Kegged

Over the past two months I have slowly worked on building my own home-brew kegerator. Last night I put my first batch of brew in the fridge and turned everything on.

I brewed my first batch of home-brew with Cody Hoffman sometime in mid 2010 and have loved the process. The first batch we brewed was a pale ale which we named (while brewing) Epic Ale. I even went to the effort of making a label for the bottles. We opened the first bottles on a trip up at Truckee lake and the beer was quickly re-named “Epic Fail”. It was carbonated, smelled good but tasted like metal. It turned out that Cody had been holding on to the cracked grains since Christmas and neither of us knew any better. We didn’t let it detour us though and we brewed a handful more batches, a few of them even got fancy labels and fun names and we setup a Facebook page for our en devours. But the number one problem we seemed to have was getting the right amount of carbonation in the bottles. I expect its a common problem for home-brewers, especially new ones like we were. And this is the story of how I fixed it.

Eventually I bought/inherited my own basic brewing set and started brewing on my own, I had some successes but continued to have an occasional batch that didn’t bottle condition right. The straw that broke the camels back was a pumpkin ale that I brewed and timed for a Christmas party in 2012 that used local pumpkin from Apple Hill. The brew was delicious, and I was so worried about over-carbonating it that I ended up under-carbonating and it was flat. Flat beer is sad beer. After that I didn’t brew again for close to a year.

Fast forward to late 2013, early 2014 and home-brewing continues to gain traction, at least in my circle of friends so I wanted to get back into it. But I didn’t want to have to pour out more beer because it was flat. I started looking into kegging my beer. Its really a simple process, but requires a significant increase in capitol expenses for your brewing system. I started dropping hints to Steph and for Christmas she gave me the go-ahead to start the build.

Within minutes of getting the kit in the house I had already assembled the tower and written (what I thought would be) the first batch of beer on the pull that Chadd gave me for Christmas[/caption] I ordered a single-tower value conversion kit from BeverageFactory.com with the re-conditioned keg, but the market for re-conditioned kegs is high and they were back-ordered for months. I ended up having to swap it out for a new one. I do have a couple gripes with Beverage Factory that I’d like to lay out. When their sales contacted me about swapping out the keg they originally said it would be free, then after I had agreed and choose the one with a rubber base they said “I do apologize, I just realized you had the reconditioned keg on your order, I can do the new strap ball lock keg for $20 extra.”  I agreed, but when it showed up it ended up being the keg without a rubber base. In the end I’m ok with it because it makes no difference to the beer, and ultimately the keg I got was polished stainless which looks cooler than I expected. The instructions that came with the Kit were useless, I’m fairly certain they shipped me the wrong hose and instruction set, but there were enough parts to get everything connected I just had to cut off the existing connectors, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The mini-fridge itself took some time to work out. Stephanie’s parents had a perfect fridge that generally wasn’t used but they were hesitant to let go of it because (a) it was technically Stephanie’s brothers, and (b) they did use it occasionally for outdoor events. Steve was eventually able to make some trades around at work and came home with a slightly bigger fridge and the black beauty was released into my control :) I finally had (almost) all the major parts and got to work on converting the fridge into full blown beer dispensing beauty. The fridge didn’t sit at home for long before I started tearing into it to see what I had to work with. Stephanie and Buster helped me out a little with the initial tear-down. [gallery type=”rectangular” ids=”385,391,360,380,319,390,348,334,345,362,322,327,371,320”] Quickly though I hit the only major stumbling block of the project. I had expected the chiller plate (which makes up the freezer compartment) to be “U” shaped and attached to the ceiling of the fridge, which would make it easy to just bend down and out of the way. Unfortunately, this fridge had a full oval, and just bending it down wasn’t likely to get it out of the way of everything else in the fridge. [gallery type=”rectangular” ids=”369,340,353”] I was able to pull out all the removable bits from inside the fridge, detach the door, remove the entire plastic shelving from the door and clean up some of the exterior on the first night. Then the fridge sat out on the patio for a few weeks while I contemplated how to bend down the freezer section and built FridgeBot, my Arduino powered temperature controller (more on FridgeBot in another post). Ultimately I ended up letting the fridge sit in the sun for a while to warm everything up and I bent down the freezer compartment enough to drill out the rivets. Once that was done, I carefully unfolded the plate and pressed it into the back of the fridge. I wish I had taken more pictures of the process, it took a couple hours of tense pressing and bending. I was convinced that I was going to end up breaking the coolant line, which would have rendered the whole fridge useless. In the end it worked out great. I spent the better part of a Saturday bending down the plate, and installing FridgeBot for a test run (a test of both the controller and the fridge, insuring that I hadn’t broken anything). I was thrilled when everything worked like a charm. I finished up the weekend by drilling out and installing the tap tower and laying on a few coats of chalkboard paint to get everything looking good. I do have concerns about the size of the hole I used for the beer line. It should have probably been ~3x larger. The tower is insulated, and its important to keep the beer in the line cold otherwise you end up with really foamy beer out of the tap for the first pint or so. I may have to go back and drill this out larger later. [gallery type=”rectangular” ids=”388,321,323,335,382,370,351,350,373,342,337,389”] Day 3 of actual building started Sunday (yesterday) when Stephanie went with me to get the last pieces of the puzzle, a CO2 tank and some expanding foam to fill in the communications hole in the back. I originally intended to replace the plastic shelving on the door with a piece of dry-erase board to give everything a nice clean look, but I ended up just cutting out the shelving and re-installing the rubber gasket with just a minimal amount of plastic left. I finished re-assembly and finally moved the fridge to its final destination inside the house. I had kegged a batch of home-brew (Sierra Nevada Pale Ale clone) on Saturday night and was able to move it into the fridge, hook up the CO2 and turn on the temperature controller. Everything was working, the home-brew keggerator was done. Now we just need to wait about another week for the beer in the keg to carbonate and we’ll have a tap the keg party! [gallery type=”rectangular” ids=”364,338,368,352,377,326,336,339,347,386,355,358,383”] Thanks for reading; I’m interested to hear what everybody thinks, and if you have a suggestion for the next batch of beer, let me know in the comments below. [caption id=”attachment_365” align=”aligncenter” width=”1536”]The final product! Steph took this right after I moved the whole fridge in place and pushed the cabinet back, so I’m a little red faced, but happy to have it working.[/caption]