Beer Lovers: Having a Tap at Home Is Easier Than You Think
Our columnist explains the simple steps to hooking up a tap in your home and making your own beer.
I’m at home. You’re at home. Millions of us are at home these days. And with all the concerns, the fears and the worries that keep me up at night, I would love just to go down to my local bar and have a pint of cold, clean draft beer and relax for a minute.
While we wait for bars and restaurants to reopen, I have a few ways for you to get the brewpub experience in your own home. Read on to find out how to install a draft beer system as well as how you can start brewing. I promise you both projects can be very simple and also very rewarding.
And once our shelter in place orders are lifted, you can invite over your friends and show off your handiwork.
“Draft beer is brewer’s gold,” a wise barman once told me and it’s true. Draft beer is as close as you can get to drinking right out of the brewery tanks and there’s less impact on the Earth compared to buying cans and bottles.
But you don’t have to pine for a well-poured pint, since you can get draft beer at home.
Vicky Suto would be happy to get you on tap in a matter of weeks; less, if you happen to have an extra refrigerator and a drill. She’s the head of e-commerce at Kegworks, a Buffalo-based supplier of all kinds of beer dispensing equipment, for bars and for home use. (I buy gas cartridges from Kegworks for the portable tap I use a few times each year. I haven’t made the leap to full-on, in-house draft yet.)
“People who put off that project and are ready to tackle it are getting in touch,” she recently told me. “We’ve seen an uptick in conversion kits.” The conversion kit has everything you need to turn that surplus refrigerator into a draft beer dispenser. If your local beer store sells kegs, they may also sell conversion kits. Homebrew shops may have them, too. They generally run between $160 and $200.
“It’s simple,” Suto said. “All you really need is a drill and basic tools: a screwdriver and a wrench. It’s a low-skill operation. Getting beer on draft isn’t that hard.” Your local brewer will be happy to sell you a keg and charge the CO2 tank that comes with the kit. They really need your business and some breweries are even now deeply discounting kegs, since bars and restaurants aren’t buying them. A sixtel keg, or “beer log,” is just over five gallons of beer, a little over two-and-a-half cases. A half keg holds about seven-and-a-half cases, but it also weighs about 160 pounds!
Keep the keg cold on the way home, and don’t let it roll around. An agitated keg is a foamy keg, so belt it in well. Hook up the keg and the gas, plug in the fridge, and let everything get good and cold. Fiddle with the gas settings a bit, and just like that, you’re pouring draft beer in your home.
No spare fridge sitting around? Kegworks will also sell you a ready-to-go kegerator; custom-built keg-sized refrigerators with everything but the actual keg. The single tap one goes for about $1,300. (They have models for wine and nitro cold-brew coffee, too!) “It ships in 3-5 days, but it’s freight,” Suto noted, “so it’s about two weeks before it’s delivered.” Plug it in, hook up the keg and CO2 charge, and you’re ready to go.
Be sure to get a cleaning kit to keep your tap sanitized, so you’ll have fresh draft beer at home!
You’ve got the draft system, why not make some beer to put in it? After all, as the old homebrewing joke goes, “give someone a beer, and they’ll waste an hour. Teach someone to brew, and they’ll waste a lifetime!” It’s tongue-in-cheek, but it nails how engrossing the hobby can be. There’s also no better way to learn about beer than to actually make it.
I went to the top on this one and called Gary Glass, director of the American Homebrewers Association in Boulder, Colorado. He told me that their membership has been tracking in the mid-40 thousands since around 2014, and he’s expecting numbers to be up by the end of the year.
“We have seen homebrewing having a reverse relationship with the economy in the past,” he said. “I just checked Google searches and found that ‘how to make beer’ has spiked to its highest level in the last five years. With the recent spike in unemployment, we may be seeing that trend come into play again.”
It’s true: once you’ve bought the equipment, making beer at home is cheaper per pint than buying it. You’re not paying for the labor, after all, or the substantial taxes, just the ingredients. You also don’t have to leave your house to get your keg refilled.
And the equipment isn’t that expensive. I talked to Nancy Rigberg, co-owner of Home Sweet Homebrew in Philadelphia. (Disclosure: Nancy and I have been friends for years; we both drink beer in Philadelphia, it’s going to happen.) “Our basic kit for five gallons starts at $85,” she said, noting that they also had a half-sized kit for $10 less.
What’s involved? It depends on how involved you want to get. You can just buy cans of hopped malt extract, boil it with water, chill it, add the yeast, pop the cork in it (with a nifty little bubbling airlock that lets carbon dioxide out without letting oxygen and germs in), and wait. When the fermentation stops in about a week, you dose it with sugar (to create a second fermentation, just enough for carbonation), and siphon it off into bottles or kegs, then wait another week for the fizz. Two weeks from boil to glass.
You can get more involved, going to what’s called all-grain homebrewing, where you actually grind malts, stew them to release the sugar, strain them, boil the liquid with the hops, and follow the rest of the steps. This gives you a lot more control over the type of beer you make...and substantially more bragging rights. Once you pay for the additional equipment, in the long run it can also be cheaper, given the price of grain vs. malt extract.
Once you go to all-grain, though, you really can make any kind of beer you want with practice and the right rig. If you get wrapped up in it, you can add a refrigerator to cold-age lager beers. Glass also mentioned the Grainfather and Brewer’s Edge, electric all-in-one systems that mash and boil in a small footprint, using a single electrical outlet. There are fittings and a pump to run the hot liquid to a coil chiller and into a fermenter. Pretty slick, and all computer-controlled.
When I homebrewed, years ago, I read about it before I bought anything. That’s still a good way to start. Glass suggested How To Brew by John J. Palmer (“Really covers it all”) and Brewing Classic Styles by Palmer and homebrewer-turned-pro Jamil Zainasheff. “I use their recipes when I brew,” Glass said, “they’re gold.” Rigberg recommended The Complete Homebrew Beer Book, by her partner George Hummel, who has more than 30 years of experience homebrewing and teaching people how, including a lot of the pioneer craft brewers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
The key to making really good beer, though, isn’t the ingredients, or the equipment, or the books. “Sanitation, Sanitation, Sanitation! Doesn’t matter what you’re brewing; if it ain’t clean, it ain’t good!” Rigberg hammered it home, and Glass agreed. “If you ask a [pro] brewer what they do,” he said, “they’ll probably say ‘I clean stuff.’”
If that’s the key, you’re going to make great beer. After all, it’s something we’ve all had a lot of practice with lately.
So wash your hands—again—roll up your sleeves, and get to work on one of these pandemic projects. And don’t forget, there’s a cold beer at the end of it for you!