Pressure Barrels and Casks

Once you’ve fermented your beer, you need something to store and serve it from. There are many options available to the home brewer each with its own set of pro’s and cons.  In this post we’ll cover using pressure barrels.

Barrels are best suited for real ales, bitters and stout’s as you don’t want them too fizzy and carbonated.  They are easy to clean and sterilise and the beer can be syphoned straight from the fermenter into the barrel. Sugar is added which is then allowed to ferment, giving pressure to the barrel and giving the beer some light carbonation (or condition). This is known as priming.

Beer will keep in the barrel for up to a year but ensure that the barrel is kept away from direct sunlight and warm temperatures. Ideally you need to store them somewhere cool like a garage, shed or cellar. The ideal serving temp for most ales is around 12c.

Barrels come in 2 main types. The cheaper bottom tap versions with a 2” cap and the more expensive, King Keg style which have 4” caps and are also available in a top tap version. The king kegs can be easier to clean as you can get your hand inside them. If you need to store the beer on the floor then the top tap version will allow this.

Both versions will probably require co2 to be added as you consume the beer. As beer is drawn from the barrel a void will start to be created as no air can get into the barrel. The beer will continue to give off some co2 which will fill this void but if the beer is drawn quicker than it can create co2 then a vacuum will be created and the pressure inside the barrel will drop off. If this happens you need to add co2 to fill the void and maintain the pressure. How much co2 will be required to serve the complete barrel depends on lots of factors but you can expect to need to top up co2 on a 40 pint batch around 2 or 3 times.

There are 2 ways that co2 can be added and your preferred way with determine what type of valve you require.

S30 - This system uses the larger C02 bottles which have a deposit included in the initial price. You then return the empty bottles to any home brew retailer who sells them and purchase a refill for a reduced cost. The refill is basically a new bottle but your deposit is maintained and therefore the bottle is much cheaper. These bottles work with the S30 valves and you add c02 by screwing the bottle onto the valve until the valve opens then add co2 for around 1 or 2 seconds then unscrew and remove. Repeat the process if more pressure is required.

Pin Valve - This system uses the small 8g co2 bulbs. These are dispensed by using a plastic bulb holder and then screwing this onto the valve which dispenses all the gas in the bulb. The bulb can then be thrown away and more bulbs can be added if more pressure is required. There is no deposit on these making them ideal if you don't want to return the bottles for refills.

Method for using barrels:


Clean and sterilise your barrel. Dissolve 3.5g/L of sugar in some boiling water and allow to cool. Add this to the barrel.

Syphon the beer from the fermenter into the barrel, do this as gently as possible to avoid additional air getting into the beer as this will cause the beer to oxidise and go stale quickly. Rub some vaseline around the seal on the inside of the cap of the barrel. Ensure back nut on the valve is tightly screwed in to avoid pressure escaping. Then close the barrel and tighten the cap. Don’t over tighten as this cause the seal to be damaged.

Leave the barrel at room temperature for a week to allow the priming sugar to ferment then move to somewhere dark and cool for storage and serving. Avoid moving once they are settled as this may disturb the sediment in the bottom and make the beer cloudy again. If this happens just leave to settle again, this may take a week or two.

Pressure barrels are the ideal choice if you have somewhere to store them and you plan to serve the beer from home.

Casks


Professional breweries often store their beer in casks. These are generally 9 Gallon, 80 pints. They work by connecting to a tap then when ready to serve the shive is pushed into the cask. This allows air to enter as the beer is taken out which means no co2 is required. The downside to this is that as the beer comes in contact with the air it deteriorates rapidly and acetic acids starts to be produced by the airbourne bacteria which quickly makes the beer sour and undrinkable. Casks need to be consumed with around 4 – 5 days making them unpopular with most home brewers.

One popular version of the cask is a fairly new product called the Easy Keg. This mini cask works exactly the same as its full size cousin but as its only 5L so it can usually be consumed by the home brewer before it has a chance to deteriorate. It contains an integrated tap for serving. It’s small and portable making it ideal for taking to parties but you need to move carefully to avoid disturbing any sediment. These require priming sugar just like a pressure barrel. They are not designed for reuse but if you are careful when removing the bung and use non chlorine based cleaners they can be used multiple times.