Article

Design a Homebrew Bar

You’ve been brewing for a few years, perhaps have your kegging system down pat and are confident in your ability to nail beer styles. What’s next? If you have time, some spare change, and perhaps most importantly friends to entertain, now is when you may be thinking of building your home bar. Installing a personal beer drinking space is a natural extension of the hobby, whether you plan to build an elaborate “man cave” worthy of HGTV or a more modest hangout to watch the game and drink a homebrew or two. We know how to make beer . . . how hard can it be? 

Like every other home project the answer is, it depends. As homebrewers we can appreciate the DIY nature of things so this article will focus on the decisions to be made during planning and construction of your personal bar space. With a good understanding of your options you can determine appropriate construction methods based on your budget, skills, and time.

Regardless of complexity, size, and cost considerations, every home bar must have a few key items. These include a space to hold chilled beer (and possibly other beverages), storage for glassware, horizontal space to place your drinks, and space to relax. Beyond that the possibilities expand quickly. Bottles, draft, or both? Commercial beer? Wine and liquor? Perhaps you really want nitro draft beers available. Music, video, and other electronics can be incorporated with more investment and time, or you may purposefully choose to eliminate electronics to make the bar area a place for conversation.

Planning Your Space

Before you start tearing down walls you will want to have a clear idea of what the space will look like and how you can go about making your vision a reality. If you have a theme in mind take account of all of the specific items you’ll have on display and where they will go. Be realistic with your budget and time, and then add 25% to each. Professional remodelers are careful to examine the space prior to construction because they know even the most detailed plans are often changed due to unforeseen issues.

Your first task should be to make a sketch of the space. It does not need to be architectural quality but the sketch must include dimensions. Start by measuring all dimensions of the area. Plotting the measurements on graph paper allows for a starting point. As you start to refine your vision for the space keep the measurements handy for reference. It is helpful to make photocopies of the basic sketch; allowing you to plot changes as you refine your layout. 

A large space is not a requirement for a home bar area, and oftentimes a small space is better suited to a cozy atmosphere more conducive to relaxing with friends and family. A large room can feel sterile if there are only a few people hanging out while smaller spaces promote conversation and camaraderie. Think of a Munich beer hall vs. a neighborhood bar in Tokyo or corner bar from the 1950s. Both are great places to enjoy beer but an empty beer hall does not have tremendous appeal. At a minimum you’ll need to have seating and space for each person, and if your plans include a large screen TV with plenty of guests then a bigger room will give you more options.

The space behind the bar is something mystical and you may find people are hesitant to enter that world. The bar is the stage and we naturally don’t break the fourth wall. If you envision yourself as the bartender in your home bar you will have the space all to yourself. Remember that your homebrew frequently requires an ambassador and your guests will look to you for guidance. This can be a satisfying experience or it may become a bit of a burden. Providing all the service or inviting people to help themselves will establish the house rules. Plan to have enough room to move around and don’t forget to allow space for any doors to swing open.

Now is a good time to consider building code requirements. Building codes are local, and your local code enforcement official can tell you if you need to pull permits and what specific items will require inspection. Some codes are more lenient while others are strict, but all building codes are there for everyone’s safety. The best thing to do is to ask the code enforcement official. Having your sketch and list of planned construction activity will go a long way towards making friends. Code enforcement is not responsible for educating you (or your contractor) but they will reference each specific code requirement and may offer some basic advice to make everything go smoothly. Remember, if you neglect to meet building code or skip required inspections it will eventually catch up to you. Think about ripping out your tiles or drywall so the completed work can be inspected in 10 years when you are selling your home. You may also find that your planned construction does not require any permits or inspection, but you will have to ask first!

Standard bar height is 42 inches (107 cm) and a standard bar stool is 30 inches (76 cm). Fortunately this allows for a good deal of space beneath the bar. A well-designed bar utilizes all of the available space for efficiency. The space behind the bar is a good place to hide necessary but not always display-worthy items. This could include a dirty glass storage bin, garbage can, or a sink. If you plan to have wine and liquor available but don’t have the shelf space for those items, they go here. 

Though free beer does bring out all of your friends and acquaintances, your home bar is presumably not intended for fast service and you won’t be three deep with customers. It is not so much of a concern to have things like speed rails and cocktail mixing stations. You can incorporate cabinetry for storage as you like and the furnishings will go a long ways towards setting the atmosphere. Dark woods tend to create a more reserved space while bright colors can lend a festive atmosphere. Tile, wallpaper, and mirrors provide contrast and will really make the space unique.

Bartop

Selection of material for your bartop is probably the most significant design element choice you will make. Wood is the most popular choice, and for good reason: Wood is elegant, easy to work with, can be stained for a variety of looks, and it is timeless. For as long as people have been gathering to drink beer there have been wooden bartops. Wood has the advantage of being DIY-friendly and readily available too. Wood can also be refinished relatively easily.

A protective layer of epoxy can be applied, though if you’re not familiar with its application it is probably best left to a pro or an experienced friend as it is messy and unforgiving. At the very least, you will want to do a trial with the epoxy on another surface if you have never used it before. The superior protection offered is probably not as great a concern in your home bar as it is at a commercial establishment. Wax or polyurethane are very good alternatives to wood bartops. 

Other bartop materials include granite, concrete, tile, and synthetics such as Corian. These materials may require a contractor and each offers a unique look with advantages and disadvantages. These surfaces are promoted as being extremely durable, which is true, but it also means maintenance can be difficult. Drilling into these surfaces is a chore so your layout needs to be final before you commit. Hard surfaces and glassware are not always a good mix either.

Plumbing and Electrical

Hot and cold water along with electrical service will increase your home bar options. They may already be present if you’re lucky, and you should try to incorporate existing services into your layout if possible. If you are not comfortable working with either, hire a professional, because floods and fires seem like a bad idea.

You will need an available power source for refrigeration along with any lamps, lighted signs, etc. If you plan to have your offerings held in a nearby remote location then the refrigeration can be kept there. Otherwise you’ll need to account for each appliance’s space and required electric service. A small dorm fridge will fit under the bar and can hold your bottles and perhaps wine or soft drinks. A refrigerator is a heat removal device, and that heat must have someplace to go, so be sure to allow some room around the compressor for ventilation. Refrigeration units designed for built-in applications, which exhaust through the front, are available but fairly expensive. If you have a kegerator or keezer there are special considerations for a built in application, which we will get to. 

Having cold water available allows for a glass rinser. If you decide to go with a rinser in your drip tray you are also going to need to drain the rinse water to the sewer/septic system. This may get quite involved, especially if you are in a basement space and can’t use gravity. Installing pumps and all of the necessary pipes and check valves, not to mention electrical requirements, will add cost, time, and complexity. A glass rinser is a fancy addition but pretty far down on the list of needs.

Commercial bars use a three-bay sink to wash, rinse, and sanitize their glassware. It is unlikely any home bar needs to be so involved. If you have hot and cold water available you can install a sink and clean your glassware right at the bar. An under-bar drying rack is ideal for glass storage. Another option is to skip all of that plumbing and just haul the dirties to the kitchen.

Serving Your Beer

Now that you have a pretty good idea of how this home bar of yours is going to look, it’s time to get to the reason you started this project in the first place. Homebrew! If you are strictly a bottle person it is fairly easy to incorporate your homebrew into the home bar. Cold storage, glassware, a place for empty bottles, and you are on your way. The addition of a mounted bottle opener with a cap can is an easy upgrade that will lend a little bit of flair to your space.

Brewers that are kegging their beer have plenty of flexibility in the placement of the kegs and faucets. A chalkboard listing the available beverages is not required but useful whether you keg or bottle, and does make the space seem more like a bar.

There are three basic types of draft systems. In order of increased complexity they are direct draw, kegerator, and remote draw. Direct draw incorporates the faucets against a wall of the refrigeration unit, typically a walk-in cooler. Since we don’t likely have a walk-in available in our homes, that leaves us with the kegerator or remote draw. 

The vast majority of homebrewers who keg are going to be modifying a kegerator or keezer for use in their bar. Remote draw systems are an option we will discuss but because these systems are more complex and require more equipment, space, expense, and time, remote draw is an option best left to the confident and committed. The easiest and most cost-effective solution is to put your kegerator or keezer into an available space behind the bar. Leave some space to open the kegerator door or keezer lid and off you go.

Having faucets on your bartop shows that you mean business. It also allows guests to see what’s on tap and gives your home bar some real style. There is a wide choice of towers available. Column towers are common but are limited to a maximum of three faucets. Using multiple column towers presents a unique look and allows for more flavors to be served. 

Pass-through towers are another option. A Pass-through is mounted to the bar top as an upside down “U” and the bartender passes the beer through the space beneath the tower. In reality, though, pass-through towers are often quite large and can really overtake your limited space on the bar top. Pass-throughs come in different heights and a shorter tower may be more appealing in the smaller space of a home bar. However, if you are pouring beer in a separate space from your bar (like in the picture below), this is a nice looking option that may fit well in most spaces.

A third option is a ceramic mushroom tower. Mushrooms and mini-mushrooms are relatively compact and offer a wide variety of colors and faucets. Mushrooms have a smaller footprint than pass-through towers have. 

Finally, a home bar could incorporate an underbar mounted draft box. The box is fixed to the underside of the bar near the bartender. Faucet markers (tap handles) are visible across the bar and all of the barspace is left free. The actual pouring of the beer is not visible, however, reducing some of the fun of the presentation. Still, underbar units are well worth consideration. Take a look at the draft towers out there in the commercial world to get a feel for how each would fit into your home bar. 

Your kegerator likely has a draft tower located directly above the appliance. The tower is insulated and exposed to the ambient temperature. A tower cooler is used to force cold air into the tower in an effort to keep the beer in the line chilled. If the temperature of the beer in the line increases even a few degrees the CO2 gas will break out of solution and you’ll be pouring a few ounces of foam until the keg beer gets to the glass. Keeping the beer cold from keg to glass is a basic draft system requirement.

A bar-mounted tower must also be cooled, either with forced air or glycol. With some planning it is possible to mount the tower separately from the kegerator. Remote systems use a glycol chiller and an insulated trunk line to keep the beer at the proper temperature. Commercial glycol chillers have a chilled bath of glycol solution and a pump to circulate the glycol through the trunk line and tower in an endless loop. The pump runs 24/7 and the chiller maintains the temperature of the glycol bath. A small chiller costs north of $700 while an insulated trunk line can have 2 to 12 lines and costs around $3 up to $14 per foot depending on the amount of lines. Installation of a glycol system is an order of magnitude more complex than other systems. The scope of this article does not go into all of the variables and considerations but it is an option you may want to pursue.

When selecting the location for your draft tower it should be no more than a few feet from the kegerator or keezer. That is because you will need to push cold air to the faucets and you are limited to the length of choker you are using while too many bends in the duct decreases airflow. The tubing can be extended a bit either by installing a longer choker or using a short length of poly tubing between the choker and the coupler. A typical installation uses flexible plastic duct and a small fan. Be careful not to use too large a fan, however, as it will inevitably push cold air out of the tower and kegerator. Thirty to 100 cubic feet per minute (CFM) (0.85 to 2.8 cubic meters) is plenty. Using flexible duct instead of rigid PVC will make placement of the equipment much easier and allows you to move the refrigeration unit a bit when needed. Be sure to insulate the duct, or better yet use 2- to 4-inch (5- to 10-cm) insulated duct intended for use in heating and cooling. You should insert a short piece of appropriately-sized PVC into the tower from under the bar as well as into the kegerator. This will give you a hard surface to tape the duct to. Even with careful attention to sealing the duct you’ll find moisture inevitably collects in the kegerator. This is not a deal-breaker but removing the water every now and again or using
DampRid moisture absorber should be part of your maintenance routine. All of this material requires some space, so referring to the layout drawing you did at the beginning will help you to plan the space.

Filling Out the Home bar

Now that you’ve got the bar and the beer figured out, its time to consider all of the other things that belong in a proper tavern. 

Liquor and wine increase your options if you are serious about entertaining. When planning your liquor purchases you want to consider space, what your guests will want to drink, and budget. If you need help here a good place to start is to visit a small commercial bar to see what bottles they are using frequently and what looks like it is collecting dust. Some mixers and citrus will increase your options as well. Wine is an easy addition and can be as inexpensive or extravagant as you like. Lockable cabinets as well as faucet locks will keep it all out of reach of the neighbor’s kids and the baby sitter too.

Consider providing the appropriate glassware. Serving beer in unique glassware is certainly not necessary but sure is a lot of fun. Same for wine and liquor. Placing the glassware on display is an easy way to create an atmosphere and can be incorporated into your particular home bar theme. Online vendors have begun to sell small orders of custom glassware. Establishing a brand and logo for your home bar will make it fun and unique.

With proper consideration of space, budget, and time, your home bar can become a place of pride that enhances your appreciation of your homebrews as well as a cool space to enjoy with friends and family.

Pouring Beer From Your Draft

After all the effort you have put into making your homebrew and your homebar, you should be enjoying the perfect pour from your draft system. A well-presented pour is a thing of beauty and in my estimation never gets old. There is a special satisfaction to pouring your own homebrew, in your own bar. Cooler than the other side of the pillow, in fact.

Start with a beer-clean, room- temperature glass that is free of grease or detergent. Keep your beer at 38 °F (3 °C). You can enjoy your beer at any temperature warmer than 38 °F (3 °C), but foaming becomes a real headache as the liquid gets warmer. Place the glass at a 45-degree angle about one inch (2.5 cm) under the spout and begin by fully opening the faucet. Avoid allowing the beer to contact the spout as the glass fills. Try not to grab the handle at the top. One, it is a big lever and you risk looking like a Neanderthal, and two, it is a big lever that can snap while open, leaving you with no quick way to stop the flow of beer. As the glass fills up to about three quarters, straighten the glass and gradually drop it to create some velocity and foam. With a little practice you should be able to get a perfect collar of foam for a perfect presentation.