Saturday, November 1, 2014

Picnic Tap Keezer

Today I took one step forward in my quest for great beers when I finally decided to take the dive into kegging.  My new setup is very simple with just a 7.0 cu. ft. chest freezer from Home Depot with a Ranco temperature controller and a 5 gallon ball lock keg and 5 pound CO2 tank and regulator inside.

While I've been relatively happy with bottling for nearly 4 years now, there's a number of reasons that made me finally decide to purchase a chest freezer and kegs for a keezer build:

  1. Carbonation Consistency - I've often been disappointed by overcarbonated beers, with a few being very undercarbonated as well.  Overcarbonating a beer can detract from the flavor (carbonic acid gives a bite and heavy carbonation makes it harder to taste subtle flavors), from the body (beers feel more "seltzery" and less full bodied) and detract from the overall drinking experience (difficult to pour, have to wait for heads to fall, can cause dregs to mix in).  Undercarbonated beers are generally not as big of an issue but sometimes leave beers feeling flat and watery, not how beers should float around in the mouth.
  2. Bottle bombs - This is sort of a 1.a since this is just an extreme case of carbonation issues.  I've had a few batches of bottles that have been overcarbonated to the point of exploding over the years which have scared the crap out of me.  The issues with using too much priming sugar or having an infection cause increased carbonation isn't much of a concern due to kegs generally not being naturally carbonated, the cold crashing process reducing yeast and bacteria viability, and the significantly higher levels of pressure that kegs can handle compared to bottles.
  3. Oxidation - This is also a two part issue.  One issue is with general oxidation of beers, with several of my batches that were aged for a long time or moved to secondary experiencing oxidation effects that greatly detracted from their flavors.  The second issue is with hoppy beers, where flavors fade quickly and fade even quicker when naturally carbonated in bottles.  The move to kegging (at least the having access to carbon dioxide part of it) allows me to purge secondaries and kegs with CO2 and package hoppy beers (in keg or potentially bottling from keg) with less oxidation.  A few of these topics were discussed in Mike Tonsmeire's recent post about IPA tips.
  4. Cold Storage - the purchase of a chest freezer for kegging provides a large space for kegs (and potentially bottles) to be stored cold. Previously I had to find space in my fridge, not always an easy task, and there was certainly never room for the 20+ gallons of beer that I have now. In the past my beers were often stored at room temperature which helps to deteriorate their quality.
  5. Secondary Fermentation Temperature Control - While I plan on using the chest freezer for kegs (~40°F) and not as a primary fermentation fridge (55-65°F) this very cold temperature could still occasionally be used for extended secondaries or lagering, a capacity I didn't previously have.
  6. Light - The 3 factors which degrade beer: oxygen, heat, and light.  While brown bottles do a decent job keeping out light and I haven't noticed any light-struck skunkiness in my beers, kegs are even better, making sure that even pale, light beers (where these skunked qualities often show up) would be protected.
  7. Versatility - As mentioned earlier, I can still bottle beers, now I just have the option not to, and that's a beautiful thing.

It's interesting to note that ease of use or time saved aren't being mentioned here.  While hopefully these are positive aspects there is a bit of a learning curve with kegging and, even though I've spent a long time researching how it is done and how I'd like to build my setup, there are still going to be mistakes and issues.  Additionally, while I hope the cleaning and sanitizing process isn't quite as tedious as it is for bottling, there are still multiple parts to clean and sanitize on a regular basis from the keg and its parts, to the tap lines, to the keezer itself.

It is worth mentioning that the biggest downside to kegging seems to be the sheer amount of equipment required, which both costs money and takes up space.  I currently have just one keg and the cost of my system has already ran over $600 (although I was able to buy the $200 chest freezer  with gift cards so it didn't feel like as big of a hit).  Part of the reason for the cost being so high is that I went with all new equipment, rather than used versions which are usually about half as expensive.  Moving forwards I could easily see spending another $500 to get all of the bells and whistles I'm currently looking at (and that's still with picnic taps).

I put my oatmeal stout on tap today and am trying to quickly pressurize it to have it ready within a few days.  I'm very excited but also a little anxious; I'd hate to only have one beer on tap and it not be very good.

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