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…

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

BIIAB Level 2 Award in Beer and Cellar Quality (Cask and Keg)

My BIIAB ABCQ certificate & note

My BIIAB ABCQ certificate & note

The BIIAB ABCQ is the UK’s only professional qualification for cellarfolk as far as I know. It covers keg as well as cask, with the idea of ensuring good handling from the point the beer leaves the dray to the point it is being drunk by a customer. [Click here for the BIIAB page on the qualification, which is pretty limited in information or click here for the much more informative Cask Marque page via which I booked my own course.]

The ABCQ is a “hands on” approach to keeping & serving beer, as opposed to the Beer Academy’s Advanced Course which is more oriented around the drinking the beer in the glass end of things, communicating about beer, and details of beer production and style. The ABCQ has some overlap but is mostly style/taste-agnostic – less interested in the beer itself beyond basic factors of quality. Beer is beer – you can have this beer in keg, cask, and “packaged” (bottle/can) varieties – the ABCQ is all about getting that beer from container to glass in good form.

I did the ABCQ course and exam on Monday November 11th at a cost of £115.80 (inc-VAT). It was a fun day out – and I came away with another certificate to add to my collection. Well, it arrived a couple of weeks later but I was pretty confident I’d “passed”. When the results arrived I found I’d managed 100% in the 30 question multi-choice exam, but I’d not say that is any great feat & I imagine 100% scores are common. (I also come at this from a position of having a decent base of knowledge and practice in the subject matter.) [Para added as update on 28/12/2014.]

"Testing" beer in the Fuller's training cellar.

“Testing” beer in the Fuller’s training cellar.

My simple summary of this 1-day course, aka TL;DR, is: every pub should have at least one person who has done it. In an ideal case you should not be allowed in the cellar without having first done this course (“cellar license”?). It is a good and worthwhile thing to do. There are folk out there with a higher level of knowledge and experience already who simply don’t need it… but they’re probably few and far between and I suspect some who think they’re “it” in the cellar are not as “it” as they think.[1] (Even if just a case of “going through the motions” – much like farm kids who’ve been competently driving since they were 8 still needing a license to drive on public roads. Usually they’ll be practically competent – they may have a good grasp of the rules of the road too, but the license ensures they cover the rules as well at the practice.)

The ABCQ provides template methodologies that I agree will almost always work in “the usual case”, and identify what to do (or who to call) in several outlier cases. A motivated staff member who has done this ‘award’ and paid attention should always be able to serve beer in good form. If you can get hold of a copy of the “Profit Through Quality” handbook (see right) that goes with the course (which can be found online, after you lie about your age) then you can review all the material the course covers.

I also think that the cost of £115.80 makes it particularly accessible and I think it would be a useful “feather in your cap” if you’re keen on a career behind the bar and in the cellar (even if just to get you through uni for a few years, say). Along with train travel it cost me less than £200 in the end – including an evening out in London having some beers. If you’re lucky you’ll live closer to one of the several training locations – if luckier still you can talk your employer into paying it for you! It is worth their while, worth yours, and good for the industry all-round. [Para added as update on 28/12/2014.]

There are some ‘howevers‘, however. My more lengthy take on it continues below, because I do have some criticisms that are probably more justifications for creating an “advanced” type course that needs some more time and goes a bit further.

The ABCQ glosses over some details that I think need more explaining to give staff a enough of an understanding of beer to get it right all the time. The training stops short of providing enough knowledge for staff to solve issues, work with modern beer diversity, and understand keg beer. In essence it is a fantastic base-level that should work perfectly for someone working in a huge pub-chain[2]. Which, as on the day, is presumably where most of the demand for the ABCQ comes from. It definitely provides a good basis for folk who’re new to the industry to start out from.

The ABCQ is only a day long – it probably does the best it can with the time available. What it needs is another day (or two) to go deeper with…

  1. More detail on cask ale. “Secondary”/”conditioning” are glossed over somewhat, presumably in the name of brevity (it is only 1 day after all). So a technique is given that will almost always work but doesn’t adequately justify itself or allow for some of the common quirks of cask ale. I guess this is where cask becomes an on-the-job acquired “art” rather than a science – but it is an art with some basic technical foundations that can be taught.
  2. More (any!) real detail on keg dispense. In the world of the ABCQ all you need to know about keg beer is how to attach/detach coupler, clean lines, ensure coolers are topped up (advanced material). What gas you use and what pressure you use is a matter for “Technical Services” (you need to know not to get your gas mixed up though). This, of course, very much fits the UK world where nearly every keg tap in nearly every pub is a tied line.
  3. Variety in storage of ‘packaged’ beer (cans/bottles). They’re something kept in a fridge. When in the specialist beer world you need to be more careful in my opinion. I just confused matters (took them off track) when I suggested you need to serve bottled beer at an appropriate temperature. (If I had a pub I’d want at least 2 fridges set at different temperatures, as well as a decent bottle-store in the cellar. Yes, OK, I am a beer nerd. I’d also want adjustable inline coolers for keg!)

I think all the above is necessary to fully mesh the beer quality expectations set up by the Beer Academy Advanced Course with the serve quality standards taught by the ABCQ.

Defining 'Keg Beer'

Defining ‘Keg Beer’

Point 2 is the one I have more issues with right at the moment. Microbrewery keg beer is becoming “big”(er), many big distributors are picking it up now. I increasingly see kegs that actually specify their target vol CO2. (Not uncommon in the international “craft scene” I gather?) Here we’re heading into Certified Cicerone territory. One thing you definitely do not see in doing the ABCQ is a pressure/temperature/volCO2 table. In fact touching the pressure gauge is a big no-no. Yes, used incorrectly they can create very dangerous situations, which is why I think a bit more should be taught about them, ASAP – especially with the increased prevalence of KeyKeg. (Brewer tells staff to up the pressure, keg line has no gauge… what next? This has happened to me twice in the last 6 months in places where a brewery or cellar services company has fitted “craft beer lines”.)

Basically the ABCQ isn’t “craft ready” (no surprise of course) and if you want to be able to seriously treat keg “right” in your bar I’d suggest you poach staff from BrewDog who’ve done the Certified Cicerone. (Or get existing staff on-track to do it themselves, there are occasional UK exams now.) I think that for the UK beer world there needs to be an A(dvanced)ABCQ that is an extra day or two of instruction and goes into some of the finer details.

Draught Beer Quality Manual

Draught Beer Quality Manual

Alternatively we (the “craft beer industry”) could take what Cicerone have and adapt it to create out own British Cicerone (differently named I guess, since Cicerone is TMed!) My own studies of the Draught Beer Quality Manual [pdf] show it to be not quite right for general UK use. The main factors it does not cover that are standard in the UK are: 1) inline chillers, 2) keeping kegs at 12C (DBQM temp tables go to 5.5C max), 3) use of flow-restrictors rather than lots of 3/16 line to battle fobbing (increase “line resistance”).

DBQM Temp/Pressure/volCO2 chart

DBQM Temp/volCO2/PSI chart

Immense cask-washer line at Fuller's Brewery

Immense cask-washer line at Fuller’s Brewery

My intention isn’t to knock the ABCQ, I *did* learn things as a result of doing it. I’m no expert, I’m a novice trying to work my way towards becoming a technical expert. (Ask me again in a decade perhaps.) I won’t itemise all the new little facts I picked up – the area that was mostly new to me was on ‘beer clean’ glassware and correct glasswashing methods and chemicals. The quick tour of Fuller’s brewery was a nice bonus. There was also very good quality beer available on tap, naturally as part of the course was hands-on keg and cask handling to connect up and pull through for dispense. (The Firecracker in cask and the Frontier “craft lager” in keg – both beers I enjoyed on the day.) I’ve done exams before after drinking beer, but the ABCQ exam was the first one I’ve ever done *whilst* sipping a pint.

The next UK qualification I’d like to do is the “Technical Certificate in Cellar Service Installation and Maintenance” – but that’s nearly  £1k of spend so I don’t know if it’ll happen any time soon. It will cover some of the gas and equipment handling and may bridge some of the technical-end gap between the Certified Cicerone and the ABCQ perhaps. It will be total overkill for cellar staff, but I build keg dispense setups for myself so it will be relevant to me.

Perhaps I’ll have an opportunity to do the Certified Cicerone first? Quite keen to do it, but a bit daunted by having to remember a bunch of BJCP style guide gumph.

[1] In “the field” I’ve found one chap who was instructed by the previous “expert” cellar person to peg casks that are being used with vertical extractors. That may be one of the most ridiculous example I’ve got, but it goes to show the crazy stuff I find going on in cellars. Issues of cleanliness are my primary personal concern. Folk not properly cleaning cask taps, re-using manky hard spiles, not cleaning keystones & shives, etc… the ABCQ teaches students to give everything a proper scrub & clean at least. I go one step further by preference and have a spray-bottle of a sanitiser handy too. This seems especially important to me under their ideal guidelines of: vent-and-tap-immediately & serve-when-ready. If there are nasties on the shive, spile, keystone, or tap this method gives all the more time for them to wreak havoc in your tasty beer.

[2] The BIIAB ABCQ course and material are brought to you by the following… (Masrton’s?!) which makes one ponder the motivations of the course and it’s “good tied pubs/lines” nature versus being perhaps not quite comprehensive enough to be so useful to the free trade. (Clenaware Systems market ‘Renovate‘ which is specifically pushed as a glassware silver bullet in the course… my cynic alarm is properly flashing now.)

Brought to you by...

Brought to you by…

What is this “natural” you speak of?

I’ve long been meaning to do a detailed write-up about beer packaging, so I have one place to point people to who’re somehow confused and have odd ideas about about “keg”. A poor and quite misunderstood three-letter-word is “keg”, and to be honest “cask” is pretty misunderstood too. I don’t have time to write that post… but I can address one aspect of the the pro-cask FUD that comes up frequently. The use of the word “natural” with respect to beer. To cut a long story short: it is pure propaganda.

What is “natural beer”? I think I can pick off a few obvious items that may make some people think beer has lost its “naturalness”:

  • Pasteurised – a process of heating the beer to ensure it is sterile – i.e. the yeast, and any other organisms that may change the beer are killed. Heating will of course change the beer in other ways as well, some volatiles (hop flavours for example) will break down. Pasteurisation is great for stability but perhaps less great for flavour. Stability? Well, perhaps not… live yeast has a known protective quality. It will sit in your beer and “mop up” some excess O2 thus reducing oxidation. (And no seal is perfect, so as well as helping with any O2 left in the beer after filling this helps with the small O2 leakage through capped bottles and probably even cans.)
  • Sterile Filtered – a different approach to achieve the same end. Rather than killing yeasts/etc it filters them out of the solution. But such a fine filter will also remove some large molecules that contribute to flavour. As for the beer now being “dead” – this has the same impact as described above. (If one of these two have to be used then I’ll prefer filtration… there is another approach: centrifuge. Thornbridge and BrewDog use this… and their bottled products are pretty fantastic.)
  • Contains “chemicals” – contentious. The obvious truth is that all beer is made from chemicals! What I guess we have to read into this in context is the addition of extra substances not normally used for brewing. What are these though? Near all breweries add chemicals to treat their water, malts come with the required enzymes for starch conversion, adjuncts like sugars/wheat/etc are perfectly acceptable for certain styles. So “chemicals” is really a pretty confused area and probably best considered bunkum. Some breweries may use added enzymes to speed up mash/fermentation processes I believe. I know a couple of good breweries adding an extra enzyme to de-glutenise beers without altering their flavour (a great thing for coeliacs!) I think that, like the word “natural”, the word “chemicals” is an all-too-easy-to-reach-for emotive word thrown around blindly in the whole cask/keg debate. (Were sulphites perhaps once used to stabilise beer?) (Where do finings in cask ale fit in here – isinglass and the various adjuncts used alongside it?)
  • “Extraneous CO2″ – what’s this then? In CAMRA terms it is use, in any way, of CO2 not created by the action of yeast in the beer. This is also a contentious issue. As there is argument even within CAMRA about the appropriateness of CO2 in the cellar. The big question is around aspirators (aka “cask breathers”) which let just enough CO2 into cask to protect the beer from air contact. And air, really, is the worst thing for beer. No good brewer wants you to be drinking oxidised, stale, beer. I go further and wonder what is so bad about CO2 full-stop. But I guess we hit a personal preference issue regarding fizziness here and I’ll leave it at that.

I think those four items are key to what is behind ideas about “unnatural” beer. The first two are ones I personally think are not really in the interests of good beer… and in fact in my book use of either of them is a line crossed. From what I’d consider a “craft” product to one that quite simply isn’t. Does it make beer “unnatural” … sure, I’ll buy into that a bit. It certainly makes it less than it was and, sure, one could say it makes the beer “dead”.

The whole chemicals thing is just puzzling to me. I’d like to know what these evil chemicals are… but I’ve yet to come across them in the brewing world. And as I said – without chemicals you cannot have beer. (Nor life, nor anything really…)

Now, CO2… the point of this post is to show that your ideas of “natural beer” wade into a big grey area in the world of modern brewing. We do have another point often brought up about what makes “cask ale” natural… that is cask conditioning. “Naturally conditioned beer”… i.e. carbonated by the action of yeast in the beer, not force-carbonated by addition of external CO2. So a natural beer is one that is conditioned in the container it is served from and that involves none of the items in the above list (assuming by “chemicals” we’re talking some odd crazy substances used to somehow adulterate the brewing process).

I bring to your attention the humble KeyKeg. An interesting little keg-type device in which beer is contained within a bladder from which it is extracted using pressure (air will do, but often CO2 is used). The important thing to know about KeyKegs is that many breweries who use them put exactly the same beer into them as they put into casks. Live, good, natural, beer. It conditions in the container it is served from. It does not come into contact with extraneous CO2. The only difference between this beer from keg versus cask is that the keg version will probably be served at a cooler temperature and with more (natural) CO2 remaining in solution.

This beer, from KeyKeg, is a fully “natural” product by any wild definition I can think of.

Moving on from KeyKegs… breweries filling conventional kegs usually do so from a conditioning tank where the beer has been “naturally” carbonated. Again. Live, good, natural, beer. Some even let the beer condition in these kegs (Moor, for example). The only point where the “naturalness” may come into question is when CO2 top-pressure is used to expel beer from keg. And frankly… that’s just a bit of an odd viewpoint to have, in my purely personal opinion. CO2 is CO2. The “extraneous CO2″ does not necessarily add “fizz” to the beer – if used appropriately it just maintains the CO2 level the beer is designed to have. That carbonation level has been chosen by by the brewer – it is as the brewer intends it to be. They’ve, naturally, brewed a beer to be served fizzier. You may not like that… but it is still live, natural, beer.

Next step is to swing across to the grey area of “cask conditioning”. Those “conditioning tanks” I mentioned before are used by many breweries to pre-condition beer prior to filling both cask and keg. So again – in all of the above keg scenarios identical beer is being put into cask. The difference is that the keg version has its natural CO2 level preserved by using CO2 top-pressure, and the cask has its CO2 level reduced via venting.

So sure – there are differences… but unless letting “naturally” created CO2 escape from beer to make it flatter is an essential part of being “natural” (really? really!?) then I think you can drop the silly cask-is-natural keg-is-unnatural approach.

(And I’m really really not saying you have to like cooler fizzier beer… I’m just staying stop claiming it isn’t “natural”. This is needlessly emotive FUD that does nothing for good beer except add confusion. If you want to play at politics (aka lying) then go join a political party… what the beer world needs is facts, not bullshit.)

Chemicals, sub-note: is there a finings Elephant in the room anyone? There’s the (emotive) “fish guts” isinglass finings, and alongside these many breweries use various finings adjuncts like silica-gel. There is an argument that these “drop out” of the beer and you don’t drink them. But there’s always going to be some trace of these “chemicals” left in suspension. Justin of Moor Beer also likes to use the word “natural” – in his case to refer to beer that has not been mucked with by adding finings (regardless of what container type the beer happens to be in). I have somewhat more respect for this usage of “natural”, but do prefer simply “unfined”… isinglass is, after-all, simply made from fish and fish are pretty natural.

[I’ve put up an additional post regarding some other iffy statements in the CAMRA article.]