Beer Keg Refrigerators

'We go through an awful lot of beer," confided my dear friend Bernice recently. "I'm almost embarrassed to put out the recycling, it's so full of cans and bottles.""Is your husband happy in his marriage?" I teased.

"It's not all Frank," she replied. "His brothers come over, and ever since the World Cup started, there's been a herd of buddies lolling on the sectional. The same thing happened during March Madness."

Frank will be 40 in a little bit. I suggested a birthday kegerator -- and of course, I offered my services.

"There are two ways to go about getting beer in the home," said Craig Costanzo, owner of BeverageFactory.com in Miramar (1-800-710-9939). You can convert a refrigerator using a keg-conversion kit, or you can buy a complete keg refrigerator." A keg-beer system requires "a refrigerator, a CO2 tank that uses pressure to push the beer out of the keg, a regulator to control the pressure coming out of the tank, hose lines, and a faucet."

Keg refrigerators range from $500-$2100, depending on size and features. Conversion kits, of course, are much less expensive -- $56-$95. "It comes with a five-pound CO2 tank, which should last through about five kegs. We have a kit that doesn't require you to put any holes in your fridge. You just have to open the door every time you want to pour a beer. Or, you can get one with a faucet that goes through the door [$95-$200] -- for that, you need to drill a 7/8-inch hole. But it only takes about half an hour and some common sense to install a conversion kit. And we offer phone support for anyone who has questions."

I thought I remembered an old fridge in Bernice's garage, and there was more good news. Turns out flavor has a lot to do with why people buy keg beer. "All canned or bottled beer is pasteurized. Pasteurization is a way to stabilize a liquid or food using heat. They take a liquid product like beer and raise it to 190 degrees, and hold it there for 15--20 minutes. That kills off a lot of bacteria, which stabilizes the liquid. But it also alters the flavor. Keg beer is not pasteurized -- it's fresh beer out of the tanks at the brewery." Properly chilled, said Costanzo, a keg of beer will last a few months. "Technically, it never loses its alcohol, so from that standpoint, it's always good. But the flavor will slowly start to change."

If Frank needed the keg just for particular sports-related parties, said Costanzo, I could get him a Jockey Box ($140-$450, depending on coil length and number of faucets). "It's a remote mobile dispensing unit. You don't need electricity to keep the keg cold. It's useful for catering events or different types of parties. The keg sits outside the cooler. The beer runs through a coil in the cooler which is packed in ice," and is dispensed from a faucet mounted on the cooler. Coil length varies depending on how fast you want to pour. "Once beer gets warm, it starts to foam. If you operate a concession stand and you're pouring beer after beer, you want a long coil. That's because of the makeup rate, which is a calculation based on the flow rate and the temperature exchange. With a short coil, if you pour beer after beer, the first few are fine but then it starts to come out all foam." The ice doesn't have time to chill the beer.

The kits and the full kegerators are low-maintenance, said Costanzo. "You do want to clean out the hose line periodically. We sell the cleaning kits ($35), and some of the keg refrigerators come with them. It's a specially-formulated alkaline solution that breaks up buildup in the lines. Unclean lines affect the flavor. Now, if you're a group of guys who go through a keg every few days, you don't have to clean the lines, but if you're a guy who's going to have a beer a night, you should clean the lines every time you change the keg."

Lance Castiglione, owner of Kegerated Manufacturing and Refrigeration Repair (619-339-3268), builds his own kegerators, and also does custom installation. "I've put keg refrigerators in kitchens, in bars, and outside barbecue enclosures. The freestanding ones are black metal with an aluminum top, and come with a five-year warranty [available at Beer King, 858-292-9210, for $899]."

Castiglione laid out a number of the advantages of going custom. "Most keg refrigerators have the regulator on the inside, even the high-end ones. But the cold and moisture get in there and screw it up -- it doesn't give a proper reading. I can put the parts anywhere," and so the regulator goes outside. Also, "when you slide most keg refrigerators under a bar, the refrigeration part is not accessible. The only way you can get them out for repairs is by removing parts of the cabinetry. I put all the moving parts in a separate location, so you can service it easily. That's especially important if it's in a brick barbecue enclosure. And most people don't plan -- they have a bar, and then decide they want a kegerator. Most counter heights are too low for the standard kegerators on the market. When I build them, I can make them as low as 25 inches."

Cost for custom installation usually runs $1200-$1500. "I usually have to solder in the joints for the compressors outside, and drill a hole in the countertop, whether it's Corian or tile."

Castiglione left me with a couple of parting tips. "If you don't tighten the washer between the CO2 tank and the regulator properly, your CO2 will leak out. Also, make sure the beer line is not up against the cold plate -- that's the evaporator in the back. If it is, it'll freeze. If it does freeze, take a warm rag and rub the line until it defrosts."

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