Should you find yourself next fall in Durham, NC, try to snag an invite to Lara Murphy and Paul Hobson's epic Oktoberfest bash. The masterful hosts serve a belt-loosening buffet of brisket and bratwurst, kielbasa and sauerkraut, homemade pretzels and apple strudel -- every dish accompanied by heaps of excellent homebrewed beer.
Soon after brewing their first batch in 2011, the husband and wife fell down the fermentation wormhole. Weekends were soon spent turning out lavender-spiced witbiers, chamomile pale ales, and pungent IPAs, which were then painstakingly bottled. Though delicious, a dank IPA hardly seemed suited for Oktoberfest.
"It seemed weird to have this big German-themed party and serve saisons and ales instead of lagers," Murphy recalls. To fix the oversight, the couple decided to brew a mrzen, Oktoberfest's traditional lager. Properly making one requires cold fermentation temperatures and time, neither of which they had. It was mid-August 2012. The bash was slated for September's last Saturday. The couple needed a kegerator -- a retrofitted refrigerator for fermentation and serving -- and they needed one fast.
They formulated a beat-the-clock plan. Murphy hit hardware stores and the local homebrew shop, securing a chest freezer, clamps, CO2 tanks, tubing, taps, handles, and other necessary equipment, totaling around $1,000. Sprinting toward the finish line -- a three-day dash -- Hobson "was racing ahead with the brew day, and I was racing to get the stain to dry," Murphy says. Six weeks later, guests were happily guzzling draft Hallogallo lager from the kegerator, which was stationed in the hallway adjoining their kitchen. Since then, they haven't looked back on bottling.
"Kegging is a little bit easier and faster," Hobson says. "It's novel to have a fresh pint off the keg in your house."
Mention kegerators to most folks, and their minds will descend into dark man caves and college parties, where jerry-rigged refrigerators dispensed cheap, forgettable drafts. That notion is as outdated as a Spuds MacKenzie commercial. As homebrewers and craft brewers continue to elevate beer's standing, kegerators have left basements and garages and begun perching in kitchens and living rooms across the country.
Twenty years ago, about the only kegs most Americans could buy were mainstream lagers. What was the thrill in serving Bud? Today, the U.S. boasts more than 3,400 breweries turning out coffee-infused stouts, lemongrass-spiced wheat beers, and citrusy IPAs.
"Maybe you start with a growler and realize, I could get a keg of this," says Andy Sparhawk, the craft beer program coordinator for the Brewers Association, which keeps a three-tap kegerator in its Boulder, CO, office. Beyond flavor, the benefits are that the beer is about half as expensive as bottles or cans and, should you buy from the brewery, incredibly fresh.
"If done correctly, draft beer is the best way to enjoy beer, particularly in the comfort of your own home," says Sparhawk, who also keeps a kegerator in his home.
There are two paths to installing a beer-serving system in your home. First, conversion kits will allow you to transform a chest freezer or minifridge into a DIY kegerator. Very basic kits begin at around $50 (not including refrigerator cost), and installation can usually be completed in an afternoon. Of course, this requires you to be handy with tools.
The easier, though costlier, route is purchasing a preassembled kegerator. Budget models begin at around $500, but you get what you pay for, says Mike Goodwin, the marketing manager for draft beer experts Micro Matic. Less-expensive units lack a blower that circulates chilled air, keeping the draft tower cold. "When hot air rises, it'll go straight into the tower," Goodwin says. "Your first glass of beer will be foamy."
Commercial-grade kegerators such as Micro Matic's start at around $1,800, depending on bells and whistles. You'll also want to pay close attention to capacity. "Too much space is not a problem," Hobson says. "Too little space is a problem." If you can spare the square footage, buy a kegerator that can hold a half-barrel, which contains 15.5 gallons of beer -- that's more than 120 16-ounce servings. In the same fridge you could fit four sixtels, or one-sixth of a barrel of beer. (That's a bit more than 5 gallons.)
"With all the craft beer available and smaller kegs, a number of people are putting on multitaps at home," Sparhawk says. "The variety out there is part of the fun." With fun comes responsibility. To keep pumping out brewery-fresh beer, you should clean taps and lines every two weeks, which is the recommended bar regimen.
"No one's going to want to enjoy your beer if it has something growing in it," Sparhawk says.
Bacterial growth? That's bad. Growing options in the home-beer market? That's great. Recently, inventors and entrepreneurs have started rolling out tech-savvy draft beer systems such as PicoBrew's KegSmarts. The company -- which also created an automated homebrewing system -- raised $226,559 on a Kickstarter campaign for a Wi-Fi-equipped kegerator that provides a beer's specs, tracks keg levels, and precisely tweaks temperatures.
For space-crunched drinkers, Steve Young founded Synek, a single-gallon draft system that sits on your countertop. "We didn't want it confined to a basement, man cave, or garage," Young says of Synek, which netted nearly $650,000 on Kickstarter and will roll out in early summer with 10,000 units spread across 35 cities. The system ditches kegs for vacuum-sealed pouches of brewery-filled beer that are easily swapped out.
"Unlike a kegerator, you don't have to drink 300 of the same beer," Young says. "You can drink whatever you want."
Well, almost anything. "We have definitely not heard an avid Anheuser-Busch beer drinker say, 'I want to get Budweiser on my countertop,'" Young says. "This is a product that was made for craft breweries and for craft beer."