Coffee + Keg + Tap= Cold Brew…Kinda

Have you found yourself looking for info on how to kick start a coffee keg system? Spoken to beer vendors only to find yourself chasing your tail? In preparation for The Crown: Royal Coffee Lab & Tasting Room, I’ve spent a great deal of time and effort mapping out our three different tap systems in two different rooms within our forthcoming Oakland, CA facility.

To pay it forward, I’ve put together a list of questions I wished I had asked myself prior to oh so many sleepless nights trying to figure this all out. Turns out unless you are an expert, it’s hard to find a great place to start.

Roasting, brewing, bottling and serving coffee on tap is a completely different discussion. To start, let’s focus on the hardware.

In the name of #OpenSourceCoffee, here are some of the questions I wish would have asked myself prior to getting on the phone with beer specialists from around the US.

1. To brew or to buy?

Whether or not you are a roaster, you have some choices. Do you brew your own cold brew or do you buy it from a roaster? Do you hire a third party to brew and keg it for you?

This decision has a major impact on your cold brew system.

Three words: Kegs and couplers.

The keg is the vessel your beverage lives in, and the coupler will connect your beverage to your draft system. The kind of kegs you purchase (whether with a standard American Sanke coupler, available in many sizes, or Cornelius kegs most commonly found in 5 gallon sizes) require different kinds of couplers to connect to your system, since they are physically different vessels. Most beer people won’t ask you if you are brewing or buying. You’ll need to make it clear either way.

 

2. What gas is required?

You need some kind of gas to push the drinks from the kegs, through the lines and out of the faucet into the glass. There are two keys gasses you need to know about: Carbon Dioxide (Co2) and Nitro (N2). You can google the science. The long and short of it is, CO2 will make your drinks fizzy & N2 will make your drinks smooth. However, each drink will need a different pressure to meet your demanding quality control standards. These gasses live in bulky tanks available in a wide variety of sizes that may need to be monitored by your local fire authority. Connect with a supplier of these gasses as soon as possible to figure out your local code for storage and proper management.

Wine professionals also recommend Argon – but we will skip that one for now.

In order to keep this simple, start with the below:

This definitely isn’t the only way – but it’s a great starting point.

3. Is it necessary to adjust the tank pressure?

The tank pressure of the CO2 and the N2 will be too strong to pour your beverages. You’ll need a regulator along the way in order to reduce the pressure. Depending on the kind of system you have, you may want to have a sub-regulator on each tap in order to give you the luxury of dialing in the exact beverage on a per line basis.

4. Is pouring coffee the same as pouring beer?

The first mistake I made was assuming that all kegs, beverages & faucets were created equally. Nope.

How you pour will directly affect what you pour. You won’t be able to grab a keg of micro-brew and simply put it on the same tap and line as your micro-lot. This is obvious to many, but to me it wasn’t. Beer, coffee and wine all require different kinds of lines, different pour spouts and different gas pressures in order to dispense your perfect beverage.

Save the headache and make it clear to your vendor exactly what you’ll be planning on pouring both from day one and for your holiday party.

5. Is it possible to have sparkling water on the same tap system?

You want your keg system to have a beautiful water tap? Forget it. It can’t be done.

Actually…it can. It’s just complicated. Even though sparkling water = CO2 + water, you’ll need a sparking water unit in order to make this happen. From there, you’ll need to customize the unit to connect to a matching tap with a specialized faucet. It’s a large up front investment, but will pay off when amortized against sparkling water bottles and their associated storage concerns.

 

Photo Credit: Micromatic – Explore their Water System here

6. What is the difference between direct draw and glycol?

A direct draw system is an all-in-one system. Think keg fridge with kegs and gas canisters inside the cabinet with beverages dispensed on top of the fridge.

A glycol system separates out the point of refrigeration with the point of beverage distribution. In summary, the glycol system will cool your beverages in one part of the building, run extended lines throughout your building, and deliver cold beverages without the bulky cabinets in the front of house.

If I had to guess, I imagine that most cafes have direct draw systems and most breweries or large tap rooms have glycol systems.

There are pros and cons to both systems and they’ll have a major impact on your buildout.

7. What lines need to be run?

Think of your gas lines and your beverage lines as a utility. You aren’t going to want these showing, so discuss your vision for beverages on tap early and often with your General Contractor. Meet me at The Crown and I’ll give you the full scoop on how we ran our lines. 


8. What impact will this have on the bar design?

Good design comes from the intersection between architecture and local county health laws. It’s easy to choose great stuff – it’s far more difficult to make it work within your local jurisdiction.

For The Crown, we will have three different tap systems in two different rooms all at different heights. Each of these decisions was a painstaking process requiring back and forth with equipment vendors, suppliers, and any associated tradespeople and professionals.

Moral of the story: Know your dimensions and know your design goals. Growing up I used to brag about Basketball stats. Now, I can spec your fridge from across the counter.

9. What drinks will be poured?

Only you can answer this. How do you want these products to taste? How varied will your menu be? To save time, chat with your team to see how you want your tap system to grow. Will you swap taps? Always have a certain house favorite on tap? Looking to add? Each of these questions will lead you and your equipment purveyors down a different path.

10. Conclusion

We are coffee people, and our focus is coffee. It’s okay to not know the answers as it relates to cold brew, beer and any other beverage you’d want to put on tap. Ask questions, plan early, and be patient.

If you are in the middle of a build out or thinking about how to serve cold brew, start now. Even if cold brew isn’t in your plan today, it’s probably going to be there in the future.

These are just some answers I found along the way, and it could have saved many a sleepless nights if someone just would have asked me the right questions.