Beer Tech Technology

10,000 metres of beer pipe…

10km of Valpar Gen-X beer line
10,000 metres of beer tube…

Why? Why would I buy 10 kilometres of beer line? Specifically 5km of 5/16 and 5km of 3/8 beer line? That’s one big old pallet of beer line!

Well … it’s simply because 5km is the minimum order size. Simple?

But why not buy smaller amounts from an intermediary?

Because in the UK nobody stocks anything better than bog standard polyethylene beer line, aka “MDP” – “Low cost beer and soft drinks dispense tubing”low cost, “low cost” could be considered the core theme of beer dispense in the UK. Generally “low”… low cost, low quality, lowest common denominator. (Don’t even get me started on the fact that many cask line installs are still using bloody PVC…)

It’s a bit of joke really… (of the depressing variety) pretty much the entire “indy”/microbrewery bar & pub beer scene in the UK is stuck with MDP. The “off the shelf” python and 3/8 tube is all this stuff, and none of the usual suspects for sourcing gear stock better. (You may be able to arrange for better I guess, but nobody does… beer line is just beer line, python is just python, right?)

The punchline to the joke is that big brewers like Heineken know how important consistency of quality is to their sales and accordingly they use Brewmaster II line in their installs.

There you have it… that pint of Heineken in the local probably comes out of a higher spec of dispense system than your pint of Cloudwater at UberTrendy Craft-n-Stuff bar.

Now… I’m personally not one for settling for the status quo. One should always strive to do better, achieve more… improve. So one of many things that came out of my research of craft beer dispense in the US was: hmmm, they have this special fancy barrier tube type beer line, what is it we us in the UK? *research*research*oh, oh my, that’s a bit sad…

So I got in touch with Valpar over in Ireland… Valpar, owned by Micromatic, makes most of the beer line I see in the UK and it turned out they make some pretty good stuff. They key products being Brewmaster II (used by Heineken in the UK) and Gen-X (apparently used by Diageo for Guinness)Where I can buy the good stuff?  Nobody in the UK stocks it. Oh… can I buy it from you direct?  Yeesssss… if you want 5000 metres.

Think about it: there’s a company just over the Irish Sea that manufactures really good beer line that is shipped to countries all over the world and yet in the UK I cannot buy the stuff. My FOB detectors also come from Ireland. I get taps from the US and Italy. I even import gas regulators for top-end jobs… why is the UK so pants when it comes to quality beer equipment?

[Edit: Hey, so the fab folk over at The Malt Miller stock Brewmaster II – which is waaaaay better than MDP (see table below).  So a worthy choice for a dispense install. Order from them here.]

This stuff isn’t madly priced per-metre but given I wanted both 5/16 and 3/8 the cost really adds up over 10km… normal MDP is about 10p per meter, the Gen-X is closer to 40p. So I had to wait about a year before it was possible to take about £4000 ex-VAT out of the business cashflow to invest in a big pallet of beer pipe. The price difference between Gen-X and Brewmaster II was low enough to make Gen-X seem a no-brainer, given the numbers significantly in favour of Gen-X: “The microbial growth tests indicate that the hygienic performance can be 2-3 times at least more effective than current market solutions.

Valpar Gen-X Tube
Valpar Gen-X Tube

A few months ago it showed up and I was a happy dispense guy. Now if I do install work for you, you get Gen-X tube.*

So far we’ve had little chance to really get a feel for how much better Gen-X is than MDP. My couple of data-points so far are:

No more “line stench”? I do a fair bit of mobile bar stuff, and it is generally always the case after just one event that MDP line pumps out an “old beery” smell when you pump air through them at the next event. You can taste it even when you suck through even a short length. I’ve never been happy with this but have never been able to clean out that aroma. The Gen-X? So far this seems to be a thing of the past… after 3 events the keg tails I have used still don’t reek. (That said we are still re-doing all the pipework every 2 or 3 events.)

Sticky flavour beer taint a thing of the past? This seems to be the case. I put 3 kegs of a 10% hazelnut flavoured “pastry beer” type creature through a line… this was in there for 3 days and I then flushed with about 2 litres of water. No flavour or aroma of hazelnut (or anything) in the end of that water. I was pretty surprised by this, having in the past immediately had to (or wanted to) rip out and throw away the line after such a beer even after trying to line-clean TF outta it.

I would still advocate regular changing of beer lines though, even fancy plastic isn’t magic. Only time will tell what the real “craft beer” (unfiltered flavourful tastymank™) shelf-life of Gen-X is.

Technology… it works. Huh, whoda thunk it.

The reason I wrote this today (well, 2 months ago) was I saw a thing on the Twitters. Beer seemingly oxidised after 2 days sat in a line. It got me thinking about gas permeability of beer line… a generally known problem that is mitigated by fast throughput on kegs and weekly line cleaning. “Plastic isn’t magic” is a phrase I use a lot – O2 can get in, the higher the permeability the more likely biofilms will develop is one factor. Also, beer sat in a line will lose CO2 and oxidise. I don’t actually know how fast this will happen in a sense of yielding tangible/tastable flaws, but according to Valpar Micromatic numbers MDP is 80x more O2 permeable than Gen-X. I’m not yet convinced beer line O2 permeability is to blame in the case of the linked tweet… but I definitely have an idea for an experiment I want to run… <watch-this-space>, as they say.

PROTECTING THE FLAVOR OF BEER & WINE: The next step in flavor protection: GEN-X® Tubing
PROTECTING THE FLAVOR OF BEER & WINE: The next step in flavor protection: GEN-X® Tubing From:

* We’re still using MDP for most gas line and waste/outflow lines.

Beer Tech

Push Fit Beer Cleanliness

I once had a brewer grimace at the jubilee-clipped host-to-barb connections on my “beer wall” gas system. The problem – I was instructed – being that in the pinch-join between the pipe and barb there is a minute nook where beasties can gather and be hard for cleaning to get to. (This was on the gas-side of the system mind…)

Two things didn’t ring true about this. The first is being on the gas-side we also have workings inside regulators and the unknown innards of cylinders to worry about… both greater worries IMO. (Gas-side system cleanliness is a real issue not to be ignored when using top-pressure kegs mind you.)

But I think the brewer’s thinking was more about the beer-side… but there is a bit of a “hidden sins” aspect to pushfit fittings that makes folk think they’ve magic powers over and above just being really convenient. If anything I think they’re WORSE than barb fittings… there is about 5mm of pipe-in-sleeve in there where all the nasties you like can gather far easier than in a barb connection. There’s a lot more play and a far larger “grime trap” that casual line cleaning is not going to work well to sanitise.

Butchered John Guest 3/8" Elbow
Butchered John Guest 3/8″ Elbow

So keep this in mind when thinking of beer system cleanliness… it’s important to regularly strip back and clean draught system components. Replace short runs of tube and break down and scrub pushfits (I’d just replace them perhaps, they’re basically a consumables in my mind these days.) This goes for the gas side too when using top-pressure kegs (as opposed to KeyKeg) – infections from the gas-side, especially from manky couplers, can make a keg beer exhibit “off” flavours in just a day or two, especially in “warm” 12C UK cellars.

Sadly I’d bet your average British cellar hasn’t had this kind of love in 5+ years, if not in a decade… I’ve seen some pretty awful stuff in cellars. Take apart the average Sankey-S coupler and you can quickly be turned off drinking beer in pubs. Then look inside pushfits on coolers, couplers, and fobs… or don’t if you want to continue enjoying your beer. I’ve even seen algae-like growth inside an in use fob detector – and that is visible.

Great beer requires great cleanliness!

So… pushfit beer kit. I love it, and I won’t stop loving it. But always be aware of the caveats of any piece of equipment.

Beer Industry Hasty Ranting Jolly Good Beer Technology

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 4°C 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 damaged in transport.

Craft Beer Technology Training

Keg Beer Pressure in the UK

Cellar Gas System installed for Cloudwater by Jolly Good Beer
Cellar Gas System installed for Cloudwater by Jolly Good Beer

[This post originally written 2015-08-23 … has been refreshed 2018-09-16. Content has been edited without notes sometimes, other times comments have been inserted in [square brackets] or using this grey text colour where I think the historic content counterpoint adds value. Audience note: Jolly Good Beer is a “craft beer” business and as such this content is written for what you could call “craft beer bars” – the concepts are universal, but if any uncertainly exists you should consult with your supplier/brewer/dispense-technician before fiddling with your dispense system. (“Craft” note: we think all types of beer can be “craft” but don’t claim to be able to firmly define “craft” – we mainly use this term to identify a market segment, not a product type.)]

[[A “cleaned up” version of this was published by The Brewers Journal in October 2018.]]

I am heard to say, with increasing frequency [and still regularly]:

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 keg 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. Update 2018-09-16]  I am a “qualified” cellar technician as much as any such thing exists in the UK – having done the NCCSIM, but prior to that this article was written on the basis of 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 have since met some who do understand this stuff… they are out there]. 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 [What is a “vol CO₂”? (PDF)]   – 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 so it easier to support as well as eliminating an often overlooked infection vector from the beer. [Three years later and KeyKegs are becoming less popular due to increased costs and worries about their environmental credentials.])

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.) Gauges should be checked for accuracy at install and about once per year. (Officially I think this is every 5 years, my experience now is many gauges in use are pretty fragile.)There is an alternative to this and that is to have a calibrated reference gauge (usually glycerine filled and with a rubber protective casing) that can be used to verify the pressure on a line, it is a bit less convenient than simply having trusted gauges on the dispense system though.

To 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…

But – 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.

(Or buy yourself a reference gauge.)

Jolly Good Beer wall
[Ye Olde] Jolly Good Beer wall
[All regulation-compliant UK dispense systems should be limited to 45 PSI for CO2 and 60/40 so it shouldn’t be possible to go higher, but I have also seen systems without these limits and “nitro” gas systems can go higher.]

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.) [I have since implemented a flux-capacitor-like system which is much less pretty and more utilitarian for Cloudwater’s dispense system in Manchester and soon also London.]

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.) [This was in 2015 – things have improved a tiny bit since thanks to the “craft beer” sector slowly being schooled in how to do dispense, but it’s still pretty bad out there.]

So… in an attempt to basically explain that [some of the] 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)KeyKegFlowChart

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 at UK cellar temperature (10-12C) 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.


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 ambient temperature kegs at 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:

CO₂ Top-Pressure Chart for UK Cellars & Event Bars
CO₂ Top-Pressure Chart for UK Cellars & Event Bars [PDF]

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:

60/40 Top-Pressure Chart for UK Cellars & Event Bars
60/40 Top-Pressure Chart for UK Cellars & Event Bars [PDF]
(Any “peer review” of this would be much appreciated.)

But wait, there’s more… how about some “thirty-seventy” “nitro” action too?

30/70 "nitro" Top-Pressure Chart for UK Cellars & Event Bars
30/70 “nitro” Top-Pressure Chart for UK Cellars & Event Bars

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 could 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. [Ideally you should be turning over kegs in a maximum of 5 days.]

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 barely-fit-for-purpose 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…


Some useful external resources from the Brewers Association: