Pouring a beer with a perfect head of foam from your draft system is a thing of beauty, but without proper maintenance the experience can be spoiled. Keep things from going off the rails with maintenance advice from two draft experts.
Bill Jablonski, Co-Owner of Draftnauts LLC
Beer is food. Proper sanitation is necessary and as homebrewers we are well informed about the importance of appropriate cleaning procedures. Draft beer presents many of the same sanitation issues we encounter in our brewhouse along with a few other unique challenges.
There are two methods for cleaning lines. Professionals use a pump to circulate the cleaning fluid throughout the system (active cleaning). Since a pump and the required hardware can cost $500 or more this is not practical for a home bar with a kegerator. Simply allowing the cleaning solution to remain in contact with the line (static cleaning) is usually adequate. The entire system, quick disconnects, faucets, all can be cleaned at the same time as the line cleaning.
Homebrewers have it a bit easier than commercial systems. We can fill up a keg with 2–3 gallons (8–11 L) of cleaning solution and then push it through our kegerator with CO2. First, pour a beer. Next connect your keg of cleaning solution and dispense until the beer in the line is purged. Let the solution sit for 15 minutes or until you have finished drinking your beer. Do that once, twice if you think it needs it. Empty the remainder of cleaning solution from the keg. Rinse it all with a full Corny of potable water. A 5-gallon (19-L) plastic bucket to catch all that effluent is helpful here. If you have a pH meter you can confirm when the pH is acceptable. You really want to be abundantly cautious and rinse thoroughly. Consider purchasing strips of pH paper if you aren’t ready to buy and care for a pH meter.
There are numerous cleaning solutions, each claiming their own particular benefit. An industry standard is Beer Line Cleaner (BLC) and it works quite well. Whether organically-based, color-enhanced, low-foam, or extra strength, line cleaning solutions work because they are caustic. The solution kills bacteria, removes biofilm, scrubs hop oil, and eliminates protein deposits. It is potent stuff. The concentration of caustic in the solution is the primary cost consideration.
There is some industry buzz about natural and organic cleaning solution but keep in mind that organic or not, the chemical is basically a caustic, regardless of its origin. We buy basic cleaning solution that is highly concentrated. It saves on shipping and one bottle will last for a while. When buying cleaning solution check to see how much is diluted with water to obtain the proper concentration. The least expensive is not always the most cost effective. One 16-oz. (473-mL) bottle of BLC should last a homebrewer for well over a year and probably many years. It is important to mix the cleaning solution as directed. An overly concentrated solution costs more, can etch chrome plating and may leave a stubborn haze. More chemical does not mean more cleaning.
Commercial accounts are cleaned once or twice a month. A properly designed system with the latest tubing technology and stainless steel parts should not go more than four weeks between cleanings. Neglected systems will require more frequent cleanings.
I know some homebrewers that clean their line between every keg. These folks change their oil every 3,000 miles. Because that’s what they were told to do or perhaps because it helps them sleep better. Once a month is plenty, and once every two months is probably adequate. Effective cleaning is more important than cleaning frequency. Just don’t let your cleaning schedule get ahead of you. Your homebrew is positively swimming with live yeast and undoubtedly has a lot of hop debris as well, all of which are sanitation issues that require attention. Yeast in your draft system will go rogue just as readily as they will in your fermentation bucket, especially if you let your rig sit warm. Hops are antiseptic but they also provide a fine harbor for beer spoiling bugs to take hold. Our goal is to maintain a pristine environment for fresh beer while reducing any opportunity for the bad bugs to divide and conquer.
Alkaline cleaners have an extremely high pH. A widely available cleaner sold retail has a pH value of 13.5 prior to dilution. Bleach is typically in the pH range of 12. So line cleaner is over 10 times more caustic than bleach. And pH 14 is the limit, you can be sure you are working with the real deal here. These are serious chemicals, folks! Wear rubber gloves and eye protection. Read and follow the safety pre-cautions. Don’t assume these chemicals are harmless. Beer line cleaner is not your run of the mill detergent so take a moment to consider what you are handling. Once you understand the necessary precautions you can proceed, but please do not wing it.
Replacing draft lines depends on the effectiveness and frequency of cleaning as well as the type of tubing. The vinyl tubing used in a kegerator is cheap. So cheap that you should be tossing it out every year or two. Trying to get old tubing crystal clear is not worth the effort. So buy a 100’ roll of 3/16” ID by 7/16” OD (and preferably not the thin wall 3/16” by 5/16”) and use it as needed. The cost for a roll is about $40 wholesale. Buy a full roll instead of per foot as it is significantly cheaper. I am going to confess here and just say that I rarely clean my home system lines. I just snip and replace. I do pull off the faucets and couplers for a good soaking but I don’t routinely clean the lines. Consider the benefits of replacement over the cost and time required for line cleaning. Disposal is not environmentally friendly but neither is handling cleaning solution.
Every time you clean your line you should be cleaning your liquid quick disconnect (QD) and faucet, either with the clean in place method or manually disassembling. The gas QD does not need to be cleaned unless you somehow managed to force it onto the liquid out post (and we have all done it at one time or another). Faucets and QDs have crevices that can harbor all sorts of gunk, hop debris and yeast. In fact, these two items are much more likely to be fouled than the beer line. Unscrew the top of the QD, put all the innards into a soapy hot water solution for a few minutes then rinse. You can use a weak BLC solution but it is usually not needed. Your faucet does require particular attention as it contains some room temperature beer. Disassemble on a towel and rinse the body thoroughly in hot water. Be sure the vent holes are cleaned of gunk. The reassembly procedure is fairly obvious. If you have a ventless faucet and maintain a cleaning schedule you probably don’t need to disassemble every time, but the task is really quite easy.
Sanke couplers do require disassembly. The secret to effective coupler cleaning is to have a brush and to disassemble over a towel because Sanke couplers have a check valve. The valve uses a small plastic ball that, when set free, will roll on to your counter, on the floor and under the refrigerator. Beer only contacts the horizontal shaft in the coupler, so remove the check valve and scrub the inside under hot water. Then reassemble. Be sure to check all the washers for wear and replace as needed. The rubber parts can get really grimy if not maintained, especially the bottom gasket that seals the coupler to the keg. A little food-grade grease can be applied if you coupler is stiff.
If you are maintaining a cleaning schedule you can get away with what the pro brewers call CIP, Clean In Place. The flow of a few gallons of BLC over the faucet followed by the clean water rinse is sufficient to keep it all fresh and shiny. Even still you should disassemble all of the parts every third or fourth cleaning as it is the only way to see what is going on inside. The faucet is not kept as cold as the rest of the system and this will accelerate the growth of beer spoiling bacteria.
The only tool I consider a requirement for the cleaning process is a faucet wrench. There are some unique one-purpose gizmos that everyone must have in their toolbox and the faucet wrench is one of them. A faucet brush is helpful but not required. If you need a faucet brush you probably aren’t cleaning your system frequently enough, though we all need some help now and again. Not a crime. The faucet brush can be used in the shank as well. A line cleaning brush on the other hand is just ridiculous in my opinion. If you should find yourself in a position where you need to run a brush down the line you may as well just replace the line.
Christian Lavender, Founder of HomeBrewing.com and Kegerators.com
For a standard single tap kegerator setup I like to use a small cleaning bottle to flush beer line cleaner and water. If I am dealing with a multiple tap setup I use a slightly different approach using a submersible pump. Read more about cleaning a multiple tap kegerator here: https://www.kegerators.com/articles/cleaning-multiple-tap-kegerators/
Clean your beer lines regularly, once a month or between each new keg to ensure they will flow properly. My regular draft cleaning procedure is broken into four steps:
Step 1 – Turn Off and Unplug. Start by unplugging the kegerator. I also turn the CO2 tank off, close off the regulator, and disengage the keg tap and remove the keg.
Step 2 – Clean Inside and Outside. I clean all interior surfaces of the kegerator — this includes the CO2 tank, regulator, keg tap, beer lines, any drip tray collection, the inside of the cooling unit, and the outside. I do this because bacteria and yeast can live in sticky puddles of spilled beer and find their way into the the beer faucet and cause contamination.
Step 3 – Flush Beer Lines with Cleaner. Using a gravity-fed cleaning kit or one pressurized with a hand pump, I flush beer line cleaner through the lines to clean all the liquid-side beer line components. I usually take about 10 minutes to recirculate the cleaner through the beer lines.
Step 4 – Clean Faucets and Couplers. I disassemble the faucet by unscrewing it to the right with a faucet wrench and let the various faucet and coupler parts soak in a mixture of cleaning solution (like PBW) and hot water in the bowl for 10–15 minutes.
I always use Blichmann nitrile rubber gloves to protect my hands from cleaners, sanitizers, acids, and caustic chemicals. It can’t hurt to wear safety glasses in case of chemical splashes as well.
Over a period of time kegerator lines can become brittle, making it easier for bacteria, wild yeast, and molds to take hold in cracks and small scratches in the line material. They should last about a year if regular surface and deep cleanings are performed.
Depending on the beverage you are dispensing, you might find that your lines become stained or discolored. This can occur even after the first dispensing of a darker colored beer, wine, coffee, or even soda. Discoloration usually does not affect how the lines perform as long as they are fairly new lines and after recirculation of line cleaner there are no remaining odors. If you notice beer stone or other materials in the line after cleaning then it is time to replace.
After 3 or 4 kegs or around three months, it will be time to disconnect the kegs, remove the faucets and couplers and hand scrub them. Recirculate an acidic sanitizer like StarSan though the lines for 15 to 30 minutes. Some cleaning solutions do not require a water rinse after use and some do, so make sure you read the cleaning procedure for each cleaner you use.
Extra Tip: If you are not going to be using your kegerator for period of time, you should sanitize the lines before storage. After you run a cleaner through the lines you can next run a sanitizer like Star San or Iodophor through the system per the sanitizer’s recommended contact times. Use dedicated cleaning solutions in lines that contain wild yeast or bacteria based beverages. Don’t use the same cleaner in a “clean” line that you have also run through a “sour” line.