I may very well change my mind tomorrow. Or after I’ve had a beer.


P.S. In all of this I think it is well worth being aware that craft is not necessarily equal to “good”, and non-craft is definitely not equal to “bad”. Good and bad are subjective and undefinable, there is debate even around identifiable brewing/beer flaws. Craft is not equal to “better” – but it will _usually_ be more interesting than the alternative thanks to the creativity and flexibility of the style of operation I think my above points encompass. Cases in point are to look at Greene King’s efforts at “craft”, and Marston’s “Revisionist” beers… which for the most part I don’t think are _bad_ beers, but they’re clearly contained and restrained beers… yet are the most “adventurous” beers breweries of this scale and shareholder-value maximising sensibilities will produce. (You can still brew really dull beer within the points of my attempt at a definition above, of course.)

Summer of Fob

50 PSI in KeyKeg

50 PSI in KeyKeg

Keg… in summer… in the UK… it is a fucking pain in the backside. Currently I am having a “summer of fob”. (“Fobbing” is what happens when a beer is too foamy to serve, “foam on beer”, there are several ways fobbing can occur – carb level, temp, flow rate…)

Keg is quickly becoming core to my distribution business. In fact I’m slowly moving to less and less cask volume and considering dropping cask entirely so I can focus more on keg and packaged beers. But there’s a problem with keg – I’m getting higher ullage rates, and an ullage is effectively eliminated sales volume, work done for nothing – and that hurts my small business. It strains relationships with pubs and breweries too. I’m sat here as the middle-man copping the flack from either side.

There are key problems that I believe the UK beer industry MUST solve:

  1. Breweries should not be releasing beers that will gain over 1 vol of CO2 outside of the brewery. Let alone 2 or 3 vols! Surely? Is that reasonable? I’ve handled kegs that are up at 6 vol CO2 (in steel thankfully) and had a KeyKeg at 4 vol CO2 recently. That is on the verge of a KeyKeg’s maximum PSI rating at room temperature. If that 6 vol CO2 beer was in KeyKeg it could very well explode at cellar temperature. If breweries do this it’ll only be a matter of time before a serious injury occurs. That could be in the brewery, could be in distribution, could be in the pub…
  2. Distribution should be keeping kegs cool. This is unpasteurised unfiltered beer folks, it _will_ continue to attenuate somewhat. If you leave your kegs lying around for a week at 20C in summer they’ll probably gain some CO2 and thus result in fobbing. Causing issues at the pub, causing bad vibes, ullaged kegs, and hassles for both distribution and the brewery. I have a 10C coldstore and I’m not happy with that, but many “craft” distributors don’t have a coldstore at all. Hell, too many _breweries_ in the UK don’t. My own goal is to have a 4C-max coldstore for keg and packaged beer products. Some think me a fool… perhaps I am. It certainly isn’t currently a competitive advantage in a market where pubs will do anything to save a fiver.
  3. Pubs need to learn more about keg beer. The BII ABCQ is pretty much a waste of time, someone interested in their job & beer quality will already know _more_. We need a UK-tailored equivalent to Cicerone. Not just that – but pubs need to _not_ buy 2+ months worth of keg stock at once and then leave it in their 12C cellar. See above point: it _will_ attenuate further, the CO2 will increase, you _will_ have more issues with fobby beer. Ideally I’d love to see pubs with keg cellars below 6C… I’m dreamin’ now… Not every beer will have it in it to go far enough to cause problems, but some will. Just do not buy and store kegs for this long unless you can keep them cold. That’s just plain good practice regardless.

I don’t think a pub ought to have to worry about knowing how to vent kegs to reduce CO2 levels – but whilst the above 3 problems remain unsolved the best alternative I can think of is that pubs need to learn how to do this. Yet the current status in the UK is that most don’t even know how to manage within-acceptable-bounds cases with pressure and flow control. The highest level of UK cellar training is the BII ABCQ and, frankly, it is barely even what I would consider sufficient as a  “new-joiner briefing” in a serious bar or pub. It’s crap, it’s designed for Wetherspoons and similar bar chains that have standardised products and support contracts.

I have _NEVER_ come across a keg I cannot get pouring. That 60 PSI steel keg I mentioned worked just fine after some venting, and the beer was actually pretty awesome. KeyKegs are even easier to vent.

Now… how do we fix this? <troll>Pasteurise all the keg beer?</troll>

</braindump>

(I have views on the lack of refrigeration in UK beer retail too… that’s one for another time though.)

What Keg?

Keg menagerie in my kitchen

Keg menagerie in my kitchen

OK – so… I’ve been asked about four times by different brewers about what I think of the various sorts of kegs UK breweries are using. Each time my thoughts are expanded and now I have nearly 2000 2500 words worth of blather about kegs. I don’t have time to clean it up much… but I’ve been left with an unexpected gap in a day so… here is is, in pretty raw “brain dump” form.

Here’s my thoughts on a few of the keg types I find amongst the menagerie in my coldstore. Note that my own views are from the handling end – I’m a distributor not a brewer. I’m used to dealing with all these from receipt from brewery through to dispense of beer – helping pubs get beer serving, and serving beer myself at events

With respect to costs I suggest brewing folk talk to other brewing folk as, like I said, I am not a brewer so any vague cost info below is 2nd hand!

[Or skip to bottom for a TL;DR]

Conditioning

First, an aside on conditioning. Some folk simply fill their kegs the same as they fill their casks with final conditioning occurring due to continued fermentation in the keg. This is often a source of pain… venting a cask is usual, venting a keg is something UK pubs no nowt about. So unless you’re accurate with your conditioning in the keg then you’re going to have problems with returned beer. I’m finding more breweries are shifting to getting final condition nailed in CT before filling to keg. Then again folk like Moor seem to keg condition consistently and reliably. YMMV… I’d say it is a subject you’re best off talking about with breweries who use different methods of keg filling/conditioning.

Conditioning in kegs also means you want (IMO) to instruct pubs to let their kegs settle for 48 hours before connecting. (A lot will ignore this unfortunately.) Whereas racking relatively-bright to keg causes less “London Murky” hassle. [KeyKeg is a bit of an exception as it draws beer from the top and not via a spear, so you’ll have brighter beer sooner.]

I know a few folk who rack brightish into keg and then force-carb in keg… but this looks like a right pain. Time consuming and thus unscalable. Get yourself a CT!

Brewery Steel Kegs

Summer Wine Brewery kegs and casksYour very own steel kegs… Easy to handle. Robust. Expensive up front. And as much of a pain to track down and repatriate as your own casks. But breweries are used to handing cask tracking so just the same really. You also obviously need specialist keg cleaning equipment. Although I know at least one brewery de-spears their kegs for cleaning… and so far doesn’t seem to have killed anyone.

Most breweries with their own kegs have them in 30l with Sankey connectors. But I’ve seen a handful about who use A-type connectors, and some 50l kegs – 50l size is great for house lagers, etc… beers that sell in volume.

Summer Wine Brewery are an example of a brewery with a good population of their own kegs. SWB use 50l kegs for the 4.1% Pacer too. Another example is Outstanding brewery in Bury who have 50l A-type kegs – and focus on “house lagers” & Guinness-alternative stout markets – i.e. good quality indy replacements to mainstream “macro” lagers and Guinness.

With respect to keg size think about the market you’re targeting. The “rotational craft beer” market seems to be mainly about 30l keg sizes.

From an environmental PoV I side mainly with reusable steel kegs when it comes to selling beer to the UK market. I don’t trust the effectiveness of the recycling chain to be a great fan of any of the plastic kegs on “eco” grounds (EcoKeg do take reuse/recycle very seriously mind you!). The UK just isn’t big enough for the weight/transport issues to be a major concern. (But by all means use 1-way kegs for export…)

eKegs

eKegs

eKegs

Close Brewery Rentals e-kegs – same as your own, but perhaps a better way to start out for some. I don’t know what the single-fill cost of an eKeg is but I am told it is “about half” that of what most are paying for KeyKegs. (Some breweries list eKeg vs KeyKeg pricing and charge less for beer in eKeg – some just average it out.)

The biggest drawback of eKeg is, I suspect, that you can _ONLY_ shift them to registered distributors such as myself. If you want to sell keg direct to customers you then have a problem. (I see plenty of abuse of the eKeg/Cask situation… which just drives up the cost for everyone so makes little sense. Don’t do it. [And I will report any significant seeming abuse, as per the spirit of my contract with Close Brewery Rentals. Albeit I gather a handful of breweries have some special arrangements with CBR on this front.])

Some breweries who use eKegs: Buxton, Five Points, Hardknott – worth noting that these three entirely, or almost entirely, shift their keg volume through distributors. Five Points & Hardknott also have a population of their own kegs for direct distribution.

I have never had any technical issues with steel kegs with respect to coupler connections, leakage, breakage, or handling. (I have had the odd over-conditioned one, but this isn’t the keg’s fault.) Fifty litre kegs are a hassle to handle, but not too bad, and no trouble compared to kils (which I currently handle an increasing number of).

[I would be happier if Close Brewery Rentals didn’t call them “Craft EKegs” however. Grrrrrr…] 

EcoKegs

EcoKeg - the 30l keg that is the size of a 50l keg.

EcoKeg – the 30l keg that is the size of a 50l keg.

Available in different coupler types, but best to use Sankey as that’s what everyone else uses. The EcoKeg is a 30l top-pressure keg that works effectively the same as steel kegs. The Sankey connector is sturdy and I’ve never had any trouble using them. Breweries can buy these pressurised and ready to be filed as per a normal keg. Alternatively you can buy them with the top loosely screwed on so you can unscrew and rack beer in exactly as you do for cask.

As an added bonus the robust outer on an EcoKeg is opaque to light – and the inner bladder uses an O2 scavenging plastic.

They’re also part-reusable… under the name ReKeg. The inner bladder with connector can be removed and replaced with a new one.

EcoKeg with "Bladder" removed.

EcoKeg with “Bladder” removed.

The kegs can be (and are) collected by EcoKeg to be “ReKegged” at their facility in South Wales. Or EcoKeg can tool up your brewery to do the “ReKegging” yourselves. This way you can just have the bladders shipped to you and reuse your kegs.

I’ve no real handle on the costs of EcoKeg – especially with the ReKegging in mind, and TCO if you’re doing your own ReKegging. Speak to a brewer about this, or EcoKeg themselves.

Manufacturer in Wales can re-use or re-cycle all parts except the rubber washer. (And they're working on that.)

Manufacturer in Wales can re-use or re-cycle all parts except the rubber washer. (And they’re working on that.)

The most well known user of EcoKeg I know is Moor – who also take advantage of how easy it is to condition in EcoKeg. Moor keg is consistent and reliable so in my mind prove both EcoKeg and keg conditioning can be a good thing.

As a distributor I’d be happy to see more EcoKeg about. I also collect EcoKeg empties which can be palletised for collection by EcoKeg. (No cost to me except storage space.)

EcoKegs have the disadvantage of being the size of a 50l keg despite being only 30l. But a storage advantage that they stack – which is nice. But they’re not as space-efficient as KeyKegs.

KeyKegs

Slimline KeyKegs stack nicely.

Slimline KeyKegs stack nicely.

I have written about KeyKeg before. And Magic Rock have an informative post regarding KeyKeg dispense. (I tidied up that flowchart for them!;)

KeyKeg is possibly the most widely used “craft beer” keg packaging – and this is probably why it is possibly also the most discussed, and ranted about. The old cardboard-outer spherical KeyKegs attract a lot of dislike. They melt when wet, degrade rapidly with being moved about, and have a habit of dropping their balls. Unfortunately British weather tends to the damp side and sadly British cellar too… this doesn’t help.

Squashed Beavertown Keg

KeyKegs compact down nicely.

However for the most parts the complaints are about the handling and the outer part of the packaging and this has now been fixed. The new “slimline” KeyKeg is, in my opinion, quite awesome. Easy to handle. Seems to be robust. Stacks beautifully too. Takes up less space in my coldstore than EcoKegs, and even steel kegs in a way. (More vertical, more stackable.)

The next complaint most often heard is that you need a special coupler for them. But folk like myself and breweries who use them tend to stock these. I sell them to customers at near-cost, which is about £38 ex-VAT. Brewfitt stocks them at reasonable prices now too.

Old-Style "Cardboard KeyKegs"

Old-Style “Cardboard KeyKegs”

One note is that pubs using KeyKegs really need regulators with gauges on as the usual 1st-stop to solving fobbing problems with them is to turn up the pressure. (Max rating on a KK is 51psi, mostly they work find at about 20 at cellar temperature, but I tend to run them at 30psi by default.)

Breweries who chose to use KeyKeg include much of the cream of the UK “craft beer” crop: the likes of Beavertown, Magic Rock, Thornbridge…

Old-style cardboard KeyKegs are flimsy and their balls escape.

Old-style cardboard KeyKegs are flimsy and their balls escape.

And I believe they choose them on the basis of beer quality. With KeyKeg the brewery gets the beer exactly how they want it and then packages it in a format that makes it harder for someone else to bugger it up. No CO2 top-pressure means no probs with the pub messing with the carb, or being cheap and using air top-pressure to dispense beer (it does happen). In fact KeyKeg makes dispensing with compressed air a perfectly reasonable thing to do. KeyKeg also reduces risk of contamination of the beer. I’ve seen CO2 lines in pubs that don’t look like they’ve been replaced for over a decade. I’ve seen some that seem have had beer backed up the lines even (and presumably never cleaned/replaced). Not to mention the sad state of coupler cleanliness I’ve spotted in places too. Line-cleaning via your coupler is great – but is not where coupler maintenance ends!

The new SlimLine KeyKegs are easy to break down to toss in the recycling too. Just how recycling-friendly they are I do not currently know however.

Dolium

Dolium: the keg that falls apart and leaks beer

Dolium: the keg that falls apart and leaks beer

I don’t like these. I’ve had more trouble with them than any other form of keg.

Technically they’re the same as a steel keg, or an EcoKeg… top-pressure with spear. Folk can and do condition in them.

My problem with them is they’re not robust. I picked one up the other day and the whole top handle part fell off, and then it started leaking.

Another one that arrived recently was leaking from the connector.

Leaky Dolium

Leaky Dolium

I’ve had endless problems with the coupler seating on Sankey type ones – finding no way to get the coupler connected without having a leaky seal and thus losing (a little) beer over time and making a mess.

From another PoV I know brewers who will not use them simply because they do not trust putting their beer into anything they can see through. No matter how brown it is.

The brown plastic is another matter – apparently the recycling chain pretty much isn’t interested in this stuff and its recycle value is low to zero.

One plus of Dolium: they stack. They use about as much storage space as KeyKeg but aren’t quite as stable/sturdy when stacked.

Apparently they are cheap. They definitely seem it.

PETainers

Just don’t. Really. NO!

Only reason I’ve had less trouble with them than Doliums is that nobody uses them any more. Last time I used a PETainer the spear actually fell out internally and I had to prop the keg up upside-down in order to dispense beer from it. Every PETainer I have used (about 4) has given me trouble of some sort. Their Sankey connectors seem to be even worse than Dolium.

A note on Sankey

Brewers: Put a fucking cap on it...

Brewers: Put a fucking cap on it…

For what it is worth I actually really dislike Sankey connectors. And doubly dislike breweries who ship Sankey type kegs without caps on the connectors! (Too many do this! They’re cheap… BUY. SOME. FFS.) I’ve had some that don’t even seem to have been post-fill sanitised by the brewery. The sankey connector is a grime-trap and a pain to clean. By comparison sanitizing an A or G type coupler in the cellar is trivial and quick.

But Sankey seems to be the defacto “craft keg” standard… so on those grounds perhaps the best choice for your kegs if you’re not going the KeyKeg route.

A-Type keg connector, so much more sanitary!

A-Type keg connector, so much more sanitary!

A Sankey/S-type coupler

A Sankey/S-type coupler

There are other kegs out there…

Not often seen, I’ve had some foreign beers in various forms of 1-way keg I can’t recall the names of. There are also EcoFass kegs that are a bit like KeyKegs (beer-in-bag) and a new entrant to the UK market is Emmerald. I expect we shall see more takes on the 1-way & plastic keg over the coming years.

In conclusion, the TL;DR:

The answer is not so simple. I’m happy to work with steel kegs, KeyKegs, and EcoKegs… they each have different properties and advantages. It is up to the individual brewer/brewery to determine what works best for them from the options available. I like the sheer robustness and handling of steel kegs, I like that EcoKegs are light as well as robust and highly reusable, I like the technology of KeyKegs as well as their compact and stackable form-factor.

I do not accept PETainers from breweries, and I think I’m resolved now to no longer buy beer that is packaged in Dolium. After one broke, dropped on my foot, and then leaked everywhere the other day I’m doubly unhappy with the things. (I was wearing steel-cap shoes thankfully!)

Broken Dolium

Broken Dolium