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April 3, 2020

Draft Beer System Fundamentals: The Ultimate Guide

 This is the ultimate draft beer system dispensing guide! We will talk about draft beer equipment. Commercial beer systems, the pros and cons of each beer system, and beer equipment that's recommended and used by a draft technician. 

After reading this, you’ll understand about 90% percent of the draft beer dispensing world.

I hope you're ready.

Let’s get Started...

Draft Beer System Dispensing Variables

 Dispensing draft beer or draught beer, comes down to 3 variables. These variables are universal with all draft beer systems. The 3 variables are :

  • Restriction Value
  • Temperature
  • Applied Pressure

     

Restriction Value

These are restriction values in draft beer equipment, gravity (lift and fall), and altitude.

 The restriction value needs to equal applied pressure...so a beer system pours perfectly. 

Most of the time you don’t have to worry about the restriction value unless you’re installing a beer system, or setting up a kegerator.

The goal is to maintain equilibrium, achieve a flow rate of about 2 ounces per second, pouring the perfect pint.

     

Temperature

Temperature is the most important of the 3 core values. If we were to rank them in order.

Everything in draft beer dispensing , revolves around temperature.

Draft beer should be dispensed at 38 degrees. If it’s cooler then 38 degrees, beer flavors are minimized 

If it’s dispensed higher than 38 degrees, beer has a greater chance of foaming.

Remember, temperature will always dictate applied pressure, which will set restriction, for a beer system.

     

Applied Pressure

 When dispensing beer, we want to keep it in equilibrium. And that’s all we are trying to do with pressure.

We want to match the right applied pressure, and we determine the right pressure, by cooler temperature, and where the beer is carbonated at.

 For example, looking at the chart below...let's say our keg cooler is 38 degrees, and the beer we want to dispense is carbonated at 2.6 (volumes of CO2). To find the right applied pressure of CO2 we would look at where those two values intersect.

We would then find our applied pressure would be 12.3 (PSI). This is the exact pressure to keep our beer in equilibrium and maximize keg yield when we dispense that style of beer.

And to keep our beer in equilibrium. We would want to match our applied pressure, with 12.3 lbs. of restriction to the draft beer system.

A chart with C02 Values for Beer Dispensing


Draft Beer System Equipment 

There's a ton a draft beer equipment out there. Unfortunately, a lot of it is crap.

My goal is to talk about the most common types of equipment, as well as proven equipment that works and I've personally used. I'm going to give you the meat and potatoes. 

All systems need some sort of propulsion to push beer and we will start with Carbon Dioxide or CO2.


C02 Tanks 

Regardless of what type of draft beer system is used. It will need to be powered by some sort of gas. More often than not, it’s C02.

There are other gasses, such as nitrogen to dispense coffee, beer and wine. But we are going to keep things simple and use C02 for our examples below.

Most beer systems will be set-up with either a bulk C02 system, or C02 cylinders, that range from  

5 lb. - 50 lb. cylinders.


Bulk C02

Bulk C02 systems are advantageous because it's bought in bulk. Eliminate the changing out of cylinders, and they are filled up outside by the supplying gas company. Ensuring customers will never run out during peak times. 

Bulk Co2 tanks

Picture of bulk C02 tanks


C02 cylinders

Cylinders are beneficial to owners who don't consume a lot of C02. Cylinders come in different sizes. Usually 5 lb. - 50 lb. Suppliers can drop off tanks when needed. This is more common than bulk systems for smaller establishments.

Below is a chart illustrating the different sized C02 cylinders. Local gas companies can provide these, as well as beer distributors.

Most of the time, it's best to rent the cylinder from your local gas outfit, and exchange the cylinder when it's empty for a new one.

Differnt C02 Cylinder sizes for dispensing beer

Picture to show different sized C02 cylinders

Primary Regulators

Primary Regulators are used to regulate gas pressure from cylinders and bulk tanks. There are Primary Regulators for C02 and there are Primary Regulators for Nitrogen. That are used with draft beer systems.

Primary C02 Regulator

 Primary C02 Regulators come in either low pressure and high pressure options.

Low pressure are set from 0-60 psi . If you require more pressure than 60 psi for a large amount of taps and have longer runs. I’d recommend the higher pressure option up to 100 psi.

Most of the time a low pressure primary CO2 is just fine 

Picture of a Primary Regulator

The components that make up a primary regulator.

Primary Nitrogen Regulator

Same as C02 regulator, but the Nitro regulator has a male end as seen below. It threads into a nitrogen cylinder. A primary nitrogen regulator is typically used for Nitro beers like Guinness, coffee and draft wine.

Picture of Nitrogen Regulator

Picture of a Primary Nitrogen Regulator. Notice the male end that threads into the nitrogen cylinder.


Secondary Regulators

These are used together with primary regulators to ensure the appropriate gas pressure to each brand of beer is delivered properly. 

For example, if you have 6 different beers, which have different units of carbonation. You'll need 6 secondary regulators to regulate the beers.

When it comes to craft beer, my experience has taught me, every brand of beer gets its own secondary regulator, because there are different styles of beer that are carbonated at different levels.

Think of the Primary Regulator supplying the gas needed to the beer system, and the secondary regulators administering the correct pressure to each keg.

Secondary regulators come as individual regulators, or grouped in 2’s, 3’s and 4’s

Below is an example of a 3 brand secondary regulator set. These regulators are mounted inside the beer walk-in.

Secondary Beer Regulators

picture of 3 series secondary regulators. They also come in 2 and 4 series.

Air Line

In beer systems you’ll use air line to connect C02 sourced cylinders to secondary regulators , blenders, beer pumps and most commonly beer couplers.

Typically, there are two different types,  high pressure airline, which is braided, and rated to handle high pressure.

There's also air line I refer to as red jumper air line. This is attached to the coupler and respected regulator.

Red airline used with low pressure...braided air line typically used with high pressure.

Below is picture with the low pressure air line and vinyl beer line attached to a coupler.

Picture of a beer coupler

Here's a picture of a D-coupler with red air line and vinyl beer line attached.


In the picture below, you're looking at the inside of a beer cooler. You will notice the airline in red connected to secondary regulators and couplers.

There's also beer line (clear vinyl...filled with beer), which is connected to the coupler on the beer keg.

 This picture shows the different lines beer and air hooked up inside a beer cooler. If you look closely you'll also see the high pressure braided air line attached to the nitro and CO2 cylinders.

Picture of a Beer cooler

Inside of a Beer Cooler with red air line and vinyl beer line attachments. High pressure braided air line attached to the CO2 cylinders and Nitrogen Cylinders. Primary Regulators on the cylinders and secondary regulators on black cooler kits.

Vinyl Beer Line

This is used inside of the beer cooler and will connect your keg to your beer trunkline ( Remote System ) or to the end of a beer shank and tower ( Direct Draw ). This is a clear vinyl material and comes in different inside diameter values. Most common sizes used are 3/8 I.D., 1/4 I.D., and 3/16 I.D. 

     

Keg Coupler

I like to think of these as the keys to your beer. Without couplers we can't draw beer from kegs. Keg couplers come in a variety of different styles. The most common are D-style couplers.

Other beers may require different styled couplers like Stella, which requires an S. Guinness also requires a different styled coupler.

keg coupler styles

Different coupler styles for different beers. Most breweries in the states will use D style coupler. If you aren't sure which coupler to use for a beer. Ask your distributor.


Stainless Keg Coupler

One more thing to keep in mind, is you want to use all stainless couplers.

Stay away from “Chrome Couplers” This will benefit you in the long run two fold. One is the longevity of the coupler, sanitation reasons, and you won't compromise the integrity of the beer.

After 10 years of installing beer systems across the country. Stainless steel couplers are the only way to go. If you decide to use anything else...it's just a matter of time before they breakdown, discolor, or find chipped chrome in your beer. Trust me you'll thank me later.

Here's a post dedicated to Keg Couplers if you want some more information

Stainless Beer Coupler

Picture of a D-style stainless steel coupler. This one is made from Micromatic.

Draft Beer Tower

These are found on all types of beer systems. Usually, where you see your beer being poured from. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes.

Here's a picture of a hanging beer tower I installed back in Pennsylvania, towards the end of last year.

Picture of a Beer Tower

Hanging custom beer tower I installed for a casino client back in Pennsylvania.

     

Air-Cooled Beer Towers

Draft towers that are cooled on the inside with air. Most commonly found on kegerators. The air in the kegerator is pushed up with the help of a fan keeping the beer tower and beer on temperature.

Can also be found where beer towers are connected to a walk-in cooler and air is blown from one side to another. Great for a few brands on the tower, but not as efficient as Glycol-cooled towers.

     

Glycol-Cooled Beer Towers

These towers are cooled internally with glycol. Which is food grade antifreeze that keeps beer cold. This is the most efficient way to keep beer cold when it's not dispensed off a cooler wall or kegerator. 

Custom 32 brand glycol cooled 6" stainless steel beer tower in Central California.

Glycol Chillers

These are reservoirs that cool and pump food grade glycol from the beer cooler, into a beer trunk, and beer tower. Glycol Chillers are used in (Remote Systems) and help pour beer hundreds of feet away at temperature. There are two kinds of Glycol Chillers used in the industry today.

picture of a Glycol Chiller Beer

Remote Glycol chiller with dual pumps. Used to keep beer lines on temp from cooler to beer tower location.


Air Cooled Chillers

Most common type of chillers. They come in sizes from ⅙ hp to 1.5 hp. These units are usually placed somewhere around the beer cooler, ideally on top and need proper ventilation so the fans can cool the compressor. Tight spaces don’t work with these units.

Water Cooled Chillers

These chillers are pretty much the same in regards to the air cooled chillers, but they use water to cool the compressor vs a fan. Typically used in tight , not well ventilated and higher humidity areas.


Beer Faucets

There are a lot of options out there for beer faucets. Forward closing, European, Creamer faucets...you name it.

However, after a decade of working in the industry and working on pubs to stadiums. I’d recommend 4 of them. All of which need to be stainless steel. Forget about anything chrome plated. 

Here's an in-depth post about Beer Faucets to check out.

     

Standard Faucets

Most used in the industry. Very simple set up. Maintained easily and can pour most products.

Standard Beer Faucet

Standard SS Beer Faucet

Perlick Forward Faucets

Like the standard faucet can pour multiple products well, and some believe it actually pours better than standard faucets. Overall a great faucet for a beer system.  Generally, a bit more than your standard faucet.

Picture of Perlick Faucet

Perlick SS Faucet

Flow Control Faucets

These are my personal favorite faucets. They give users the capability to add needed restriction before dispensing which helps pour beer. Great for serving tasters. The only con is...these gum up if you are trying to pour unfiltered beer. Where a standard faucet would be the best option.

Picture of a Flow control faucet

Perlick Flow Control Faucet

Nitro Faucets.

These are used to dispense nitrogenated  beer and coffee. They give products “the cascadian effect” when poured. Watch a guinness get poured and you will see this effect. 

Picture of a nitro faucet

 Nitro Faucet

Drip Trays

Drip trays catch beer coming out of the faucet. Most common ones are surface mount drip trays and recessed drip trays. There are many off the shelf ones from beer equipment manufacturers. Also, there are many custom fabricate ones.

This picture below is a simple surface mount drip tray.

picture of a beer drip tray

Surface mount drip tray for a counter top

Drip trays usually come equipped with at least one drain, that drains into a floor drain somewhere below the bar. 

They also come equipped with glass rinsers, which is highly recommended. Establishments can use rinsers to cool down the temperature of the glass, as well as wash off any impurities on the glass before the beer is poured for a customer. 


Commercial Draft Beer System 

Here's the good stuff. Draft beer dispensing systems.

When it comes to commercial draft beer systems there are 3 ways to go about it.

You can dispense beer from a Direct Draw system, Remote System, or an Air Cooled System.

Yes, I know you can also dispense from a cask beer system, but I'm going to keep this simple.

I'll talk about the 3 main ones below.

     

Direct Draw Beer System


These systems are used with a beer cooler and beer taps hang on the beer cooler. The beer faucets are attached to beer shanks and are connected to the kegs inside the cooler. 

Picture of a wall mount beer system

Direct Draw wall mount beer set up. Stainless wall backing with custom drip tray and glass rinser. Faucets attach to beer shanks, which are inside the beer cooler.

The faucets can stand alone by themselves, or be part of a stainless backsplash that incorporates a drip tray (like the picture above)

Direct Draw Systems are very user friendly, straight forward, and cost effective. 

Lesser points for beer to fail because you go from the keg directly to the faucet. 

Also, you waste the least amount of beer when the systems are cleaned, because the runs are super short, and it’s an industry standard to clean beer lines every two weeks.

Ideally, if I was to open up a bar or pub. This would be the draft beer system I would go with.

Below is a diagram explaining all the different parts that are in a direct draw beer system.

Now you don't need everything below. This just paints a picture of what a setup would look like.

Image showing a direct draw beer system

Direct Draw Beer System with all equipment included

Air Cooled System

These are your kegerators that have beer faucets on top of them and there’s a small fan that blows cool air up inside a beer tower.

Benefits of Commercial kegerators are small footprint. You can dispense up to 10+ beers from a 8’ kegerator.

Picture of a Kegerator

Air cooled beer system. Using a commercial beer kegerator, and all equipment included.

We built out a bunch of growler stations for a restaurant chain and used commercial kegerators, with an 8-12 tap air cooled beer tower so they could serve draft beer.

There wasn’t much room inside the grocery stores. The air-cooled commercial kegerators were a perfect fit. These units were self-contained, and offered our customer draft beer to sell inside their stores.

Diagram showing an Air Cooled Beer System

Air Cooled Beer System Components.

Remote Beer Systems

Remote Beer systems give the user the capability to dispense beer wherever they’d like on their property. The beer is carried from the beer cooler, in a beer trunkline, that’s wrapped in a protective, insulated barrier, to a draft beer tower for dispensing.

The beer is kept cold by glycol that is inside the trunkline. This also keeps the beer towers chilled

A Glycol chiller is used to keep the Glycol cold and pumping through the beer line 24/7.

Remote systems also require a little more equipment because they are dispensing at greater lengths.  Typically more equipment is used on remote systems. Equipment such as FOB’s.

FOB stands for ( Foam on Beer ). These are used to keep beer lines full after a keg is blown. Instead of filling an entire run, sometimes over 200’ full of foam. The FOB stops the foam before it gets into the main trunk line. In the end saves the customer money.

Picture of a Beer Fob

Beer FOB. Used to stop foam from entering beer trunklines after a keg blows.

Another added piece of equipment is a beer pump. I prefer beer pumps over using blended gas because I don’t like putting nitrogen on any product unless it calls for it.

Long periods of time cause beer to go flat when you're using nitrogen.

Beer pumps are used in coordination with secondary regulators to push beer through the beer trunkline to a beer tower. By using Beer Pumps, it gives us a little more leeway to dial in the perfect pour without compromising the beer. Furthermore, it gives the client the possibility to pour beer up to 800'.

Picture of a beer pump

The benefits of a Remote system are you can supply multiple bar stations with draft beer over great lengths, and pour beer anywhere on property. We've been able to dispense beer up to 800 feet !!

This cooler shows the extra equipment involved with a remote beer system. You can see the FOBS above the beer pumps, which are above the secondary regulators.

All this equipment is mounted on cooler kits. For easy installation.

Picture of a remote Beer cooler setup

Remote Beer System Cooler Setup which includes secondary regulators, beer pumps, flojet reversal valves and FOBs. Each Beer get's its own set to push beer long distances to a beer tower hundreds of feet away.

Diagram of remote beer system and parts

Remote Beer System with all the equipment used.

Summary

In closing we talked about the 3 most important variables when it comes to draft beer dispensing and why they are important.

  • Restriction Value
  • Temperature ( 38 degrees Fahrenheit)
  •  Applied Pressure = Restriction Value

Next, we talked about different types of beer equipment needed to dispense beer.

Remember to stick with all stainless equipment , and stay away from chrome products.

Furthermore, we talked about the different types of draft beer systems:

  • Direct Draw
  • Air Cooled
  • Remote System

Lastly, we talk about the benefits of each dispensing systems and what they excel at and what scenarios would best feature each system. 

Knowing these fundamentals about beer dispensing will ensure you know what equipment will be needed, and what beer system is best.

There's a lot of equipment out there, but understanding what we've talked about today will give you the knowledge to make a confident decision.

If you have any other questions please reach out and Contact Me

Cheers!!

Related Posts

The Commercial Kegerator…Step by Step Guide On What You Need To Know.

Getting the Perfect Commercial Draft Beer System Set-Up

About the author

My name is Kyle, I've been building, designing and installing commercial beer systems for 10 years all over the country. From small mom and pop places to some of the largest casinos and stadiums in the country. I've learned a thing or two and want to share it.

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