A few years ago my wonderful wife presented me with a Blichmann Beer Gun as a Christmas gift. I'll be honest I let it languish for a while in the basement brew area before I had the need and time to try it out. Billed as an easy one-man job, my first experience using this alone was not a great one. I thought a quick talk about the process would help those looking at purchasing such a device, so here goes!
Why do you need a Beer Gun? The only reason I can think of is to have the ability to run beer from your keg into bottles. The main reason I do this is to get a couple of bottles for competitions. One could fill growlers with it too, but it is just as easy to just use a short length of tubing and fill those from the tap directly. The cool (and complicating) thing about the Beer Gun is the ability to purge the oxygen out of the bottle, substituting it with CO2, and subsequently preventing oxidation of your beer. This is important if you plan to age the beers or need them in great condition for a competition a few months away. I know people who fill directly from the taps, but this has only left me with a big mess and inconsistent carbonation levels.
What is the Beer Gun? Basically it is a long tube with two trigger mechanisms, one for CO2 and the other for beer flow. The beer line hooks up to the back of the gun: make sure this is hooked up before you connect the other ball-lock end to your keg or you will be sorry--as beer quickly flows and snakes all over the place. Hypothetically of course. The other connector hooks a gas line to the base of the "handle" of the gun with the other side of that line going to your CO2 tank. To make this work you really need two tanks, or have two regulators on your single tank so you can change the pressures on the beer keg and the gas flowing into the gun. I recommend using about 6-8 PSI for both. Some people suggest increasing the PSI of the beer the day before you do this by a point or two above where you usually keep it. If any carbonation is lost during the filling you don't end up with flat beer. This does work, but I'm usually too lazy to think that far ahead!
More set up? Now that your lines are hooked up (and sanitized I hope!) the hard part is keeping everything sterile and not spilling beer everywhere. I now keep a sanitized bucket/plastic container nearby to "holster" the gun in without contaminating it by laying on a surface. Keep a bucket of sanitizer nearby for your caps. Get your capper ready. Have bottles pre-cleaned and sanitized and placed in the freezer with a hat of tin foil or rubber banded cling wrap. I usually keep about 8 of these in my freezer just in case I have left this process to the last minute...which is nearly always. The cold beer hitting the cold bottle limits foaming. I have done this with warm bottles and had a huge problem with foam. Just prior to firing up the Beer Gun grab your bottles out and place them in a larger bucket (to catch spills.)
Filling the bottles? Now you are ready to go! The process works incredibly fast and easy from here--as long as you have a partner to help out. One person takes off the foil and holds up the first bottle at an angle while the filler places the nozzle of the gun all the way to the bottom of the bottle. Pull the gas trigger for a few seconds forcing in CO2 and oxygen out. Release. Pull the front beer trigger and start filling the bottle with beer. You want to minimize turbulence and foaming here or you will get oxidation and lose carbonation. When the beer is about a third of the way up, set the bottle down in the bucket and finish filling from there. When just about to the top, pull the nozzle up to the top and stop filling. It is fine if you spill over a bit. Your helper should have dropped the caps in the sanitizer by now and be ready with the capper. He caps on the foam, and moves on to the grab the next bottle for repeating this process. Afterward you will need to do some clean up on the wet sticky bottles.
What if you don't have a helper? You can still do this, but it gets more difficult. You can pull off all the foil at once, filling each bottle in a row. When done, holster the gun and quickly cap all the bottles. This does increase your risk for oxidation since the beer has been open to the air for a few minutes and the protective foam may have dropped down. Probably not a big deal, but we homebrew geeks hate to risk making our beer less perfect than it could be.
Trouble? Lots of things can go wrong with the process, but all are fixable. The biggest issue is mess: keep a couple clean/sanitized buckets around to catch and contain spills. Have a lot of rags and paper towels around. CO2 leaks and empty tanks are lousy to discover at the last second so check that stuff out before you get started. You will feel/hear a small amount to leakage through the body of the Beer Gun--another reason to get this done quick and turn off that gas. Overly carbonated beer in the keg can lead to foaming. Always use the poppet on top of the keg first and release all the pressure--then changing your input gas PSI to about 6-8, just enough to push the beer, but not enough to make it foam. If your beer was over carbonated to begin with, you may need to do a little shake/purge/shake until it is closer to desired. That may stir up sediment though...
Does all this sound like a lot of work and set up? Of course it does! This device is still much better than the old counter pressure fillers though. I'll admit, this can be a pain to set up and clean up after so you have to really want it. I often have a good beer on tap that I could put in competition, but my innate laziness precludes me from going through all this effort. I do like having the option available, but feel that having a couple guys in the club with one of these is probably good enough. I use mine four times a year or so for my own use, but a few more times for friends. This is a good gizmo to have access to, but I would invest in one later in the game...after you have upgraded your equipment to all-grain and bought your stir plate for starters!
Oh, also for my readers: I have changed the settings on the blog so it should be easier to post comments here! I'd love to hear what people have to say about the subject, the blog or beer in general!
Next Up: Hefe-Wit