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.


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

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 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…

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>


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