September 10, 2012

Party Pig...

The party pig, as best as I can tell, has been around homebrewing for a while. It's popularity has seemed to wane in the past few years I've been actively homebrewing although I get the impression that it never really caught on like it could have. Between direct competition from the tap-a-draft system, people rigging those Miller and Coors "home draft" systems to be refillable and the overall growth of home kegerator/keezer set ups, the party pig seems to be a struggling product. Nonetheless, I do see people asking about it from time to time and I think it's a product that gets a lot less attention than it deserves. So since I'm trying to get back on to just talking about homebrewing, I thought I would give this under-appreciated product a little attention here. I have a party pig but don't use it as much as I like because I usually my fridge is occupied with bottles but I need to get it out there more often...

What is the Party Pig?

The party pig is a refillable, 2.25 gallon beer dispenser that uses an expanding bladder to maintain pressure in the pig for about four to six weeks. It is very similar to the tap-a-draft system and the Miller/Coors "home draft" box systems except while those systems use CO2 cartridges for pressure, the party pig relies on a "pressure pouch" that expands inside the bottle to maintain pressure. It is somewhat more like a cask because although the pressure pouch maintains pressure for a while, eventually the beer starts to lose carbonation if it isn't fully dispensed within a few weeks. (I don't mean a cask can or should last weeks, only to compare that it won't keep beer carbonated and oxygen-free indefinitely like a forced CO2 system will.)

I could tell you step by step how the pig works but the directions are fairly straightforward on the manufacturer's website.

Benefits to the Party Pig

The party pig is superior to bottling because there is a lot less time spent filling bottles, although that can be said for any non-bottle packaging. However, if you find bottling annoying but don't have the space or money for a kegging system, it is an available option. Not only do you not have bottles to fill, you also don't have bottles to wash or store. Of course, with a smaller system, to package a full five gallon batch you'll need a couple pigs or to split it and half bottle, half into the pig.

Additionally, the Party Pig system is reasonably priced and can be used for more than just dispensing beer. The starter kit runs around $40 and unless you damage it or fail to maintain it, the only future purchases you will need to make are for more pressure pouches, which run $4.45 each. It's a little more pricey than buying bottle caps. The pig can also be used as a fermenter for two gallon batches with the addition of a drilled stopper and airlock. The price issue is a little different than tap-a-draft. Tap-a-draft runs around $65 for the starter kit but that includes three 1.6 gallon bottles. Each bottle has to be filled with a CO2 cartridge, which are about $2 a piece. However, Tap-a-Draft bottles are reusable for "at least six batches" although I'm not sure what happens after that. The bottles run around $9. Tap-a-Draft is cheaper but it seems like a less reliable product if the bottles degrade after an unknown number of uses.

Another benefit is the portability of beer. You can transport a single pig instead of a case of 12oz bottles. The pig is definitely easier to carry. It even comes with a handle. You can buy a cooled jacket for it (possibly also help keep fermentation temperatures low?) to transport it and maintain cool temperatures. Some breweries actually distribute their beer in party pigs by filling it like a growler and then sealing it up with a pressure pouch. I'm sure people with kegging systems could do the same and transport beer without having to worry about moving a whole keg, keeping the keg cold, etc. Also, since it doesn't have any glass parts, it's safe to take on boats, to parks, etc. However, this isn't any different than the cartridge-based systems.

Downsides to the Party Pig

There are some drawbacks to the pig, too. For one, the price of the pressure pouches can be cost prohibitive if you use it a lot because $4.45 to package 2.25 gallons of beer is much more expensive than some bottle caps and free bottles.

Also, it can be really tricky to work with. Although the instructions seem simple enough, it's a little more complicated than you think. The Party Pig uses a combination of priming sugar and the pressure pouch. The priming sugar does the work to carbonate the pig and the pouch maintains pressure. Well, the instructions tell you an amount to use but in my experience and the experience of many others, the pig needs considerably less priming sugar. Pressurizing the pig is also a pain in the ass if you use the handpump. Personally I have to step on the pump quite a bit to get the pouch to pop. Disassembly is also a chore. The instructions tell you to insert a curved, sharp metal object to pop the pouch but I haven't figured out what curved, sharp metal object really works best. I usually end up with a face full of the powder from the pressure pouch (it's safe).

The length of time the pig can stay filled may also be a problem. Since you only have a few weeks to drink the beer, if you decide you're tired of the beer half way through or you drink it slowly, there's no option to stop the clock. Unlike a keg, which can just be taken off the tap, the party pig will continue to lose carbonation over time. However, the CO2 cartridge systems suffer the same fate. So plan accordingly. Don't put a beer in the pig you won't want to drink 2.25 gallons of within the next few weeks.

A Unique Use for the Party Pig?

The biggest downside, in my opinion, for the party pig is really the cost factor. In writing this post I looked around at prices and saw the pressure pouches run as little as $3 to as much as $6, not counting shipping. ($3 was at Midwest but with $11 of shipping. $6 was at a local shop.) I've often wondered if the party pig can be used without the pouch, thus dramatically reducing cost. Specifically, I've been interested in whether it can be used like a cask or gravity keg. This would be ideal because I love cask ale (and gravity pours are good, too) and this would give me the option to cask condition a couple gallons of a session beer. It seems this question has floated around the internet for a while but hasn't received many answers. I finally found a few people who discussed some success using the party pig like a cask.

So the process is very simple. Just use 1/4 cup corn sugar for priming and fill as normal. Let it carbonate and condition for a few weeks, then serve. Descriptions were fairly consistent that it poured in a very cask-like manner and stayed fresh, even at warmer cask temperatures, for over a month. So I am definitely going to give this a try when I get around to brewing that ESB I've been planning for a while.

I think the important distinction here is to recognize it won't pour like a beer engine because there's no pump or sparkler (although I suspect you could design one). Instead, it's likely coming out more like a gravity pour with light carbonation and very little head. So if you try this out, make sure you have the proper expectations. (The only difference between a gravity keg and a typical cask set up is the lack of beer engine.)

If you have some spare fridge space in your kitchen fridge or your kegerator, this is a perfect opportunity to add a cask option to your home set up.You can often find party pigs on craigslist or ebay for little to no cost. It seems like people buy them, use the two pressure pouches included, then decide they don't want to buy more pressure pouches so it never gets used. So if you just want to go with a cask option, you can probably find them used online for $10-20 with very little use.


Do you have a party pig? Hate it? Love it? Have you tried using it without the pouch? If so, leave your comments below.

3 comments:

  1. I haven't used a Party Pig, but a fellow brewer has used one a couple of times. Another positive to the party pig is that it can be easier to fit in your main fridge due to it laying on its side. Not everyone can have a dedicated fridge to store their beer and the party pig provides a draft solution that fits this bill. I too am interested in the "cask ale" aspect of the part pig. I am sure an engine could be rigged up from one of those RV water pumps too?

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  2. I always think the pig is bigger than it really is but I shoved it in my fridge the other day and it was actually barely larger than a standard six pack. So yeah, it's definitely more convenient for those of us, myself included, who don't have a separate fridge for serving.

    I don't know a lot about those RV water pumps-turned-beer engines but I'm sure somebody more handy than me could rig it up. I'm not sure how it would activate the pour button on the snout but I'll keep an eye out for more information about that.

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  3. I've used party pigs for a few years now and love them, virtually no downside in my opinion.
    The part written in this article about only having a few weeks to drink the beer is not true. I asked the company when I bought them what the shelf life is once you screw on the tap after filling, they said up to 6 months.
    In practice, I will fill a pig, cap it, activate the pouch inside and let it sit 4-7 days in a cool dark place, then put it in my beer fridge. Often times I draw pints from a pig for 2 months with no issues what so ever, there's only about 20 pints to pig if your lucky so making that last 2 months often requires extenuating circumstance ;-)

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