I like my beer on draft. No brew served from bottle or can compares to a fresh draw.
And while living in Goshen brings the blessings of quiet surroundings, it delivers the curse of being nowhere near a good draft beer.
So to address the problem, my wife and I have for the past few years used growlers, filled at stores or brewpubs: a good idea both from a cost savings and freshness standpoint. For around $10, you can get a growler that will yield four American pints (16 ounces) for $2.50 a pour—$2 to $3 less than what you pay at local microbrewery.
Problem is, once you’ve opened that growler, you’re committed to either drinking those four beers or wasting them—a sin indeed!—or drinking more than one, which we don’t like to do on “school nights” anyway. Weekends are a different story.
So for some time, we planned to set up a 5-gallon home keg system that would provide fresh draft on demand and the ability to pour just one at a time. (We have no desire as of now to brew our own.)
Plus, at an average fill-up cost of $50 at local microbreweries (high-gravity beers are more expensive) and a yield of 40 imperial pints (20 ounces), the cost drops significantly to $1.50 per beer.
I mean, you can positively drink yourself rich at that rate, right?
So we shared the idea with a friend, who just happened to have an old soda keg (called in the business, a Cornelius keg), regulator and tap, leaving us to get just the CO2 canister. Another friend had an old but unused dorm-size refrigerator, which would hold the keg.
A good start, but it turned out we needed a few more parts, such as new ball lock connectors (through which the beer CO2 and beer enter and exit) that fit connectors microbreweries more commonly use. We also needed to buy sanitizer and such, which isn’t pricey anyway.
Uncertain of how to make it all work, we visited Paul Young at My Old Kentucky Homebrew and confessed our ignorance. As everyone in the brewing community seems to be, he couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful in providing guidance.
Great lesson to be sure, but the application at home wasn’t quite as smooth.
Our tap began leaking from behind the spout the second we added CO2 pressure to the tank. Not good. Sad sight to see so much beer spilling to the ground, too.
Back to MOKH for help: Young wasn’t sure what might be wrong with the tap, but he suggested a $13 “picnic tap”—yes that kind seen at every keg party, the type with the clear feed tube and a black lever on the end—would at least get us beer cleanly and safely, so we took it.
Indeed, that fixed the tap problem, but not knowing how to accurately adjust the regulator, we thought we’d purged all the CO2 from the canister.
Fearing we’d ruin the still fully gassed and largely full keg—except for the two beers we were drinking while trying to figure out how to run the darn thing—we thought it wise to empty the keg into growlers so we could at least not lose the beer. That tedious and messy affair made our garage look like an amateur hooch operation, but the beer was saved.
With our new keg already empty, we set about getting it refilled. (Practice makes perfect, right?) When we told a few brewers about our plight, they laughed politely and said we’d overreacted, that there was no way we’d lost all the gas or compromised the keg. They also explained how to more accurately adjust the regulator, and we were off.
Indeed, it was smooth sailing, and it’s gone that way ever since.
So, the costs: Even with used gear we got for free, we still spent about $200 on updates. The CO2 canister itself was nearly $90, and getting it filled cost $13.
The connectors that came with the conversion kit haven’t been perfect: one stripped, and the connector to the regulator leaks a tad. We may get a new ball-lock get sometime down the road.
I write that to say buying new gear isn’t a bad idea or terribly expensive, especially if you think you’ll really use the gear. And if you drink one keg (40 beers a month, which is barely more than one a day), you’ll get your money’s worth.
MOKH sells everything you need to get started, except for refrigerators. There are also great websites like Keg Cowboy that sell equipment and anything you need for brewing, but having Young explain the process was great.
The breweries around town that refill kegs include BBC (in St. Matthews only), Cumberland Brewery and Bank Street Brewhouse. (Eileen Martin, head brewer at BBC’s bottling plant on Clay St.—a separate business from the brewpubs—told me recently they may begin filling kegs there after an upcoming expansion.) Liquor Barn in Springhurst (which has an unrivaled growler selection) sells a wide variety of pre-filled kegs, but at a much higher cost than local brewers.
Refills are easy to do: Call ahead and ask what’s on tap for refills, beer prices, drop-off day and pick-up day. No, you can’t get it done on the fly.
Doubtless, there is some upfront effort and cost to do this at home, but the rewards far outweigh the hassles. If, over the course of a year, we bought one growler a week for 52 weeks at $10 each ($520 to get 208 American pints, 3,328 ounces) vs. one $50 keg refill per month ($600 to get 480 imperial pints, 9,600 ounces), you’re getting almost triple the ounces for $80 more. Plus, you have the ability to tap a fresh pitcher immediately when friends come over.
Convenience, consistency and cost-savings. Can’t beat a home keg!