About eight weeks ago, I started another upgrade to the home brewery: the kegs.
When I started out with home brewing, I did the thing that most people do, which is also cheapest (and lower in quality): bottling beer. It’s a huge pain. You either must buy empty bottles or you have to save bottles from beer that you buy at the store, and then remove the labels, sanitize the bottles, fill them with beer, use a priming solution to get the beer to carbonate in the bottle, and cap each bottle. A 5-gallon batch of beer requires at least 55 clean 12-ounce bottles. Plus, getting the carbonation right is difficult, so that you often wind up with flat — or vastly over carbonated — beer.
It didn’t take long to make the jump to kegging, and I started that by (again) doing what most people do: buying refurbished Cornelius kegs from the local homebrew shop.
Refurbished kegs are a good deal, but they have some issues: first, they originally are used by soda manufacturers. So when you get a “new” one, it smells like root beer or Coke, and you must carefully sanitize the keg just to make it usable. Then, cosmetically, it looks pretty beaten up. The rubber bumpers on the top and bottom are a little like working with old tires. You get black (or red, or green) marks all over your hands. Also, used kegs must sometimes be “tinkered with” to get them to keep a seal. Gaskets and rings are made of rubber, and break down over time. You have to keep them in good shape in order to use them properly.
Getting brand new kegs is the next step. They cost at least twice as much as the reconditioned ones, but they’re new; they will last forever if you treat them well, and keep them clean, and they arrive shiny and fresh for beer!
In my kegerator, I can fit three of the reconditioned soda kegs, but I jumped on four of Kegco’s Ball Lock Strap Kegs for three primary reasons: first, they had no rubber bumpers that would eventually degrade; the entire keg is metal. Second, I could increase capacity by fitting four kegs in the kegerator instead of three at a time. And third, they had good reviews on Amazon.
I took delivery of the kegs and filled them with beer. I placed them into the kegerator to chill and carbonate. We drank the beer.
Turns out these kegs are a disaster. First, on one of the four kegs, a weld around the gasket split apart, creating a situation where it wouldn’t hold a seal unless the pressure was set above about 15 psi. This is fine when you’re carbonating beer, but most home brewers reduce the pressure for serving, down to about 5 psi. At 15 psi, beer will be extremely foamy (you’ll never get a full glass) unless your draft line tubing is rather long.
But, even more alarming, after using each keg for only one or two batches of beer, I began to detect a metallic flavor. It was a ferrous — blood-like — flavor and aroma, most prominent on the head, and positively disgusting in my mustache. It tasted and smelled like I had a bloody upper lip.
Initially the metal flavor/smell was present in just one keg, and then it began to spread to the others. When my wife noticed it too, I began to get alarmed. I took apart the entire draft system, breaking down each and every piece in the system and thoroughly sanitizing everything. It took hours. I couldn’t believe that an all-new, “stainless steel” keg could possibly be the source of the flavor, so I looked at everything but the kegs. But when nothing else (I even looked at ridiculous things like hydrolysis of lipids from improper grain storage, some change in my water source, or off flavors from using a slightly oxidized copper wort chiller) could explain the metal flavor, I began to examine the kegs.
If I’d looked at the kegs first, I’d have saved myself hours of work and days of anxiety. I removed the metal post from the beverage connection on the keg with the most prominent metal flavor, and I immediately smelled that terrifically bad metal odor in the air. I looked down at the dip tube to find it corroded down to the base metal. You could actually see the corrosion all the way down the tube. I removed the metal posts from the other kegs, and it was the same story with each of the four dip tubes. They were in various states of corrosion, and at least one tube had a warped and cracked flange at the top.
I swapped out one tube with a clean one from one of my old refurbished kegs to see if that would resolve the problem. The metallic flavor/smell was less prominent, but still present. I concluded that the dip tubes could not have possibly been stainless steel, and whatever finish was on the outside of the kegs, the inside was imparting very undesirable flavors and aromas into the beer.
This was just a week or so before Easter, by the way, and I was panicked about the possibility of 15-20 gallons of ruined beer!
So I quickly cleaned and sanitized four of my old reconditioned kegs (thankfully I did not already sell them) and transferred the beer to see if it could be salvaged. The beer, for the most part, was drinkable, but it did suffer some unnecessary oxidation from the transfer. All the beer actually tasted and smelled significantly better in the old reconditioned kegs, despite being jostled. It saddens me that we served several entire batches of beer that were not at their full potential, due to using these cheap kegs. I prepared a new keg of Religious Liberty (from Megabrew) for Easter, so that no one would have to drink the metal beer.
These Kegco kegs are made in China. They are advertised as stainless steel, but even without the corroded dip tube issue, I am certain that the metal lining the kegs interacted with the beer, muting flavor and aroma. Avoid them like the plague, if you care at all about the way your beer tastes and smells.
The Quartermaster has done his duty in the fight against bad beer. This has been a PSA.