Best Practices for Pouring Draft Beer Anywhere

Originally published at Craft Beer & Brewing.

From proper setup and cleaning to adjusting expectations for various events and outdoor gatherings, this comprehensive guide by COLDBREAK® equips you with practical knowledge for reliable jockey box use.

Regardless of your contribution to the brewing or hospitality industries, everyone can agree that the rules of engagement for enjoying our favorite beers—inside and outside of our local taprooms—have evolved. Read: Outdoor gatherings, unconventional events, and parking-lot dining are going to continue. Being prepared means being able to dispense taproom-quality draft beer quickly, conveniently, and professionally to where your customers are.

Briefly, for the uninitiated, jockey boxes are portable draft systems with the flexibility to pour any kegged beverage anywhere (yep—that includes wine, cocktails, hard seltzer, and soda).

For those already in the know, who may need a trusted resource to help cut through the noise, the following guide will ensure a confident decision-making process so that your investment is protected.

The Non-Negotiables

If you’re shopping around for the cheapest red or blue generic jockey box, here's a spoiler alert: You’ll get what you pay for. There are smarter solutions that will produce more consistently reliable results.

The secret sauce is not sacrificing on the critical components. Everything that the liquid touches from the moment it reaches your jockey box should be made of food-grade stainless steel. Those key ingredients include: coils, faucets, and shank assemblies. They should be fitted to a durable, well-insulated cooler.

Be diligent in your research. Be aware that there are jockey boxes on the market that use chrome-plated brass. While chrome has no negative impact on beer quality, it will eventually wear off and expose the brass after repeated normal use and cleaning. That brass is going to result in metallic off-flavors and sanitation issues.

Pick the Jockey Box that’s Right for You

First, consider the primary purpose for which you’ll be using it. Who you are and why you need a jockey box will help frame how to pick the one that makes the most sense for you.

Then, ask yourself the following 3 questions, which will quickly narrow down your search:
1. From an aesthetics standpoint, would you like to be able to personalize a jockey box with your brewery’s own branding, or do you just need something rugged that can combat challenging environments?
2. How many taps do you want? Would you like to be able to serve one, two, or up to four different kegs at the same time from a single jockey box?
3. Who’s going be pouring, or operating, your jockey box—a bartender, or guests serving themselves?

Cooler Aesthetics

Your jockey box is an extension of your brewery; it can look like it, too. You wouldn’t participate anonymously alongside hundreds of other breweries at a major festival without a logoed tent, T-shirts, tap handles, or signage. The same applies to your jockey box.

After field testing and industry feedback, there are two cooler styles that met the needs for function and fashion.

Stainless steel belted jockey boxes lend themselves well to controlled environments. Their attractive, polished exterior doubles as a marketing opportunity, able to be custom-wrapped in permanent vinyl (think: vehicle wraps) or removable magnetic decals.

In the other corner are heavy-duty roto-molded models. These are sturdy enough to endure unforgiving terrain (think: outside, off the beaten path), and their smaller format is convenient when space isn’t.

The style and size of a jockey box’s cooler is going to influence its number of taps and their corresponding coil length. Read on…

Number of Taps

Regardless of which of these coolers you choose, their function as a jockey box performs exactly the same. Deciding between one, two, or four taps boils down to personal preference based on how many different kegs you’d like to be able to serve at once through a single jockey box.

But, you should also be mindful of other aspects of your event: its duration, location, amount of space you’re allowed (including total footprint with kegs), the support staff you’ll have, whether the event/host is providing ice, etc.

Coil Length

When choosing tap quantity, it’s common to inquire about corresponding coil length. The industry standard is 50-foot coils. They have the capacity to always provide more than a pint of ice-cold beer in the chamber, at the ready for every pour—suitable for popular beer festivals.

If you’re regularly in exceptionally high-demand situations where you’d need to fill hundreds of pitchers non-stop for thousands of people—think major sporting events or weekend-long music festivals—you may want to upgrade to 100-foot coils at time of purchase.

Input Locations

Jockey boxes, as most people know them, are traditionally built with the inputs on the rear of the cooler. However, COLDBREAK® changed the game in 2012 by introducing a premium jockey box specifically for breweries—with front inputs. The design was a direct response to their requests for a better mousetrap that met their needs (as bartenders) while also looking more attractive from the approaching customer’s point of view.

Front Inputs
Inputs on the front (i.e., the same side as the faucets/taps) are the ideal scenario for bartenders who are doing all the pouring and facing the guests.

There are three major benefits to this:
1. The bartender has all the hookups and kegs on their side, allowing them to manage every aspect of service and keg rotation without having to move.
2. COLDBREAK®‘s reinforced shank assembly with custom-designed, extended flanges allows for unobstructed pouring as the faucets are positioned conveniently above the beverage inputs.
3. The guest experiences a clean look when they approach your jockey box.

The luxury of having front inputs is worth its weight in gold.

Rear Inputs
Inputs on the back (i.e., the opposite side as the faucets) are perfect for when guests are serving themselves or when a jockey box is integrated into a mobile bar or beer trailer, for example.

If a guest is pouring their own drinks, they won’t see or have to worry about the hookups and beverage tubing that would otherwise be on the bartender’s side. And, if your jockey box is mounted to any sort of mobile bar, having the inputs on the back allows the host to conceal the hookups behind any facade.

Download this infographic for a quick visual cheat sheet to help narrow down your search.

Setting Up Your Jockey Box

While jockey boxes are available in a variety of styles and tap configurations, the internal components used to manufacture them should be all the same, sourced and constructed with the utmost integrity. Still, setting them up should follow the same chronological steps to maximize their intended benefits.

In order to move beer from its keg into your glass, there are two sides that have to work together—one is the gas (or, CO2) side; the other is the liquid (or, beer) side.

Parts Needed (generally sold separately)
1. Jockey box
2. Keg(s) of whatever you’re serving
3. CO2 tank
4. Dispensing kit, which includes everything you need to start pouring right now: two types of tubing (for your gas line and beer line), a coupler that attaches both of them to your keg, a CO regulator, and if using a CO2 tank to dispense multiple kegs simultaneously—a CO2 manifold, plus additional couplers and tubing.

Additionally, you’ll need three simple, non-powered tools: a faucet wrench, a crescent wrench, and a flat-head screwdriver (or ¼" nut driver).

Setup Instructions

If you’d like a detailed demonstration, watch this video; otherwise, here are a few pro tips curated from learning the hard way.

Working in steps—starting with the gas side…

Step 0
This is so important that it actually has to be mentioned before Step 1: Do not add ice until your jockey box is completely set up. Common sense will tell you that it’ll be heavier to move after it’s full of ice. Also, stainless steel coils will likely have residual moisture in them from their previous cleaning so make sure you run beer through them before adding ice.

CO2: Weight and Pressure
A good rule of thumb is to plan for about 1 lb of CO2 for every half-barrel keg you’re pouring.

In a taproom, the pressure for draft beer is lower, typically between 12-15 psi. For a jockey box, however, it needs to be higher to account for the resistance the beer will meet while traveling through narrow coils. Jockey boxes fitted with 50’ coils need between 25 and 30 PSI to achieve a proper pouring velocity. If 25 feels too slow, gradually increase to 30.

A quick lesson in regulator function tells us that it only adds CO2 pressure to a keg. It cannot remove it. However, if you notice you’ve set your regulator too high after you’ve already started serving, you’ll need to release some of the pressure inside the keg.

Note: if you’re ordering a CO2 tank online, you’ll need to have it filled at a local retailer as federal law prohibits shipping full tanks.

Fill Your Jockey Box’s Coils
Remember—this step needs to happen before adding ice. Run your beer, or whatever’s in your keg, all the way through the coils. Should there be any residual moisture from the previous cleaning, filling your coils with your beverage will combat any freezing.

Check All Connections
Before you get caught staring down a line of thirsty guests, check every connection—from gas to liquid to jockey box—for any beverage or gas leaks. This is a natural best practice in preventing issues from accidental user-error before you start serving.

On the inside of the jockey box, it’s a good idea to give a once-over to the shanks that connect the coils to the faucets. Sometimes, they can loosen over time or during bumpy travel. This is another reason to not fill your jockey box with ice prematurely, as it would make checking the internal connections difficult.

Add Ice
Okay, now it’s time! Fill the cooler completely full of ice. Ice capacity will vary depending on the jockey box model and size—the important point here is to fill the cooler completely.

Pro tip: In addition to adding ice, filling the cooler with water up to (but not over/above) the shank assembly, creating an ice bath, should also help with conducting a steady, smooth pouring flow.

Once the cooler is completely full of ice, give it 10-15 minutes (sometimes longer, depending on ambient conditions) for all the stainless steel parts your beer is going to come into contact with to acclimate. Once the entire cooler and its parts are at the same temperature, you’ll get a perfect pour. A good indication that it’s ready is when the faucets are cold to the touch or condensation appears on them.

Cleaning and Maintenance

Whether you’re unboxing a brand new jockey box or have one that’s got some miles on it, we recommend the following cleaning procedure before a jockey box’s very first use and immediately after every subsequent use.

What You’ll Need

Cleaning Can 
You’ll use it to flush your cleaner and sanitizer through your jockey box. Pro tip: if you use one that has Sankey D connections, you can clean your jockey box and also your couplers, beverage jumpers, and faucets all in one shot.

Environmentally-friendly alkaline cleaners are recommended. They’re particularly effective in removing the organic buildup that will occur naturally over time through normal use. And, they’re safe on the components in your jockey box.

For a sanitizer, use an odorless, flavorless, and biodegradable acid-based sanitizer that’s high-foaming, which makes it great in penetrating all those hard-to-reach nooks and crannies.

Prep for Cleaning

You should never allow beer or any other beverage to sit idle inside the coils after a day’s use. This means overnight, too.

At the end of your event, close all CO2 valves. Then, pull the relief valve on your coupler to release the excess pressure in the keg. If there’s any beer leftover that you intend to tap tomorrow, you’ll need to re-pressurize your keg.

Step 1: Clean

  • Push the cleaning solution into your jockey box until it fills the coils completely, then let it soak for 20 minutes.

Step 2: Rinse

  • Immediately after cleaning, rinse the entire system with hot water. Do not allow alkaline cleaners to dry in or on a jockey box’s stainless steel components.
  • Follow the same process as with cleaning, minus the solution.

Step 3: Sanitize and Purge

  • Similar to cleaning in Step 1, now use sanitizer. But note: Depending on your brand, the ratio of sanitizer to water might be more diluted than cleaner.
  • Open the faucet and allow the sanitizer to be in contact with the coils for at least 1-2 minutes. Since you’re probably using a no-rinse sanitizer, all you have to do is let your cleaning keg run dry, leaving CO2 to purge your coils.

Events and Social Gatherings

COLDBREAK® jockey boxes are built to withstand the rigors of festival season or any event, anywhere. While the scope and intensity of events and social gatherings are in constant flux, right now is the perfect time to reevaluate your preparedness for them.

Challenge yourself to think about how you want to be known—and remembered. Weigh the considerations for what you can do to be as effective as possible when you’re back in front of guests away from your taproom. Your customers, who are now savvier than ever, expect it from you.

To help guide you along the way as you navigate event activations and marketing yourself for them, consult this evolving blog series, Festival Faux Pas.

Jockey Box Rentals

If you’re currently not in the position to put your existing jockey box to regular use at festivals or need an outlet for your entrepreneurial spirit, renting out jockey boxes to customers is a smart way to make some extra scratch on the side.

Why tolerate misrepresentation of your brand and beer degradation when someone else serves it through a cheap, plastic, old-school party pump? You’ve graduated since then. Your beer deserves better.

Breweries and caterers alike can launch their jockey box rental program by applying to become a COLDBREAK® Certified Retailer. Approved retailers gain access to preferred benefits and a toolkit of resources and marketing collateral that will make managing your own rental program a turnkey revenue stream.