Monday, January 7, 2013

BeerGun and Counter-Pressure Filler Comparison

Blichmann BeerGun on the left next to a Fermentap Counter-Pressure Filler.For most of my homebrewing career I’ve relied on just two methods for packaging: bottle conditioning and force carbonation in a keg. Once in awhile I'll naturally condition in the keg, but that is only if I have a beer ready to keg and no open slot in my kegerator to put it. When I had a batch on tap that I wanted to enter into a competition or bring to a homebrew club meeting, I really only had one option, stick the bottle under the tap and deal with some overflow and then cap.

While this most basic bottling option is alright for short term transportation, it has the tendency to allow oxygen from the air to dissolve into the beer, and to knock carbonation out of the beer. In both cases the result is beer in the bottle that will not be as delicious as it was on tap. When Zymurgy posts the winning recipes each year from NHC, it is amazing how many people force carbonate and then bottle from the keg (19 of the 24 winners in 2012). Over the last couple years this has been not just IPAs and light lagers, but also sour beers, imperial stouts, and English ales as well. Of course this is a correlation, and not causation (it could be that brewers who are more serious about brewing for competitions also happen to want the precision of force carbonation).

Luckily there are a number of gadgets available to improve the transfer of carbonated beer from the keg into the bottle. To bottle test batches for samplings at public tastings (sign up for the Modern Times email newsletter), and meetings with investors/distributors, we first opted for the Blichmann BeerGun, and more recently the Fermentap Counter-Pressure filler. After trying both, I thought I'd write down my thoughts on where each excels, and what to consider if you want to start bottling from the keg.

Pretending to fill the same bottle with the Blichmann BeerGun.Ease of use

Blichmann BeerGun: This filler has a button that flushes the bottle with CO2, and a trigger to subsequently control the flow of beer. As a result it can be operated with one hand. However, as it has no way to slow the flow of beer, the pressure of the keg has to be lowered and the head space vented before you begin. The design does a good job minimizing foaming, but with even moderately carbonated beer I'd still have some foam overflow before the liquid reached the lip.

Fermentap Counter-Pressure: With a counter-pressure filler the bottle is flushed and then pressurized with carbon dioxide before filling. The pressure prevents the beer from foaming much as it is transferred into the bottle. However, when the bottle is full and the stopper is released the beer will begin to gush. This is fine as it allows you to cap on foam, but you have to be quick. I’ve found it really helps to have a second person to take the filler to shorten the time between removal and capping.

The Fermentap's three-way ball valve is a bit more cumbersome to operate than the BeerGun's button/trigger. It is easy to allow gas or beer to continue flowing slowly if you aren’t careful when turning it to the off position. This filler also causes more of a mess, beer spurts through the valve when it reaches the top, and the previously mentioned gushing means that filling bottles placed in a large bowl/pot/bin is a must.

Build Quality
Blichmann BeerGun: Solid and relatively easy to clean. My only real complaint is that the small rubber nub on the tip of mine fell off and was lost. An email to Blichmann resulted in me being told that it wasn’t covered by the warranty, and that I needed to order another ($4.50) nub from a homebrewing store. The BeerGun seems easier to sanitize than the Counter-Pressure, without as many internal parts where microbes can hide.

Fermentap Counter-Pressure: The first filler I received leaked from the stem, and second one leaks from the valve (CO2 pressure, and then beer vent even when the valve fully closed). It is a bit disappointing that the product isn’t tested before it is sold. Luckily the slow leak is enough that the product still works alright, but the loss of the ability to throttle the flow is annoying.

Pretending to fill a bottle with my counter-pressure filler.Results

Blichmann BeerGun: The flavor of the beer was fine, not showing premature signs of oxidation. Carbonation seemed to drop as I filled more bottles. I suspect the lower dispensing pressure was at least partly to blame. Carbonating the beer too highly resulted in a lot of foaming, and loss of carbonation. As the bottle is open to the air during filling, there is also more of an opportunity for air/microbes to enter, but it is minimal at best.

Fermentap Counter-Pressure: The beer can be bottled at a higher pressure without excessive foaming, and being able to dispense at serving pressure seems to have resulted in more consistent results. The flavor is similarly good to the BeerGun, no complaints over the short term (you can read my tasting notes for my Aromatic Cream Ale both on tap and in counter-pressure-filled bottles in this post).

The fillers cost about the same, Blichmann BeerGun is $75 while the Counter-Pressure retails for $65 for the standard or $87 for the “Deluxe” model with a pressure gauge. The price goes up if you need to buy beer/gas line and extra fittings. Luckily I have a spare barb on my gas distributor, so I can sanitize it and dispense CO2 without putting a splitter on the gas each time I want to bottle.

Tips and Tricks
Whichever one of these you decide to purchase, there are a few tricks that make them more effective:

Dispense into cold/wet bottles to minimize foaming. I sanitize with Star-San, then put the bottles into the freezer for 15-20 minutes. When I am ready to fill I give each a last blast with Star San to ensure they are still wet and sanitized.

Chill your beer close to freezing, to minimize the amount of CO2 lost. I usually leave my kegerator set to around 40-45 F, but a day before bottling, I crank it down into the mid-30s F.

For the BeerGun, you need to turn down the head pressure to ~4 PSI to slow the speed at which the beer dispenses. For the Counter-Pressure filler, leave it set to the same pressure as the keg because the pressure will slow the speed at which the bottles fill.

A long/narrow liquid line helps, once again, to add resistance which helps minimize foaming and loss of carbonation. This is much more important for the BeerGun.

When using the Counter-Pressure filler, hold the stopper in firmly while it is under pressure, but don't push down on the filler itself. Especially for larger bottles, you don't want the stopper to ride-up and lose its seal around the stem.

The effort of setting up either of these is only justified when you are filling multiple bottles, or packaging a couple beers. When I’m headed to a homebrewing club meeting I still usually just stick a chilled/wet bottle or growler under the tap.


Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I have been looking forward to hearing what you had to say about the two.

What has Jacob had to say about the difference?

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

We'll know more when the box with the IPA and DIPA gets there tomorrow.

Brian said...

I have had excellent luck with a third and much cheaper option, known on homebrewtalk as the BierMuncher Bottle Filler. As far as preserving quality and carbonation, one beer I bottled via this method won Best of Show in one of the largest competitions in the country a couple of years ago so I'm pretty satisfied with how it has worked out for me. I've had beers months after bottling and they have all been good.

In a nutshell: Racking cane inserted into a picnic tap (it fits almost like it was meant to be there), and a stopper on the cane.

Ryan said...

Another other option is the Bowie bottler which is essentially a more advanced version of Biermuncher's Bottle Filler that works in Perlick faucets.

Andrew said...

I use the outer metal rod of the blichmann gun in a picnic tap to fill bottles. Turn the pressure way down, get it all cold. The first bottle foams, but after that the metal rod is quite cold, keeping foaming down. The rest of the bottles poured great. To be safe I flush each bottle with co2 (i have a co2 manifold and one line is open, so I just hold an open line over the metal rod, flush for 30 secs, fill).

I think some co2 is lost to the headspace, since that needs to get pressurized by co2 coming out after capping.

cswest said...

Why not just add a stopper to the beer gun? Then you could create the pressure to prevent excess foam and be able to slowly release the pressure manually.

Andrew Lautner said...

beer gun user here... we fill a couple buckets and a cooler with a cold water / star san solution, and pull bottles from this just before filling them. that eliminates the step you mentioned involving putting sterilized bottles in the fridge to cool prior to filling.

Andrew Lautner said...

by the way, the rubber nub / stopper is definitely the most annoying thing about the beer gun. we've sprayed many walls thanks to that little piece.

Scott said...

I'll echo what Ryan said. I've been using the 'Bowie' adapter, which is a machined fitting with some o-rings that slides into a Perlick tap. I have some beverage line attached to it, with a bottling wand, and a rubber stopper.

It's much easier to clean and sanitize, and altogether easier to use. It's essentially a counter pressure filler, only I can't purge the bottle with co2 first.

Tom said...

+1 for BierMuncher Bottle filler. My IIPA got 1st place in 2012 America's Finest Homebrew contest using this method.

Anonymous said...

What cwest said...

I use the beer gun with a #2 rubber stopper on the outer tube. Works just like a counter pressure filler like this and it's easier to operate too. I also have a larger #3 stopper to fill growlers.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

A friend of mine lent me his Bowie awhile before I got either of these, sadly it didn't fit in my Perlicks, so I didn't get a chance to use it. It seems like an upgrade over filling directly from the tap, but without the ability to flush your bottles with CO2, it isn't an adequate replacement for either of these. It can certainly work, especially for beers that can survive a bit of oxidation (bigger-darker etc.) but I wouldn't trust a hoppy beer to it, especially one that has to survive a week with FedEx. Tom, how long between bottling and judging for your DIPA?

No matter what method you use (even counter-pressure) you'll lose some carbonation. It is easy enough to slightly over-carbonate the beer to account for this though.

The colder the bottles are the less foaming you'll have. Ideally you want them as cold, or colder than the beer. Cold tap water sanitizer would help, but unless it is ice water you won't have the bottles as cold as near-freezing beer.

Putting a stopper on the Beer Gun would certainly make it more like the counter-pressure filler, but the pressure release would be more difficult. Slowly burping the stopper with one hand while you hold the tripper with the other as opposed to the smooth release of pressure provided by the valve.

Anonymous said...

as for keeping the bottles cold, i sanitize them with iodophor. i also keep a grip of those ribbed rubber stoppers that people use to keep their wine good a few days (although these are beer branded and fit better in beer bottles in my experience) also in sani, then as soon as i dump the sani from the bottle, i give it a quick co2 purge, jam the stopper in, and stick it in the freezer. the drop in temp creates a negative pressure seal with the stopper so it stays sanitary. when im ready to bottle i just pull the bottle out of the freezer, remove the stopper and then operate my counter pressure filler as normal. ive gotten so little foam, even when i remove the filler from the bottle, that i usually end up purging the headspace in the bottle before i cap

Anonymous said...

as for keeping the bottles cold, i sanitize them with iodophor. i also keep a grip of those ribbed rubber stoppers that people use to keep their wine good a few days (although these are beer branded and fit better in beer bottles in my experience) also in sani, then as soon as i dump the sani from the bottle, i give it a quick co2 purge, jam the stopper in, and stick it in the freezer. the drop in temp creates a negative pressure seal with the stopper so it stays sanitary. when im ready to bottle i just pull the bottle out of the freezer, remove the stopper and then operate my counter pressure filler as normal. ive gotten so little foam, even when i remove the filler from the bottle, that i usually end up purging the headspace in the bottle before i cap

Chris said...

I've had good luck with icing a bucket of starsan and leaving my bottles in there while I fill. (I also don't have my vinator at the moment)

When you force carb a sour and bottle, do you get by ok with crown caps, and for what sort of shelf life?

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

I rarely force carb and then bottle sours (other than a rare bottle to bring somewhere, never to age). The only sours I keg are dry hopped, as I want to drink them relatively fresh. Otherwise it's bottle conditioned only for me. For those I do mostly cap, never had an issue when not corking.

However, when I talked to Remi Bonnart (who won Brewer of the Year honors with a Flemish Red at NHC a couple years ago), he said he's had fine luck counter-filling his sours for extended aging. Brett is such a great oxygen scavenger, I'd think the aging potential of bottle conditioned and force carbed (unpasteurized) sours would be about the same!

Tim said...

Your comparisons helped tremendously in our decision to go with a counter pressure filler. I've used the Blichman a couple times for our Dragons Milk 3L bottles with limited success. New Holland just got the CPF because of this post.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Cheers and good luck! They suggest adding a piece of 1/4" hose to get the output all the way to the bottom of larger bottles. That seems extra valuable in that case (although I haven't had an issue filling bombers without the tubing).

RSR said...

quick and dirty faucet filling can be done with silicon tubing, which snugs over the faucet with ease. We use it for filling growlers on the fly; not sure if the 1/2" ID silicon tube fits in a 12/22 bottle.

Chris J. said...

Nice write up. It was especially helpful for me as I just received a Beer Gun for Christmas. Honestly though, I probably won't be using it that frequently. I have a brand new keezer, and if I need to take some beer with me I am planning on filling 1-2 flip tops straight from the tap (growler style).

That being said, one of my goals with home brewing is to enter more competitions, which is where the beer gun will come in handy now that I am kegging. Can you offer some tips and tricks to bottling using these methods for this purpose? For example, how long can one expect carbonation to last when bottling from a keg?

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Assuming the bottle is properly capped, it will be able to hold carbonation indefinitely. There should be no difference, in this respect, between a beer filled with force-carbonated beer and one that underwent bottle-conditioning. However, this is not to say that the beer will stay good for as long; yeast scavenge oxygen and help a maltier beers (especially) to age more gracefully. Best to store the bottles in the fridge after filling if you can. This is also assuming that fermentation was complete when you kegged the beer, if not the yeast could start fermenting again in the bottle, which could result in over-carbonation.

Hope that helps, best of luck!

Unknown said...

Great write-up Michael. I have a beer gun and have had trouble bottling if the beer is carbonated. I tend to release the pressure in my corny kegs over a week or so and then prime with sugar and bottle. That way I get no fobbing. I have also bought a cpf from morebeer but it has not arrived yet. I guess both have their puposes.

Incidentally, on my last go with my beer gun I used my 3L Conical Glass Flask (My yeast starter flask) to hold the beer gun. And now I know how you felt when you smashed your starter flask! I moved the gas bottle that was still connected to the beer gun and in slow motion, over went the flask and rolled towards the edge of the table.... and OFF!
So guys, please don't make that expensive mistake! Cheers

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

It is amazing how slow time goes when you have no chance to stop glass from smashing!

Good luck with the counter-pressure! Same best practices (cold, wet etc.) help reduce foaming.

Unknown said...

Your a genius sir.

Brett B said...

I rarely fill more than four bottles, maybe 8 at most, as I have four taps and they are usually for club meetings or other gatherings. Your comparison was very helpful, but the last paragraph sinched it. I have always been skeptical about the added value when cleanup is considered, so under my circumstances, neither certainly seems the answer. Much thanks! 🍻