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Faucet Design: From functional to fancy

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.com

Pouring your own beer from your own draft system is cooler than the other side of the pillow. If you are enjoying a homebrew wouldn’t you be enjoying it so much more if it were dispensed from a beautiful and glorious kegerator? Of course! Lucky for us, BYO magazine has numerous articles describing how to set up and troubleshoot draft beer dispensing. If you are thinking of taking the plunge, do some browsing. Of all the planning, expense, and parts that make up a draft system, only one item has what the software people call a user interface. The faucet is the link to a well-poured beer. There is a certain satisfaction to the feel of a machined hunk of steel. The same feeling you experience when you close the door of a Cadillac, or perhaps a bank vault. Only better because you are pouring beer. My business partner and I have many years of experience designing, installing, and maintaining draft systems. We have no financial interest in any of the products mentioned; just the real dirt. So if you have a draft system, or plan to, let’s get nerdy with beer faucets.

First, please don’t call it a tap. Well, do as you like, but if you want to be a cool draft nerd (don’t we all?) and impress your friends with your awesome beer knowledge, you should know the difference. Taps go into a keg. Faucets pour beer. Tapping a faucet with a mallet into a wooden keg was once a thing, but it is pure nostalgia now. Don’t sweat it too much. Tap or faucet, there is a technical difference.

Considering the rather simple task a faucet accomplishes, there are an awful lot of options. If it does not leak when closed and pours beer when open that should be it. Of course, every manufacturer is determined to offer the perfect product for your budget and we are blessed (cursed?) with many options. We are going to explore a few varieties, discuss materials, and get you to where you know more about beer faucets then the next brewer. Faucets are surprisingly fun, in a beer nerd sort of way.

Faucet Material

There are two materials to choose from: Stainless steel and everything else. In my opinion you want stainless. I’ll be blunt and just state that saving $10 or even $20 in anything that’s not stainless is foolish. Folks, there is some astonishingly low-quality hardware out there. If it looks suspect, stay away. The “everything else” category includes chrome-plated brass or heaven forbid, plastic. Once that chrome wears away, and it will, you have a brass faucet. This is problematic because brass is not food-safe (this is in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration/FDA’s Food Code, item 4-101.14 if you are curious). Expect the inside of the faucet to corrode well before the outside. With cleaning chemicals and beer flow, your chrome faucet will sooner or later be a brass faucet. Now when you see the old-timey brass faucet at the local water hole, you’ll know better. As for plastic, what can be said about plastic hardware? Point being, here is not the place to save a few bucks.

Spend some time with the aesthetics of your chosen faucet because that is really the only part of the draft system you will handle regularly.

Maybe shiny stainless steel is not to your liking. Then you should look into physical vapor deposition (PVD)-coated stainless steel. These are stainless product with a gold, brass, or some other color appearance and are much more durable than chrome. If you already have a chrome faucet, then give it an inspection. If the plating is still intact, then there is no immediate need to swap out. But when it eventually wears out replace it with the stainless faucet of your dreams. If you are not sure, look closely for signs of wear and exposed brass. A magnet will not stick to brass, 304- or 316-stainless steel. Oftentimes you just have to inspect carefully.

One of the rules in draft beer is to use stainless steel and FDA-compliant tubing. Regarding tubing, please reference the July-August 2021 issue article covering the topic, also found at https://byo.com/article/choosing-tubes-and-hoses/. For faucets, I recommend budgeting between $25 to $50 for a quality faucet. If you are looking for something more unique, expect to pay upwards of $100 or more. If a good faucet costs $25 to $50, what can you expect from a $13 faucet? Something that needs replacing frequently is the answer to that. So which faucet should you buy? There is no one right faucet, but there are a few things to think about before you settle on anything in particular. There IS one right way to pour a beer though, which will be discussed at the end of this column.

Anatomy of a Standard Faucet

A beer faucet can be summarized with a few primary parts. Knowing each item is useful because it determines which faucet is right for you. The faucet body is a solid piece of metal, and everything else is attached to the body, usually threaded in place. A quality faucet will feature a well-machined body; heavy, and shiny. Lower-quality faucets have a clunky body that just doesn’t look right. Spend some time with the aesthetics of your chosen faucet because that is really the only part of the draft system you will handle regularly. Name brands include Perlick, Micromatic, Intertap, CM Becker, TOF, and Abeco. There are more. It is likely you won’t be handling the product until it arrives in your mailbox, so a retailer with a decent return policy is worth it. A well-machined faucet feels right. You know it when you see it.

The stem is the piece that extends from the body upwards and is threaded to accept a faucet marker, a.k.a. tap handle. It is an easy tell when you see a brass stem. A minor cost savings and not a sin but better quality faucets will have a stainless steel stem. Bonus advice: Have you ever broken a faucet while pouring a beer? It’s exciting because it breaks in the open position. And the beer continues to pour until you disconnect the keg. Avoid this lunacy with a stainless steel stem. Same for the faucet shaft, which is the horizontal part that controls the flow of beer. The stem comes in contact with beer and can corrode, but you won’t see it until you dismantle the faucet and inspect (which you should be doing periodically). The rest of the faucet is a bunch of washers and gaskets. Each manufacturer has their own particular standard faucet assembly and we won’t get into that here.

Standard (rear-seal) Faucets

All faucet images courtesy of Canadian Beverage Supply

The standard beer faucet is ubiquitous. It’s been around for a few decades and called standard because, well . . . for a long time it was found in most all draft systems here in the U.S. Still is. This design uses a valve and O-ring stopper to control the flow of beer. Pulling the handle forward pushes the stopper back towards the shank and the beer flows around the opening. When the handle is pushed backwards the flow of beer stops. Simple. There is a weep hole in front of the stopper and near the spout. The weep hole is there to provide a vapor break for the beer when the faucet is opened. Pay attention to this hole as it is prone to fouling if not cleaned out occasionally.

Your cleaning regimen should include inspection of the weep hole. One particular area prone to fouling is at the front of the faucet body, where the horizontal shaft protrudes into atmosphere as the faucet is opened. Because the design is soaked every time a beer is poured and the wet parts are exposed, conditions are right for the formation of beer snot. This is also an unrefrigerated part of the draft system. If you have not dismantled your faucet to do an inspection, be prepared for the horror show. A vigorous cleaning of all faucet parts is a requirement with this type of faucet. Enjoying a homebrew immediately after a cleaning is also known as a Perfect Pint. Even if it is all in your mind, it does taste better.

The standard faucet has served us well for a long time. If you find a stainless steel standard faucet that looks nice, from a reputable manufacturer, and you take the time to clean it periodically, you could do a lot worse.

Forward-Seal Faucets

Because the standard faucet is so good and so popular, naturally we have an alternative. The forward-seal faucet really is a genuine improvement though. This design is our favorite and accounts for roughly 90% of our installations. Basically, fewer parts means fewer parts to fail. Superb machining means better pours. Subtle but different design means unique style. The forward-sealing faucet is a really nice gadget and well worth the $45. The design principle of the forward seal is to use a ball directly attached to the stem, eliminating the shaft and weep hole. When pulled forward the ball disengages from the O-ring seal and beer flows. In the closed position the ball sits firmly against an O-ring. The body is slightly smaller than typical, and the spout angle is a bit more pronounced, allowing the faucet to drain completely between pours.

Early designs were prone to leaking but the most recent model is rock solid. We have somewhere around 700 of these faucets in service and aside from occasional user abuse, they just do not fail. Forward-seal faucets can be cleaned in place too. You do need to periodically dismantle and inspect but the frequency is much less than with a standard faucet. The sanitary advantages inherent with the forward-seal design are genuine, but no matter the faucet you do need to maintain a cleaning regimen. Fewer parts to foul does not mean the faucet is invincible. Yeast will eventually get hold and create a fairly disgusting situation. The technical term is schmoo.

European (Euro) Design

The term Euro is a bit misleading. For one, European faucets will not work on our domestic systems . . . because they’re based on the metric system. And there is no one “Euro” design, it’s just different than domestic. Other than that, the usual design is basically a standard faucet with an extended spout and often a bigger body as well. This spout is elegant but in practice not all that different than the usual faucet. If your draft system has coffee or wine for example, the use of an extended spout faucet can indicate something extraordinary.

The pour is concentrated and will come out a bit faster, so your balance does need to be pretty tight. Otherwise opting for a Euro faucet is an aesthetic decision. The majority of Euro faucets we have evaluated are high quality, as expected from an Italian or German shop. Just be sure the faucet you buy will thread on to your domestic shank. Bottom line is that Euro faucets look different and that is cool. But be prepared to pay for the distinction.

Nitro Faucet

If you want the Guinness pour, and you have set up your system with the required nitrogen/carbon dioxide blend, then you need a nitro faucet. The design of the nitro faucet is entirely different than that of a standard or forward-seal faucet. The most important aspect is to buy stainless steel with quality machining. The economy brand Krome offers a cost-effective stainless steel nitro faucet. European manufacturers also provide great nitro faucets at a greater cost. It is worth noting that the Guinness faucet is one of the cheapest faucets with a lot of plastic and chrome. But they work, they are practically given away, and they make Diageo a lot of money. So who am I to question their standards? The Guinness handle is riveted to the faucet, and it’s not by accident. If you want to dispense a nitro stout that is not Guinness, and need to swap out the handle, good luck with that task. If you have one of these in your basement waiting for the opportunity, know that your homebrew will forever be branded as Guinness.

Overall, expect to spend around $100 on a decent nitro faucet, preferably one with a steel spout. There is a fine mesh screen in the spout that can get clogged and will also go MIA if not carefully handled when cleaned. This is not a part you can get at Home Depot, so pay attention or buy an extra screen or two. They are cheap, so no worries there. The screen is what produces the cascading nitrogen effect. There is also something called a flow straightener in there, and that part clearly straightens the flow. The high pressure of the nitrogen in the blend gas forces the relatively low volume of CO2 through the screen and creates the tiny bubbles. Remove the screen and the faucet produces an ordinary flow when 100% CO2 is correctly applied.

Technically, you could use only nitro faucets for all of your beers, with and without the screen and with the proper gas for each beer, depending on the desired effect. However, attempting to dispense anything other than a relatively low carbonation beer through a nitro screen will comically produce something resembling a beer shake. I should mention that Intertap produces a forward seal with an interchangeable threaded spout. One with a screen and one without. They do work and this is an option.

Self-Closing Faucets

Self-closing or spring-loaded faucets have a spring and will automatically close when the handle is released. The spring and associated parts are more items to foul and fail, so they are not recommended. Besides, what is so difficult about closing a faucet that requires help? Because these faucets are gimmicky, they are often featured on low price-point kegerators. If you do have this variety of faucet you should consider upgrading. Do you really need that spring? You don’t know what you could be enjoying until you upgrade. Perhaps revealing, few name-brand manufacturers offer spring-loaded faucets. If you find that you or your guests are unable to close the faucet after a fill, look to Italy for quality self-closing faucet designs.

Roto Faucets

The so-called roto faucet is a type from Europe and they are pretty cool to be honest. The roto part is the rotation of the valve in the faucet body. Pull forward and the valve rotates to the open position. The spout is long and thin, creating a vigorous pour, not unlike a standard Euro design, only more robust. It is a unique piece of equipment, but we just have not found a roto faucet that works really well and can’t recommend this type. There is one particularly expensive roto faucet that uses an incredibly bulky body. About an ounce of beer, after the shank but before the roto valve, sits between pours. You can be sure that the beer sitting in ambient temperature is going to go into your glass as foam. If dumping foam is OK with you, as it is with a lot of European establishments, then fine. Otherwise let’s drink our precious homebrew, not pour a foamy mess or dump it down the drain.

Side-Pull Faucets

Direct from the Czech Republic we have the side-pull, provided for the domestic market by the brand Lukr. This style has started to appear more frequently at American taverns that feature lagers, but it is still fairly rare. As the name suggests, the handle is pulled horizontally. These faucets feature an extended spout that is meant to go to the bottom of the mug or glass. The beer is poured from the bottom up and the spout is immersed in beer. Czech pubs have a few different pouring protocols. The different methods include Šnyt, Mlíko, Čochtan, and Hladinka, each with their own unique appeal. We are not going to get into the weeds here. The point of the faucet is to produce different quantities and styles of foam.

I’m not one for too much foam, no matter how Old World these things are purported to be. We have installed a few and I’m not impressed with the price, which is somewhere north of bone crushing. The lever is horizontal and does not have a threaded shaft for your marker. Lastly, the handle lives in real estate occupied by the faucet in the adjacent space, so if you have two or more lines there is going to be a fight for living space. The side pull is something we might be seeing more of, either as a fad or a genuine improvement, but for now I am on the fence and hope to hear from users about their experience. U.S. homebrewers are known for leading the way. I think the different Czech pouring methods do offer adventurous home bar enthusiasts an interesting avenue to explore.

Creamer Faucets

Creamer faucets are a feature of some forward-seal designs. Pushing the handle back slightly opens the faucet and creates a bit of turbulence that intentionally produces foam, not quite cream. The foam is added after the pour is almost completed and will provide a bit or a lot of head in the glass. While nice, slightly cracking an ordinary faucet a few quick jerks at the end of the pour accomplishes the same thing. With a little practice you can generate the perfect foamy head. Or you can drop the nearly full glass a few inches, let the stream of beer hit the beer with velocity and create the desired head. We find this faucet a bit more of a curiosity than a necessity.

Flow-Control Faucets

The forward-seal faucets with optional flow- control have become the gold-standard in faucet design in recent years.

Flow-control faucets adjust the gap of the piston shaft in the faucet body. Closing the gap slows the flow rate and opening the shaft allows for full flow. The space in between provides incremental flow rates. If your beer is pouring too fast, you can use a flow-control faucet to slow down the speed of the pour. Because beer falling into the glass at high velocity can cause foaming, you may be tempted to fix your foaming problem with flow controls. Foamy beer is 90% temperature-related though, so be certain the beer in your glass is the same temperature as the beer in your keg and applied CO2 pressure is appropriate for your dispense temperature (which is naturally 38 °F/3 °C). If you have a temperature control problem, flow control faucets will not fix that. You will just pour foam slower.

If you have a velocity problem, be sure you have sufficient resistance to balance the system. Your choker is probably too short. Correct that first. With that taken care of, flow-control faucets do have some benefits and are useful if you are dispensing highly carbonated beer or filling a growler. The increase in cost is minimal and flow controls provide another thing to tinker with. When in the wide-open position the faucet operates as if there were no flow-control mechanism for a regular pour.

Properly Pouring Beer

Unless you are camping, start with the use of a clean glass. Plastic cups are for Philistines and fraternity brothers. Hold the glass at an approximate 45-degree angle. With the spout near the inside of the glass but not touching the glass, open the faucet all the way. If you have a flow control, adjust appropriately. Fill the glass about three-quarters full. As the beer nears the top lower the glass to create some turbulence and achieve the preferred foam head. Use a clean glass for every beer, or at the very least rinse your glass. If you have a Lukr or Roto faucet and allow the beer to come in contact with the spout, be sure to wipe down the hardware. Enjoy!

Issue: November 2021