Regular cleaning of your homebrew draft system keeps your beer tasting its freshest as well as extending the life of your equipment. A few simple tricks (along with an inexpensive fitting or two) will go a long way to making the task much easier.
Obviously there are plenty of other ways to clean a draft system. This method works best for my setup and requires very little effort. The first thing you’ll notice is that everything connects with threaded fittings, even the tail pieces on the shanks. Those threaded fittings make projects like this much easier, as well as keeping the whole thing modular. It’s flexible and can grow as my refrigeration equipment changes.
Why cleaning is important
First, let’s talk about what dirty beer lines won’t do. On more than one occasion I’ve heard somebody tell me that they’ve suffered a hangover from dirty lines. Sadly, hangovers are mostly about the volume consumed and not about the lines it flows through. In fact, only under the most extreme conditions will a dirty line or faucet make the beer unsafe to consume. The alcohol and acidity of the beer, along with the cold temperatures inside the refrigerator, typically inhibit the growth of mold or dangerous pathogens.
Just because a beer is safe to consume doesn’t mean it’s worth doing. Have you ever had a draft beer that tastes like movie theater popcorn or butterscotch frosting? Or maybe the beer left a slick feeling across you teeth and tongue? That’s diacetyl. While it can come directly from the beer, more than likely it’s presence indicates that those lines have been infected and need a cleaning.
There is more than just beer passing through those draft lines too. Yeast and other particulates eventually build up in those nooks and crannies, especially in the shanks and faucets. That can cause problems related to foaming and head retention in the beer.
A couple of wrenches and a screwdriver is all you need to take it all apart and put back together again, but there are a few other key pieces that you probably don’t have on hand.
At the core of it all is a submersible pump. They can be found at any garden supply shop, but I use the one that came with my carboy/keg washer. Look for a pump that can push between 400 and 800 gallons per minute, and should cost no more than $60. They can often be found for half that price around the internet. The rating for my particular model is 530 gallons per minute.
Most pumps have a 1/2 inch female outflow. To connect it to the threaded beer tubing fittings, find some form of 1/2″ Male NPT to 1/2″ Male NPT threaded coupler and a 1/2″ Female NPT x 1/4″ Male MFL reducer. I like to connect all four of my beer lines together so I can clean them all at once, so I use three 1/4″ MFL Male to 1/4″ MFL Male flare couplings.
Disassembling The Draft System
First, remove the liquid out quick disconnects from the kegs. To minimize the mess, release the pressure in the lines by opening the faucets before beginning disassembly. Unscrew the tubing from the tail pieces, and then the tail pieces from the shanks.
It’s easier to get more leverage to disconnect the faucets from the shanks before loosening the back nuts that keeps the shanks secure. Once the faucets and back nuts are removed, slide out the shanks and prepare to break them down into their parts.
Beer Lines and Quick Disconnects
Unscrew the quick disconnects from the beer lines. With a flathead screwdriver, remove the caps and carefully take out the internal pin, spring, and o-ring from each. Take all of the pieces and soak them in a cleaner solution such as PBW. To save time and effort, I dump them in the bottom of the basin the submersible pump will be sitting in when it is circulating cleaner through the draft lines.
Both ends of all four beer lines have a 1/4″ Female MFL swivel nut. Connect them together with the three 1/4″ flare couplings and then to the 1/4″ reducer coming from off of the pump. Set the whole thing down in a basin or sink, but be extra careful not to lose any parts down the drain if you’re using a sink. Make sure the end of beer line is pointed downward, back into the basin.
Shanks and Faucets
Cleaning the draft system cannot be completed until the faucets and shanks are taken apart. There are a wide range of sizes and brands out there, but the basic components are pretty much the same. Just pay attention to what you’re doing and they will easily go back together.
The only area of the shanks that are exposed to beer are the bodies, tail piece, and tail piece o-ring. Take the parts that are exposed to beer during normal operation and put them in the cleaner solution along with all of the parts already in there.
Let that submersible pump run for 20-30 minutes. Remove all of the components from the cleaning solution, and check for any stubborn soil still present. Rinse everything in hot water. Now all that’s left if to reassemble everything in the opposite order it came apart.
To minimize the risk of losing any small parts, rebuild the quick disconnects, shanks, and faucets first. Next, install the shanks and back nuts, then the faucets, then tail pieces and nuts. Don’t forget the o-ring. Finally, screw on the beer lines and quick disconnects and you’re back in business.
Cleaning your draft system is a critical step to pouring better beer. A little bit of occasional maintenance will ensure that you are serving high quality homebrew.