When it comes time to moving your water, hot wort, or beer from one vessel to another, homebrewers have traditionally relied upon gravity to perform this task. Outlets and valves installed with snugly fit barbed fittings can easily handle the pressures seen in gravity-fed systems since there is very low pressure within the hoses/tubes. But when homebrewers want to move towards kegging systems on the serving side or a pump on the hot side, more secure fittings than simple removable hosing over a barb fitting is required.
There are now many different styles of such connects that are available to homebrewers and it’s “fitting” we go through them. In this piece we’ll start at the easiest (barbed connections) and move towards the more complex . . . although they aren’t necessarily complicated.
Several of these connection systems do require rubber gaskets to maintain a proper seal. When you do decide which you may opt for, if it requires a rubber gasket for the seal, get some spares. They’re a cheap and highly recommended purchase, providing you with an insurance policy in case of a gasket failure at a crucial moment. Also, be sure to use silicone or other high-temperature rated hosing/tubing when dealing with brew-day connections. This is not a place for vinyl. Leave the vinyl for transferring cold beer or in a draft system.
As mentioned earlier, barbed connection paired with a snugly fit hose/tubing does the job in basic homebrew setups. They work perfectly fine when gravity is the only pressure being applied to the system. These connections are cheap and allow brewers to easily switch tubes from one outlet/inlet to the next.
If you and your system can maintain barbed connections without any clamps, there are very few reasons to move past them. They are available in both brass and stainless versions. I would recommend keeping the barbs a uniform size so the number of tubes can be minimized.
The biggest downfall of barbed connections is the fact that they don’t handle pressure well. On the hot side, over-pressurizing them will lead to failure and spraying hot wort on yourself can easily lead to burns. On the cold side, it could lead to a giant mess.
Barbs with Clamps
Here, we’re going to go with the same concept as the barbed fittings but will now include clamps. There are a couple different clamp types, and each has its pros and cons. Plastic hose clamps are easy and provide a fairly quick level of protection when an added pressure is applied on the hosing/tubing, such as CO2 or a pump. They are strong when applied properly, but are prone to fail if not secured appropriately. Worm clamps are a step up from plastic clamps, but they require added time and a level of fastidiousness to make sure that they are secure upon each connection. Both work, but both are prone to fail if not used properly and can be a hassle to apply when you want to quickly move a hose from one outlet to the next.
Barbed connections with clamps are featured in many of the more “advanced” quick-connect systems that follow, as they will often be used to interface the hosing/tubing with the quick-connect system. These are often thought of as more permanent connections rather than quick connects since they will only be taken apart for more thorough cleansing operations. Some permanent barbed connections use Oetiker clamps (aka pinch clamps), which provide the most airtight seal. The problem with them is that either bolt cutters or someone with a lot of patience is required to remove them.
Just like with the barbs with clamps, many threaded connectors found in hot-side brewing systems would be considered more permanent connections and thread-seal tape is used to complete the connections. But there are several exceptions.
Some quick-connect systems use threaded fittings outfitted with rubber gaskets to provide a proper seal when pressurized. Blichmann Engineering’s QuickConnectors™ are a high-quality version of this type of system. With several different connection styles available, the QuickConnectors™ are adaptable to many different configurations, including integrating them into a draft system. They were designed with homebrewers and small-scale breweries in mind, mainly for hot-side processes, and behave as such. They may not be the fastest of the connection systems, nor the cheapest, but they are quite user-friendly and well-crafted.
Threaded connectors also find their home in many draft systems, using flared fittings with a rubber gasket seated inside the female nut to provide a seal. These allow a faster connection when swapping out different configurations on both liquid and gas lines and can provide an airtight seal (so long as the gasket is seated properly).
Air-Style Quick Connects
In general, homebrewers use this style of quick connects not for air, but for brew-day operations. They are a bit more expensive then the QuickConnectors™ but are easy to use and are attached with one hand. Just note that a good pair of silicone or brewer’s gloves are required when using these since they get scalding hot as they are stainless steel. (Of note, hardware stores and garden centers will also carry this style of quick connects, but these are not meant for brewing purposes.)
With male and female ends, homebrewers may have all the male ends on the hoses and all female ends on their brew pots (or vice-versa). Quickly pulling back on a ring (the collet) found on the female side of the connection allows several ball bearings to roll over the male end. When the collet is released, the ball bearings clamp down inside the groove found on the male side and a rubber gasket seals the connection. Just be sure to give a little tug before opening any valves to assure a proper connection. While not designed for homebrewing, they have found a home here but are not always the best design since they are more prone to drip issues.
With many of the same pros and cons of the air-style connects, cam-lock fittings (or cam and groove fittings) are found on many homebrew systems on the hot side. Found with either a female or male end, these fittings rely on the cams found at the end of two levers on the female side of the connection to align with the grooves on the male side. When the levers are pulled back, the cams will rotate into the grooves, pulling the male socket into a gasket found in the female fitting, providing the necessary seal. These often run a little bit cheaper than either the QuickConnectors™ or the air-style connects, giving them the leg up with the more frugal-minded brewer. Just like with the air-style connects though, it’s advisable to use gloves when using these connects. They are also less prone to drip issues compared to the air-style connects due to their design.
The tri-clamp fitting is often seen as the gold-standard for brewing connection systems . . . but they’re not without faults. Many homebrewers have utilized them because of their ubiquity in the commercial brewing world, but it takes a skilled brewer/cellarman to use them quickly and deftly. Seeing an experienced brewer with tri-clamp fittings is a thing of beauty; watching them twirl the clamp to open it up then quickly fling the clamp over the connection and with one hand clamping it down while holding the hosing in the other hand. Some of them can do it with their eyes closed.
On the plus side, there are no male-female ends, allowing for more versatility in applying different connections for different uses. Also, they can be used in nearly all facets of your brewery. Unfortunately, I have seen enough homebrewers fumble around with tri-clamp fittings that I generally steer homebrewers away from this fitting type.
Another term for these connects that homebrewers often hear is “sanitary fittings,” but they are not always a true sanitary fitting in many homebrew systems because non-sanitary, threaded ends are welded onto a tri-clamp cap. True sanitary conditions can only exist when connections are flush on the product side of the union. In other words, where no nooks and crevices exist to harbor bacteria and other spoilage organisms. In my opinion, tri-clamp fittings are an overkill when dealing with moving liquid on the hot side in the homebrew world and only really can be advantageous after the wort has been cooled . . . like on the outlet of a counterflow chilling system. But most homebrew systems I see have the tri-clamp fitting threaded onto the outlet of a plate chiller, for instance. This threaded connection is not a sanitary connection (as the threads provide a bacterial nook), making the “sanitary” part of tri-clamps obsolete. So, unless you plan to unthread and then clean and sanitize the tri-clamp connection after each brew, I’d say stick with a simpler style of connection . . . one that is easily removable for cleaning and sanitation purposes.
Some of the nicer homebrew setups now have tri-clamp fittings on their fermenters. This is a luxury ticket and one that I won’t tell brewers not to do. But again, in many cases, I find it to be overkill. There are cheaper and more user-friendly connection systems out there. But there are definite advantages to having tri-clamp ports on your fermenter. First, many of the fermenters have multiple ports at different heights of the fermenter allowing for different purposes and configurations with all the ports. Because there is neither a male/female side of tri-clamps, the same piece of equipment can be used different ways. Also, tri-clamps allow fermenters to be pressurized so brewers can carbonate the beer in the same vessel. Just be ready to pay top dollar for the equipment once all the pieces are put together.
On the cellar and draft side of things, we’ve already been introduced to barbed and threaded flare connections, but in recent years the push-fit connections have been gaining popularity in this arena. With no special equipment required, fittings like the Duotight and John Guest offer an alternative to barbs as the hose-to-quick connect interface. The push-fit connects do require special tubing to work properly and those are typically recommendations from the manufacturer.
These connections are sealed by simply pushing the tubing into the fitting. A straight and clean cut of the tube is required for a good seal. To release the tube, simply push in the collet while pulling on the tube and it will be released. Some can be used in certain hot-side operations as well, such as on the outlet of a mash tun.
Socket and Plug Quick Disconnects
Often featuring a little tab for disconnecting the plug (which can look like a spark plug), this style of disconnects are also popular for draft systems. They are a great option for those who like to switch out lines for different connections for things like carbon dioxide purging or pressurizing fermentation vessels. When the plug is removed from the socket, an internal spring in the female socket is engaged and closes the valve. This allows the line to be pressurized on the female side, with some rated upwards of 120 PSI (827 kPa). Most found at homebrew supply stores are plastic so are more prone to breaking if mishandled.
A modern draft setup for homebrewers may include push-fit connections for the liquid lines and socket and plug quick disconnects located on the gas lines. The fun thing about many of these is that they are not necessary to produce good beer. It has more to do with the tinkering aspect and how you prefer to optimize your system . . . from brew day through service.