West Coast-East Coast IPA Throwdown: Pliny the Elder vs. Heady Topper

By Robin Coxe

After a nearly two year hiatus, Kegomatic is back!   Amy and I have by no means stopped drinking beer, but life got the better of us for a while.   Our stints as volunteer bartenders at Venture Café reached their logical conclusion in early 2015.   In September 2015, I succumbed to the Sirens’ song of Silicon Valley and decamped from Boston to San Francisco to take on the role of Pointy-Haired Boss of the R&D team at Ettus Research, a National Instruments Company in Santa Clara, CA.

 During the interview process, my new employer latched on to the mention of this blog on my resumé and enticed me with a description of Friday afternoon Ettus Research Beer; the tale of this longstanding tradition shall be the subject of a future post.   I soon discovered that beer aficionados abound at National Instruments and broke the ice with many new colleagues in Santa Rosa and at NI’s corporate headquarters in Austin with spirited discussions about our favorite brews.   After 16 months of buildup, this beer banter came to a head (bad pun intended) last Wednesday 18 January 2017 in Conference Room C at NI Santa Rosa.

I dutifully sent out an Outlook calendar invite several days in advance entitled Very Important Meeting: Pliny vs. Heady Topper Blind Taste Test.   Needless to say, all recipients RSVPed in the affirmative almost immediately.   [I should note for the record that I did have several legitimately work-related reasons to visit NI Santa Rosa that day.  Trust me.]


Although I am not typically a lover of IPAs– I often compare the experience of drinking most of them to consuming Pine-Sol— I had been talking up The Alchemist’s signature brew, Heady Topper, an 8% ABV double IPA brewed in Stowe, VT, for quite some time.   I eventually took the exhortations of my high school English teachers to “show, don’t tell” to heart.   Because The Alchemist does not distribute outside of Vermont, these deprived Californians had never experienced it.

Even though Santa Rosa, the county seat of Sonoma County, is squarely in wine country, it also happens to be the home of Russian River Brewing Company, widely considered  to be one of the finest breweries in Northern California.   As it happens, Russian River also brews an 8% ABV double IPA with legendary status, Pliny the Elder, named after the Roman naturalist (23-79 AD) who discovered hops and perished in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.   As a recent transplant to the Bay Area, I had never had the opportunity to sample it, setting the stage for a head-to-head battle of epic proportions.

During my one previous visit to the Russian River brewpub to fête the release of a product aptly code-named Evil Twin, I focused my beer consumption on the world-class sour ales, Supplication and Consecration.   Allegedly, upon tasting one of these polarizing concoctions, one of the more unsubtle VPs visiting from Austin bellowed “this beer tastes like vomit!” within earshot of the entire establishment.   But I digress…

Heady Topper and Pliny the Elder have achieved cult followings in the craft beer community on their respective coasts, due in a large part to scarcity marketing.  The popular press has written strikingly similar articles about the great lengths that consumers obsessed with Pliny (Exhibit A) and Heady Topper (Exhibit B) go to acquire their limited allotments.   Anecdotal observation has revealed that a vast majority of the people who schlep to Stowe or Santa Rosa and stand in line for hours to buy these beers are white men in the 30-44 age demographic.   Craft beer makers take note: the Brewers Association has identified women and Hispanics as the principal growth markets for craft beer in America (and, not surprisingly, millennials).

Dan Wertz made good on the promise he had made the week prior while visiting my office and acquired the requisite Pliny the Elder from Russian River.  The difficulty of procuring Heady Topper from Vermont presented a more daunting logistical challenge.   I had a fortuitously scheduled a 48 hour visit to Boston the weekend before to visit family and friends, and I know People.  More specifically, Amy knows a Person, Mike Yeh, who not only owns a condo in Stowe down the street from The Alchemist, but also loves beer. [Mike and I randomly met up for a few drinks at the now-defunct, but allegedly re-opening Mikkeller Bar in Stockholm in the winter of 2014 when we both happened to be in Sweden on business.   Happily, there is also a Mikkeller outpost in San Francisco.  Yes, it’s in a dodgy neighborhood, but that has hardly prevented me from spending some quality time there.]   I was the lucky beneficiary of Mike and Amy’s inscrutably complicated beer trading scheme, ending up with six cans of Heady Topper, eight cans of Focal Banger, one of El Jefe, and a Double Down Gose IPA from Fort Collins, CO.  I’m saving that last one for the next time I order pad thai for delivery from my iPhone in SoMa instead of actually cooking.

The United Airlines website confirmed that passengers could transport unlimited quantities of alcoholic beverages in checked luggage on domestic flights.  I forked over $25 to The Worst Airline in America and hoped for the best.  My down parka and various articles of clothing served as padding for the precious cargo.   Zipping the bag shut proved somewhat difficult, but persistence paid off.    The transcontinental journey went off without a hitch for both human and beer.

In preparation for the tasting event, I assigned a homework assignment, Amy’s Kegomatic post from April 2015, IPA: Which is the Best Coast?  East Coast IPAs tend to have a stronger malt presence and make more use of European hops with spicier flavor profiles than their West Coast cousins, bombs of hoppiness cultivated in the Pacific Northwest.   Another older post of Amy’s full of IPA factoids also helps to set the stage.

Photo Credit: Justin Magers

At the appointed time, the two contestants prepared for battle and the eager tasters convened.   Justin Magers donned his Pliny the Elder t-shirt especially for the occasion.  Trang Nguyen, although not a beer drinker, found herself caught up in the significance of the moment and prepared to tabulate the results on the whiteboard.   Given that we had ten participants and only four cans of Heady Topper, we had to ignore the exhortation on the can to drink directly from it and had no choice but to ration out the beer in plastic cups.   Unfortunately, the office refrigerator was not up to the task of cooling the cans to the perfectly chilled temperature of the bottles of Pliny, handicapping the East Coast entrant from the get-go.   And the taste test did not end up being blind.  I lacked the time or opportunity to set it up properly, but never mind.

This crowd of beer connoisseurs took their responsibilities seriously and displayed their sophistication and discerning taste by evaluating the two samples properly.  A random guy on the Internet named Otto describes the process pretty decently: 1. See, 2. Swirl, 3. Smell, 4. Sip.   Ruan Lourens declared that Pliny “probably has the best nose of any beer out there,” an assessment that is difficult to dispute.

Then the double fisting started…

The beers were rated on a scale from 1-5. One is undrinkable. Five is the best beer in the universe. Behold the raw data:

Even an avowed non-hophead like myself could not deny the almost transcendent quality of both of these beers, warranting ratings ≥ 4.0.  These two specimens represent craft brewing of the highest order.  If I were rewriting the rules, I would insist that each individual must select a winner.  Go out on a limb and express a definitive opinion, I say!   

Now for the results.  Drumroll please…

Heady Topper [4.38 ± 0.39] edged out Pliny the Elder [4.27± 0.38] , but not by a statistically significant margin.

We made the tactical error of tasting The Alchemist Focal Banger last.  Although this beer garners a perfect score from Beer Advocate, all of us unanimously agreed that it was disgusting.  I offered to ship it back across America to Amy, who professes to like it and expressed dismay that we had spurned it.   Instead, she found a happy home for the remaining six cans with her friend Dan who lives in Noe Valley. I am holding the lone can of El Jefe black IPA hostage in my cubicle and intend to use it as bait to lure the Santa Rosa team south to Santa Clara.

Although the label on the can carrier chides drinkers not to be d-bags and to recycle, my sources report that Justin and Dan kept Heady Topper cans as souvenirs.

Inevitably, the conversation turned to the impending arrival of Pliny the Younger, named after the Elder’s nephew and adopted son who lived from 61-c.113 AD and Russian River’s seasonal triple IPA [ABV 10.25%].  Pliny the Younger will only be available from 6-17 February 2017.   We agreed that in spite of a significant fraction of us being summoned to Austin for management meetings during that time period, we will do our utmost to ensure that sufficient quantities of Pliny the Younger will be acquired and savored.

In the end, Heady Topper successfully infiltrated enemy territory.  Although the upstart from Vermont did not emerge with an incontrovertible victory, it proved itself to be an extremely worthy opponent.   Mission accomplished!

Beer and Elections

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On 4 November 2014, a.k.a. Midterm Election Day, I (Robin) made the grave error of driving to and from work. Stuck in a hellacious traffic jam on the way home, a snippet from the NPR evening economics program Marketplace by Kai Ryssdal caught my attention: We spend more on beer than elections. This story was inspired by post on the Wall Street Journal Washington Wire blog entitled Americans Spend 16 Times as Much on Beer as on 2014 Midterms.

The Bureau of Economic Analysis estimates the Americans shelled out $59.9B on beer in 2013. The Brewers Association has a more optimistic view of the total addressable beer market in the United States, declaring it to be $100B in 2013. [Correction: this figure includes exports.]  Craft beer accounted for 14.3% of sales and 7.8% market share (15M bbls of a total 196M bbls). A beer barrel (bbl) equals 31 gallons.

Clearly intended to put the influence of money in politics in perspective, the beer vs. election spending trope compares apples to oranges, so to speak. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, during the 2014 midterm election cycle, $1.64B was spent on behalf of Democratic candidates and $1.75B was spent on behalf of Republicans ($300M of which can be attributed to the Koch Brothers, who, by means of their oil refinery fortune, founded Americans for Prosperity, Official Bank of the Tea Party).

Consider a more relevant beer factoid, annual spending on beer marketing, which happened to total $1.3B in 2012. In fact, the beer industry spent only half as much plying its products upon beleaguered American voters as those PAC people. Most of that election money went towards…well…marketing one candidate or another, often by means of such below-the-belt tactics as robo-calling peoples’ cell phones at dinnertime and bombarding the airwaves with ads that give new meaning to lying with statistics and taking random quotations woefully out of context.

Correlation does not imply causation, of course. I must confess that this infographic about what kind of beer you drink allegedly says about your political inclinations gave me a chuckle. (It was clearly made before Yuengling returned to Massachusetts.) Let’s face it, comparisons between spending on beer and elections are kind of ridiculous. That being said, exercising one’s democratic right to vote in the United States of America frequently involves holding one’s nose while doing so, selecting the lesser of two evils, and then going home and drinking lots of beer, perhaps in the course of playing an Election Drinking Game.

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A British Beer Odyssey

By Robin Coxe

In which Robin, at long last, returns from beer blogging hibernation…

My engineering design team, with members based in Ireland, England, Spain, Poland, and the US, spends an inordinate amount of time huddled around Polycom Batphones at our various work sites on conference calls. Fortunately, our corporate overlords appreciate the benefits of periodic face-to-face collaboration, which tends to result in weeklong bursts of exceptional productivity about once per quarter, fueled in part by the beers of the region we happen to be visiting. I spent the first week of June at the company office in Bath, a city of 90,000 residents situated in Somerset in the southwest of England, approximately 100 miles west of London.

Our local hosts had a quintessentially British beer-themed adventure in store for us after our first full day at the office, Tuesday 3 June 2014. Shortly after lunch, once Queenie the tea cosy had been refilled with a fresh pot, Mark began poring over the early evening train schedule from Bath Spa to Freshford, returning about 4 hours later from Bradford-on-Avon. After the most economical type of tickets had been settled upon (First Great Western offers substantial group discounts, as it happens), we were instructed to convene at 18:30 in front the railroad station and to wear sensible shoes.

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At the appointed time, we crammed into the train along with droves of commuters for the epic 9 minute journey to Freshford. After disembarking, we ascended Station Road, turned left, and headed down The Hill to our first destination, The Inn at Freshford, a 16th century building with original timber beams on the banks of the River Frome. Our group saw no signs of the sinkhole that was “big enough to swallow a double decker bus” that had mysteriously appeared next to the place in early April.

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The Casque Marque seal mounted to the left of the doorway caught my attention. I later learned through the magic of the Internet that this organization accredits pubs in the UK and Ireland serving cask ale, also referred to as real ale, what Americans tend to associate with stereotypically warm (50-55 degrees F) British beer. The accreditation process involves unannounced quality inspections in which the temperature, taste, aroma, and appearance of the ale is assessed. Of course, there is a smartphone app called “Cask Finder” that enables the discerning cask ale drinker to identify the nearest Casque Marque certified pub. Cask beer has been enjoying a resurgence in recent years, accounting for about 15% of beer sales in the UK. Woman are the fastest growing segment of cask ale drinkers, a largely untapped (pun intended) market of discerning beer consumers, if I do say so myself.

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Upon entering The Inn, we were immediately greeted by the resident pub dog, a large, friendly beast. Health regulations in most states prohibit non-service animals inside any establishment serving food, so a dog in a bar is a rare sight indeed in the US. All of the taps featured beers from Box Steam Brewery.

Founded in 2004 in the nearby village of Holt, Box Steam brews their beers by hand in steam-heated copper vessels using floor-malted Maris Otter barley from Warminster Maltings, the oldest supplier of malt in the Britain. Built in 1855, operated by Guinness from 1950-1994, and privately owned since, Warminster Maltings caters to the increasing number of British microbrewers such as Box Steam who take advantage of the Progressive Beer Duty adopted in the UK in 2002, whereby smaller breweries pay less tax on their wares than larger producers. This tax incentive differs from the flat discount on each barrel enjoyed by microbreweries in the USA.

Box Steam’s first brewery was located near the Box Tunnel, a railway tunnel that bores through the eponyomous hill between Bath and Chippenham designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the chief engineer of the Great Western Railway. The completion of the Box Tunnel in 1841 capped off the final link in the rail line connecting London with the southwest of England and Wales. The brewers at Box Steam have drawn inspiration from the legacy of Brunel and have embraced the train theme wholeheartedly.

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For the first pint of the evening, I opted for the Tunnel Vision amber bitter, an easy drinking, cask-conditioned 4.2% ABV amber ale with traces of caramel and a slight hint of hops at the finish. English Bitter, unlike the West Coast hop-bomb IPAs, which, for whatever reason, are taking America by storm, does not taste particularly bitter. Nor should an English Bitter Ale be confused with bitters, the aromatic, botanical alcoholic concoction consumed after gluttonous meals as a digestif or used for flavoring cocktails.

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After quaffing down our beverages in the outdoor beer garden, newly reconstructed over the aforementioned sinkhole, we set out on foot, over the river, through the woods, past some sheep, and alongside the Kennet and Avon Canal towards our next destination. This leg of our route covered the northern half of the so called Two Valleys Walk, documented in impressive detail here.

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After a lovely 20 minute stroll through the Wiltshire countryside, we arrived in the hamlet of Avoncliff, the next stop along the Great Western Railway line. We traversed and subsequently walked underneath a bridge at the point where the canal, routed through an aqueduct, crosses the River Avon. We approached our second stop, the Cross Guns Free House, another almost ridiculously scenic 16th century relic complete with terraced garden and a vintage ice cream truck parked out front. Walking a mile seemed to accelerate the rate at which Pint #1 percolated from mouth to bladder, so before placing my order, I made a beeline for the loo located in an outbuilding.

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Cross Guns also featured the brews of Box Steam on draught. The hopheads in our midst opted for the Derail Ale, an IPA that pays homage to Brunel’s flawed early steam locomotive designs unaptly named “Thunderer” and “Hurricane.” Another hoppy concoction, the Piston Broke golden ale, immortalizes another of Brunel’s engineering missteps, the “atmospheric” railway design for the South Devon Railway that relied on forced air pressure from a series of stationary air pumps to propel trains on the GWR extension between Exeter and Plymouth. Pistons attached to the trains ran through a continuous vacuum pipe laid down the center of the tracks.

The system required leather flaps to form vacuum seals in the pistons that failed repeatedly. The vacuum sucked out the natural oils from the leather, making it vulnerable to water and cold. Tallow applied to re-lubricate the leather proved irresistable to rodents. The atmospheric railway was shut down in 1848 after operating for less than a year, at which point the South Devon Railway converted back to conventional steam locomotives. Although “Brunel’s atmospheric caper” did not end well, the technology has withstood the test of time—an atmospheric airport train opened in Brazil just last year in advance of the World Cup.

The “Free House” in the name would suggest that the Cross Guns would not be encumbered by the so-called UK “beer tie”, an arrangement whereby a pub is obligated to buy its beer from a particular brewery or pub conglomerate. However, the Box Steam Brewery lists both The Inn at Freshford and The Cross Guns at Avoncliff in the “Our Pubs” section of their website, so the exact financial relationship between the brewery and the two pubs is unclear. The beer tie manifests itself in several different forms. In some instances, the brewery owns the pub outright and either rents it out to an operator/manager via a tenancy agreement or directly employs the publican. In an alternative arrangement, a brewery may extend a mortgage to the pub owner with an exclusivity clause. The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) has led lobbying efforts in recent years to reform and regulate the beer tie, citing price gouging and other anti-competitive practices.

Beer tie arrangements are not allowed in the US, as regulatory agencies have frowned upon vertical integration in the alcoholic beverage industry since the conclusion of Prohibition in 1933. Instead, all US states except Washington have instituted a variant of the three-tier distribution system (producers, distributors, and retailers), a subject of intense debate in American craft beer circles. [Coming soon on Kegomatic.com: a discussion of proposed modifications to regulations governing the three-tier system in Massachusetts.]

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Anyway, back to the Box Steam beer itself… Intent on sampling as much English Bitter as possible, I chose the more optimistically named Chuffin’ Ale, a 4.0% ABV brown best bitter that made its debut in 2010 on the 175th Anniversary of the Great Western Railway. The Chuffin’ Ale, brewed with English Fuggles hops and Maris Otter and Crystal malts with added wheat, has been described by beer snobs as having “hints of crème brûlée,” a characterization that I did not dispute as I leisurely sipped it down on at a picnic table by the river.

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Our dinner reservation awaited, so we eventually brought ourselves to press onward towards Bradford-on-Avon. It did not escape my notice that as we strolled along the canal for the final mile of our journey, the guys nipped off one by one into the woods to relieve themselves.

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By the time we arrived at our destination, I was cursing the anatomical disadvantages of being female. Fortunately, the Three Gables in Bradford-on-Avon had spotlessly clean toilets. I must confess to having no recollection whatsoever of what I ate (scallops were perhaps involved), although I do remember thinking that the establishment went a long way towards resurrecting the unfortunate reputation of British cuisine and customer service. This most memorable evening was punctuated by the return train that conveyed us back to Bath arriving exactly on schedule.

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Grateful Harvest: A New England Beer Tradition

By Robin Coxe

Had I gotten my act together earlier, I would have written this post prior to Thanksgiving, but better late than never…

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Since its inception in 2010, Grateful Harvest, a cranberry amber ale, has overtaken UFO Hefeweizen as my favorite beer from Boston’s own Harpoon Brewery. The fact that my family plays a small part in the Grateful Harvest story reinforces this opinion. Local cranberry grower A.D. Makepeace Company of Wareham, MA donates the cranberries for each batch.

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As it happens, I was adopted by WASPs at the tender age of 4 months, which explains why my name is Robin Coxe and not Young-Mee Park. My family has been in Massachusetts since the dawn of time (well, 1630 or so). My paternal grandmother’s maiden name is Makepeace, a name subsequently bestowed on my father and brother as a middle name. My great uncle Russell was the CEO of A.D. Makepeace Company, the family cranberry business, from 1946-1983. A.D. Makepeace is the largest landowner in Eastern Massachusetts and is still the world’s largest cranberry grower in spite of fierce competition in recent years from cranberry concerns in Canada and Wisconsin. My brother currently serves on the Board of Directors. In addition to funny ads featuring cranberry farmers, the Ocean Spray cranberry cooperative has a conference room named in honor of Abel Makepeace, Russell’s grandfather, in its corporate headquarters in Lakeville, MA. I drank countless gallons of cranberry juice growing up and actively disliked orange juice until I was well into my 20s.

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In the current age of wacky diet fads, cranberries get a bad rap for not being edible by humans without added sugar. Nevertheless, they happen to be rich in antioxidants and are thought to stave off heart disease. The cranberry was the key component of pemmican, referred to in a recent National Geographic piece as “the original energy bar, 400 years before anyone knew what a superfood was.” A staple of the Native Americans that populated New England prior to the arrival of the Pilgrims in the early 17th century, the cranberry has retained a prominent place on the Thanksgiving table, primarily in the form of a gelatinous sauce. To quote Martha Stewart: “Thanksgiving dinner would not be complete without the customary cranberry.” Harpoon Brewery agrees: “We brew Grateful Harvest because we love Thanksgiving here in New England and thought a cranberry ale would be a perfect beer for the occasion.”

This seasonal beer is available from mid-October through December. For every six-pack of Grateful Harvest sold, Harpoon donates $1 to the local food bank in the area in which the beer was purchased through the Harpoon Helps program, which has a most excellent motto: To Brew and To Serve. Unlike its overwrought watermelon and pumpkin-flavored cousins that rear their ugly heads earlier in the year, Grateful Harvest is a smooth, malty concoction with hints of fruitiness balanced nicely by the signature cranberry tartness and bitter notes from the hops. At 5.9% ABV and 30 IBUs, Grateful Harvest has garnered accolades for its drinkability and refreshing character. Many people to whom I’ve served Grateful Harvest comment that they were struck by the subtlety of the flavor profile; if they hadn’t seen the label or been told the backstory, they wouldn’t necessarily have guessed that it contained the essence of puréed cranberries.

So, if you live in New England, hurry down to your local packie and pick up a six-pack of Harpoon Grateful Harvest before it disappears from the shelves until next Thanksgiving.

Chronicles of an Accidental Bartender

By Robin Coxe

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The Backstory

On Thursday evenings, I emerge from the electrical engineering nerd cave in which I spend most of my waking hours and moonlight as a volunteer bartender. Yes, such a thing actually exists. I dispense alcoholic beverages to those with an entrepreneurial bent gratis out of the goodness in my heart. Inspired by the eponymous 2002 book by Teresa Esser, the Venture Café is a networking event featuring free craft beer and wine for the Boston-area startup community that takes place every Thursday from 3-8 pm sponsored by Cambridge Innovation Center in Kendall Square, home to several hundred early-stage tech companies. The brainchild of Tim Rowe, CEO of CIC, and Carrie Stalder, a MIT Sloan graduate and former aerospace engineer, the Venture Café began operations in 2010.

I first heard about the Venture Café through the startup grapevine soon after moving back to Boston from Los Angeles. Although hobnobbing is hardly my strong suit, I somehow managed to secure several consulting contracts, one of which eventually morphed into my current job with a CIC client company, as a consequence of fortuitous conversations with people that I met at the Café. After I had gotten the lay of the land and established myself in the community, I felt impelled to do some small part to ensure that others could continue to benefit from the unique environment of Venture Café.

The first test of worthiness for all new Venture Café volunteers is to take some greeter shifts. A visitor to the Café enters his or her email address and a password or authenticates with a CIC keycard on a laptop at a kiosk set up in the hallway next to the 5th floor elevator bay. The sign-in app enables attendees to connect their LinkedIn profiles to their Venture Café accounts and to log on to the website and view the other guests at the Café on any given week. Greeters shepherd people through the sign-in process, check IDs and stamp hands of those of legal drinking age, explain the Venture Café concept to newbies, and give rundowns on the weekly schedule of the events. If the process proceeds according to plan, a label printer disgorges nametags with a number in parentheses indicating the number of times individuals have attended the Café.

When I informed my father that I was embarking on this endeavor, his response was, “I’m glad to hear it. That means that you’ll actually have to talk to people.” Basking in the warm glow of parental support, I did my time as a greeter for several months. Suffice it to say that it was a character-building experience and there is a damn good reason that I am not a hostess at a chain restaurant. At this point, I may well be the world expert at debugging the label printers. Ankle surgery necessitated a several month hiatus from volunteering at Venture Café in the winter and spring of 2012.

One day while I was still wearing The Boot on my left foot and clomping around on crutches with a thermos of Peet’s French roast strapped to my back, I learned that CIC was offering ServeSafe training for Café volunteers interested in becoming qualified as bartenders. On a whim, I signed up. Our instructor, a jocular off-duty cop from Quincy, ensured that we all passed the multiple-choice test with flying colors after watching unintentionally comedic video vignettes on one’s responsibilities and potential liabilities as a bartender. I’m convinced that the training videos featured the same C-list actors as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act webinar that the Legal Department made me watch exhorting me not to bribe foreign officials. The ServeSafe takeaway: bartenders can be held personally liable for mayhem wrought by patrons we have over-served. Consequently, we have the right to refuse service at our discretion, but drunk people can be volatile, so having large men around and 911 on speed dial has the potential to make our lives easier.

Several weeks later, certification in hand, I took the plunge and signed up for a bar shift. Amy, Greg, and Shahin showed me the ropes—how to avoid pouring a cup of foam, how to change an empty keg, how to strategically position kegs and white wine in the kegerator, etc. I soon discovered that I had joined what is undoubtedly the most overeducated bartending team in Greater Boston, or possibly the entire universe. Between the four of us, we have 3 Ph.D.s in science and engineering, a J.D., and a masters degree in neuroscience.

In spite of, or perhaps because of 3 degrees in physics, when I first stepped behind the bar, I knew next to nothing about beer other than I liked most of it. Nuggets of wisdom imparted by Venture Café Bar Manager and beer geek extraordinaire Amy, some strategic book purchases on Amazon, a subscription to Beer Advocate, and liberal sampling of the beer on offer soon rectified that situation. However, given that I have a vast preference for malt and hops over fermented grape juice, my general ignorance of wine persists. I have only the vaguest notion of how (or if) wankerish wine-speak translates into flavor sensations. I am of the general opinion that the wine we serve tastes like swill, which may or may not actually be true. I discovered at the Wine Expo earlier this year that I have a penchant for expensive wine. Budgetary constraints dictate that all of the wine at Venture Café must cost less than $10/bottle, which could explain a lot. When people ask me for wine recommendations, my magic formula involves picking randomly and endorsing emphatically. No one has ever complained.

Although hardly surprising in hindsight, the most revelatory aspect of this volunteer bartending gig has been the often snark-inducing and occasionally downright bizarre observations of human behavior under the influence of moderate amounts of alcohol.

Uncommon Courtesy

In my experience, rudeness to people in service professions tends to indicate a misplaced sense of entitlement and an excessive self-regard. But before stepping behind the bar at Venture Café, I had only infrequently been on the receiving end of blatant impoliteness of this nature. Although we have never taken an exact count, I estimate that less than 40% of people who come up to the bar for a beverage bother to say “please” and/or “thank you.” When someone fails Politeness 101, the first thought that pops into my head is: “Who are your parents?” followed by flashbacks to the late 1970’s of my mother’s withering stares when my brother and I failed to mind our manners.

To make a sweeping, yet accurate generalization, women are, on average, significantly more polite than men. (On a typical Thursday, approximately 70-80% of the visitors are male.) The rudest ones tend to be either between the ages of 21 and 28 or over 50. Every week, at least five of the most egregious offenders cannot even bring themselves to ask for a specific beer. They grunt incomprehensibly and point, often ambiguously, at one of the taps. It would be much more entertaining for yours truly if they could at least come out with: “Me caveman. Me want beer! Ooga wooga!” One day, after an unusually long string of verbally challenged patrons, I exclaimed, exasperated: “Use your words!”

Sometimes when the Café gets very crowded (around 6 pm on sunny days when venture capitalists are holding office hours or some organization is sponsoring food), the frenzied din of conversation makes it difficult to hear people when they actually do speak up and order a drink. I can provide one piece of helpful advice to Café patrons in such a situation: repeating the name of the wine you would like in a bad French accent at increasingly high volume will not help your cause.

The under-30 set seems to favor the direct, yet boorish method of ordering beer: “Give me a Slumbrew IPA.” Sometimes, I am tempted to answer: “No.” I restrain myself, but usually cannot fully suppress an incredulous look as I hand over the beer. The percentage of the recipients who say thank you is in the single digits after demanding a beer in this manner.

Some of our more recalcitrant visitors have been brainwashed by the marketing machines of the likes of Miller-Coors and Anheuser-Bush InBev into believing that mass-produced light lagers constitute good beer. One day about 3 months ago, a gentleman in his mid-50s walked up to the bar and declared: “None of the beer you serve satisfies me.” As it happened, it was his lucky day. A Dutch economic development organization had sponsored a portion of the beer that day. “I’m sorry to hear that. Here, have a Heine,” I said, working very hard to keep my eyebrows from spontaneously raising themselves. He beamed and responded: “That’s more like it!” Whatever floats your boat, I suppose.

At least twice a day, a younger guy asks for a porter or a stout without knowing that these dark brews tend to be full-bodied and have strong flavor profiles. He skulks back to the bar several minutes later with a disgusted look on his face, deposits his almost-full Vegware cup on the bar, and says something to the effect of: “This beer is undrinkable. Take it back and give me something else.” To which I reply, “Here, have our lightest beer… You’re welcome!”

Pro Tip: if you want a bartender to like you, don’t be a jackass.

Operation KEG Part 6: It’s Alive!

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The BeagleBeer Flying Squirrel Controller, first introduced in Operation KEG Part 3: Bespoke Kegbot, required enough rework that I decided to re-spin the printed circuit board (PCB). I corrected the design errors uncovered during the debugging process in the schematic, remade the PCB layout and manufacturing files, and dispatched the design files (available on Github) to Sunstone Circuits. Two weeks later, on Wednesday 24 April, I arrived home to find a small UPS package containing two BeagleBeer Version 2 PCBs on my doorstep. I handed over a bare PCB and the parts kit to my co-worker Sebastian Patulea, who graciously volunteered his time after hours to assemble it in exchange for lots of free beer. He had finished soldering on the components by Friday evening.

A business trip to Seattle prevented the much-anticipated Smoke Test from taking place immediately. (You may recall that it failed spectacularly the first time around.) My loyal lab assistant waited impatiently as I stumbled around in a post-redeye catatonic stupor on the evening of Wednesday 1 May. I apologetically informed Tux that we would not be able to test with beer during Venture Café the next day, but if he could just sit tight for one more week, his fervent wish would most likely be granted. In order to humor him, I connected the BeagleBeer Version 2 to the BeagleBone computer and, after pouring myself a shot of rye whiskey, turned on the power.

At first, Tux couldn’t bear to look. But it soon became clear that all of the fixes outlined in Operation KEG Part 5: Dum Spero Spiro! just worked. The BeagleBone boots with the BeagleBeer board attached now that none of the system boot I/O lines are being driven at power-up. Both temperature sensors, one on the Coaster board and a second on the BeagleBeer controller itself, happily reported temperatures when I queried the 1-wire slave devices from the command line. No dramatic blue smoke or melting plastic to speak of. Tux rejoiced. I drank more whiskey.

In order to perform a meaningful alpha test with beer during Venture Café, we needed to shift gears and focus our attention on the readout software. The Arduino in the Kegbot system controls the Kegboard with library of C programs. Blocks of Arduino code are referred to as sketches, all of which include the functions setup(), used for initialization, and loop(), the main execution loop. Because the BeagleBone has a more powerful processor and runs a full-blown Linux operating system, programs targeted to it have fewer restrictions. Nevertheless, maintaining the basic structure of an Arduino sketch has numerous advantages when interfacing to low-level hardware.

We had several reasonable choices of programming languages: 1) write a shell script to interact with Linux device drivers directly from the command line, 2) write a C or C++ program, 3) use the Cloud9 IDE included with the BeagleBone Angstrom Linux distribution to run bonescript, described on the BeagleBoard website as “a node.js-based language specifically optimized for the Beagle family and featuring familiar Arduino function calls, exported to the browser”, and 4) use PyBBIO, a Python library for hardware I/O support for BeagleBone. Although intrigued by the Node.js-based bonescript approach, I chose PyBBIO, as it seemed like a perfect excuse to finally learn Python.

The Python program for the first field test has 3 primary functions:
1. Configure the Flow Sensor A data line as a GPIO input and as a falling edge interrupt

2. Define the behavior of the flow sensor interrupt

3. Read out the 2 temperature sensors and print the temperature in both Celsius and Fahrenheit to the console once per minute

In order to avoid re-inventing the wheel, I took to Google in search of Python code for reading out the DS18B20 temperature sensors. A code sample from the Adafruit blog targeted to Raspberry Pi immediately presented itself. I modified the code slightly to accommodate multiple temperature sensors by adding the argument nsens to the readout functions.

When beer flows through the Swissflow SF800 flowmeter, the meter emits approximately 5600 pulses per liter of liquid traversing the sensor. A 9 oz. Vegware cup = 266.2 ml = 1490 counts. A 250 ml serving of beer at Venture Café should register ~1400 flow sensor pulses. The interrupt service routine (ISR) fires every time the Flow Sensor A data line transitions from high (3.3V) to low (0 V). I included two print statements in the ISR to display the raw number of flowmeter ticks as well as the number of 250 mL servings dispensed to the console. To inspect the code in its “I’ve never programmed anything whatsoever in Python before this week” splendor, click here.

flow_test_setup

I busted out the quick and dirty flow testing setup again to ensure that this scheme behaved as expected. Lo and behold, it did! [I set a “serving” to be 100 counts to avoid pouring excessive amounts of water through the sensor.] The numbers in parentheses at the top of the display are the temperature readouts in the format (degrees Celsius, degrees Fahrenheit). The logic analyzer screen capture clearly shows the flow sensor pulse train.

beaglebeer_v2_flowsensor

For the maiden beer test at the Café, both the BeagleBone and a laptop must be connected to the same LAN, which will require a wireless bridge to share a CIC WiFi link. I will log in to the
BeagleBone over an SSH connection from the laptop and the results will print out to an old-school terminal console. Please don’t be alarmed if you see Tux keeping watch over the hardware setup. In
addition to putting the system through the paces in a realistic environment, the Beer Experiment will also serve to calibrate the flow sensor. I’ll be able to change the number of counts per serving
on the fly as I dispense beer.

beaglebeer_v2_flowsensor_readout

Provided the test succeeds, we can forge ahead with end-to-end Kegbot integration:

• Add a UART Packetizer function to send the temperature and flow sensor data to an Android tablet running the Kegbot app over a serial link (USB cable). The Android app will then sync to the Venture Café Kegbot server, a web app that resides in the Amazon cloud, over WiFi. The web server includes a backend database that will enable us to perform a wide array of beer consumption analytics.

• Add code to control the buzzer on the BeagleBeer controller so it can sing little songs on command to Café visitors.

• Add a “the keg is about to kick” warning for the bartenders to the Kegbot app.

• Add support for the RFID card reader for drinker authentication.

• Add support for all four taps of the kegerator.

I’ll have enough material to ensure that the Operation KEG series will live on for the forseeable future. Good times!

Operation KEG Part 5: Dum spero spiro!

fet_level_shift

On Friday 5 April 2013 at 12:20 am, Tux the Polyester Penguin triumphantly declared: “Dum spero spiro!” after observing a string of valid temperature readings printed out in the debug console. Oddly, this Latin proclamation commonly attributed to Cicero happens to be the motto of the State of South Carolina. Although it translates literally to “while I breathe, I hope,” it makes more frequent appearances in modern English as “while there’s life, there’s hope.” As recounted in gory detail in Operation KEG Part 4: Houston, we have a problem, the BeagleBeer controller board, intended to play a pivotal role in the pimping of the Venture Café kegerator, had some design flaws. Tux and I burned the midnight oil in order to resurrect the temperature sensors, verify the proper operation of the beer flow sensors, and suss out the reason why the BeagleBone embedded computer fails to boot with the BeagleBeer board attached.

temp_sensors_3p3_readout

The Adafruit bi-directional level shifter, introduced at the end of the previous post, a tiny breakout board built from Fairchild Semiconductor BSS138 N-channel MOSFETs with 10K ohm pull-up resistors, enabled us to measure temperature on both the BeagleBeer and Coaster boards using the +3.3V BeagleBone one-wire interface.

ID757_MED

I discerned why this MOSFET approach succeeds in interfacing the +3.3V BeagleBone I/O line to the +5V one-wire data line on the temperature sensors without negative consequences by reading an application note from Philips Semiconductors. Arcane technical details aside, this retrofit works like a charm. As shown in the schematic snapshot below, I adopted a MOSFET level translation scheme for the one-wire sensors in BeagleBeer Version 2. All of the temperature sensors are connected in series to ONEWIRE_A. Although currently unused, the BeagleBeer also supports a second one-wire bus, ONEWIRE_B.

one_wire_lt

After learning of our success, Amy commented: “Wow, I don’t see any smoke or flames, or even any charring on Tux! Amazing.” Indeed.

Not ones to rest on our laurels, we soon redirected our attention to the other key component controlled by the BeagleBeer, the flow sensors that measure dispensed beer volume. The Swissflow SF800 flow sensors have a 3-wire readout (+5-24 VDC power, ground, and data output line that requires a 2.2K ohm pullup resistor):

swissflow_setup

In the final configuration, the BeagleBone will count pulses on the flow sensor data line in order to compute volume, but our initial experiment involved simply verifying that the sensor in fact measured fluid flow. I hooked up the Coaster to the BeagleBone merely as a convenient platform for power and ground connections. I “borrowed” an old-school 2K ohm resistor from the lab at Analog Devices Lyric Labs that has long leads. The Cat5E Ethernet cable with the connector hacked off at one end again came in handy to interface the Kegbot Coaster and associated flow sensor to the BeagleBone and the Salae Logic 16 USB logic analyzer (the black box in the photo and a Christmas present from my brother). We made use of only one of the 16 available logic analyzer test lines to monitor to the output of the flow sensor. Tux inspects the data acquisition configuration:

pullup_flow_sensor_to_3p3Vold_school_resistor

A stunning statement of the obvious– in order to measure fluid flow, we needed a mechanism to pour fluid through the flow sensor. Tapping into my inner MacGyver, I assembled a test setup using a measuring cup, water, duct tape, a Venture Café pint glass, and the flow sensor connected to a Kegbot Coaster board:

flow_test_setup

We conducted two experiments: 1) power the flow sensor at +5V and pull up the readout line to +5V, the manufacturer’s recommended configuration and 2) power the sensor at +5V and pull up the readout line to +3.3V, a BeagleBone-safe voltage level. [My homebrewing co-worker Sebastian Patulea suggested this simple, elegant readout scheme.]

After powering up the BeagleBone, it was time for the moment of truth…

flow_testing

Experiment #1 [+5V Logic Analyzer Output of Flow Sensor]:

flow_sensor_output_5V

Experiment #2 [+3.3V Logic Analyzer Output of Flow Sensor]:

flow_sensor_output_3p3V

Success! We proved that we can power the SF800 Flow Sensor at +5VDC and pull-up the flow sensor output with a 2.2K ohm resistor to either +5VDC or +3.3VDC. The +3.3V configuration obviates the need for more complicated level shifting schemes, a change that I immediately propagated to the BeagleBeer Version 2 schematic:

flow_sensor_pullup

Before sending out the BeagleBeer Version 2 printed circuit board design for fabrication, we had to resolve one outstanding glitch. As mentioned in Operation Keg Part 4, the BeagleBone computer fails to boot when mated with a BeagleBeer board. Consequently, I had to power on the BeagleBone and then hot-plug the BeagleBeer. Although I repeated this step several times without incident, it is not a workable solution in the long term. As it turns out, had I RTFM (Read the F***ing Manual) at the outset, this problem could have been prevented. Behold page 72:

bb_boot_config

Leaving these 16 system boot I/O lines unconnected at power up should resolve the problem. In the BeagleBeer Version 1 schematic, pin UART5_RXD is mysteriously connected to ground, and pins GPIO2_11 and GPIO2_13 are connected to flow sensor status LEDs. In Revision 2, I assigned these signals to other pins on the BeagleBone header connectors.

I’ve completed the modifications to the schematic and layout (available on Github) and am on the verge of placing the order for BeagleBeer Controller Version 2 printed circuit boards from Sunstone Circuits. Sebastian has kindly offered to assemble the new BeagleBeer, sparing it the indignity of my mediocre soldering skills and saving the Venture Café Foundation several hundred dollars in outsourced manufacturing costs. Next, I intend to write some code for the BeagleBone to count pulses output by the sensor using GPIO interrupts. One liter of beer corresponds to 5600 pulses. A packetizer function will bundle these pulse per unit time readings with temperature measurements and periodically send the data to the Kegbot Android app over a UART to USB interface. Tux has decreed that we will perform our first live test with beer at Venture Café on or before Thursday 2 May 2013. Watch this space for updates!

Operation KEG Part 4: Houston, we have a problem

Debugging electronics requires resilience in the face of calamity. But unlike brain surgery, the consequences of errors are not paralysis or death, merely time, money, and small emissions of noxious fumes from melting solder and burning plastic. Upon recognition of a mistake that seems patently obvious in the harsh light of 20/20 hindsight, the designer finds herself holding her head in her hands, shaking her fist, and uttering strings of obscenities (abbreviated henceforth as “doh!”). In this post, I shall attempt to recast abject failure as an educational experience (not to mention a source of amusement for the beer blog reading public).

Before launching into a tragic tale of woe, let’s rewind. During the blizzard on Friday 8 March, I made the questionable decision to drive up to Proxy Manufacturing in Methuen to retrieve the assembled Kegboat Coaster and the BeagleBeer controller boards, first introduced in Operation KEG Part 3. Eager to accelerate the pace of kegerator innovation, I discovered in short order that the Kegbot Coaster boards work perfectly. Each Coaster board has a Maxim DS18B20 one-wire temperature sensor, a green LED, an RJ-45 connector to transfer power and data to the BeagleBeer interface controller, and 3 rows of header connectors. In addition to the on-board temperature sensor attached to One-Wire A, the Coaster serves as a connection point for 2 flow sensors, two miscellaneous GPIO lines, and a second one-wire device. (The four tap kegerator at Venture Café will require two Coaster boards.) For initial tests, I hacked off the connector on one end of a Cat5E Ethernet cable in order to expose the +5V, ground, Flow Sensor A, and One-Wire A wires.

kegbot_coaster_test

The rows of black header connectors along the long edges of the BeagleBone single-board computer include +5 and +3.3 V DC power rails, ground connections, and input/output interfaces to the ARM Cortex-A8 microprocessor. After connecting the ground and power lines of the Cat5E cable to BeagleBone connector P9 pins 1 and 3, respectively, the BeagleBone sources +3.3 VDC power to the Coaster. The one-wire temperature sensor was plugged into connector P8 pin 3 (GPIO1_6), designated ONE_WIRE_A on the BeagleBeer schematic.

beaglebone_headers

The BeagleBone ships with the Angstrom Distribution of Linux pre-installed. Although the BeagleBone has a myriad of on-board peripherals, it only sports 66 input/output pins. Pin functions can be assigned by software at run time. The supported configurations are documented in exhaustive detail in the BeagleBone Reference manual. A one-wire Linux driver, w1-gpio, is associated with connector P8 pin 6 (GPIO1_3) at power-up. Convincing the BeagleBone to treat P8 pin 3 as a one-wire I/O line required a Linux kernel patch, a diversion that I will not discuss in detail except to say that it was thoroughly dorktastic. After rebuilding the patched kernel and connecting the one-wire line from the Coaster to P8 pin 3, the green LED illuminated (hallelujah!). Eventually, a C, Python, or Javascript program will periodically poll the sensor and output a temperature. However, reading the temperature directly from the w1-gpio driver also did the trick (ignore the bizarre command line syntax):

temp_sensor

The DS18B20 temperature sensor can operate at either +3.3 or +5V. In the original Kegbot project, the Coaster board was designed for +5V, the minimum operating voltage for the Swissflow SF800 flow sensors. Furthermore, the Arduino microcontroller used in most Kegbots has +5V-compliant I/O lines. Unfortunately, applying +5V to a BeagleBone +3.3V input pin will fry the board. As we shall see, this seemingly minor detail complicates things quite a bit.

Satisfied with the Coasters, I plugged the BeagleBeer board into the BeagleBone and flipped on a +5V lab supply powering the two boards. Suffice it to say that things did not go according to plan.
The board failed the dreaded Smoke Test. As soon as I turned on the power, I smelled something burning. I immediately switched off the power supply and inspected the board, only to discover that the EEPROM had heated up so much that it had melted all of the solder joints and detached itself from the BeagleBeer printed circuit board. Doh!

The EEPROM stores the name and ID code of the BeagleBeer board in non-volatile memory (values persist in the absence of power) and can be programmed and read back by the BeagleBone. For all practical purposes, removing the EEPROM should not affect the other functions of the BeagleBeer board. The cause of this unfortunate occurrence did not take long to track down—reversed power and ground pins on the schematic symbol.

oops
Temporary fix: remove the EEPROM.

Power on Take 2! No more smoke, thank the gods in these unforgiving times. After a quick temperature check of all of the major components on the board with the tip of my index finger, I measured the voltages on all of the power rails on the BeagleBeer board with a multimeter. The +3.3V connections passed with flying colors. The VDD_5V and SYS_5V lines, connected to BeagleBone connector P9 pins 5, 6, 7, and 8, registered 5.0 V as expected. But all of the +5V lines on the rest of the board appeared to be at 0 V. Doh!

I verified that the 5V power lines and GND were, in fact, not shorted together using the handy continuity test mode on the multimeter. The instrument emits a loud beeping noise when the two test probes are connected.

contuinity-test-multimeter

After poring through the BeagleBeer circuit schematic, I failed to identify any obvious knuckleheaded mistakes. A quick glance at the board layout in the Eagle CAD tool, however, revealed the awful truth– nets called 5V (the BeagleBone power pins) and 5.0V (the 5V power rails everywhere else) were, tragically, not connected to each other. Out came the soldering iron for a minor surgical procedure that involved connecting two orange wires from the BeagleBone 5V power pin to the 5.0V nets. I added another GND connection between the two BeagleBone connectors for good measure. Tux the Polyester Penguin inspects the result:

soldering_irontux_beaglebeer_1

Power woes behind us, Tux and I decided to attempt to read out the temperature sensor on the Coaster through the BeagleBeer controller. Using a Cat5E cable with both ends intact, I plugged the Coaster in to the RJ-45 receptacle on the BeagleBeer. For some as yet to be determined reason, the BeagleBone does not boot when powered on with the BeagleBeer board connected. So, after Linux had booted, the BeagleBeer board was hot-swapped onto the BeagleBone, which, admittedly, was probably not most sensible thing to do.

The power LED on the BeagleBeer illuminated and all seemed well until I attempted to read out the temperature sensor. Linux acted as if no one-wire slave devices were present. I double-checked that the sensor worked standalone. After some head scratching and consultation of data sheets, I zeroed in on the Texas Instruments TXB0108 level translator chips. Because the BeagleBone can only handle digital inputs and outputs up to +3.3V, the +5V inputs from the Coaster board must have the high voltage (corresponding to a binary ‘1’) stepped down to avoid frying the ARM core. To make a long story short, this particular level translator chip will not work for open drain applications like one-wire temperature sensors. Doh!

Texas Instruments helpfully suggests replacing the offending TXB0108s with pin-compatible TXS0108s, which include internal pull-up resistors and will play nicely with one-wire devices. The new chips arrived from Digikey within 48 hours. Replacing surface-mount integrated circuits, however, is more easily said than done. Chip removal required The Sketchy Chinese Heat Gun. Tux looks slightly horrified on the photo, and rightly so. The temperature control on this particular unit, acquired several years ago on eBay from a dubious supplier in the Far East, is non-existent. It has two settings—fire of 1000 suns and OFF. (If and when I have more working capital at my disposal, I’ll invest a few thousand dollars in a much more reliable Hakko heat gun from Japan.) To add insult to injury, my soldering skills are mediocre at best. This surgical procedure was considerably more complicated than the +5V power line fix:

1) Melt the old chip off. Easy enough. I somehow managed to prevent surface-mount components that I did not intend to desolder from skittering off the board, never to be seen again.
2) Clean up the solder pads, apply solder flux, and place the replacement chip on the pads. Getting the two TXS0108s in the proper position literally drove me to drink, but I eventually succeeded.
3) Tack down opposite pins of the chip with the soldering iron, then flow a big blob of solder over the remaining pins. The pins were too close together for a mere mortal like me to solder them down one by one.
4) Remove the short circuits between pins with desoldering wick and a tool that looks like a dental instrument.
5) Remove the pullup resistors on the BeagleBeer board with desoldering tweezers.
6) Attempt to clean up the mess with solder flux remover.

tux_horrified

heat_gunafter_the_fix2
Although in principle this fix should have worked, it didn’t. Linux still acts blissfully ignorant of the presence of a temperature sensor. Doh!

The root cause of failure is still under investigation. I have a few more tricks up my sleeve:

1) Ask my co-worker at Analog Devices Lyric Labs, Vlad Kvartenko (a.k.a. master of electronics rework), to replace the TXB0108 chips on BeagleBeer serial number 2 with TXS0108s.
2) Bypass the TXS0108 on BeagleBeer serial number 1 and wire an alternative, the Adafruit Level Shifter module. between the RJ-45 connector and the BeagleBone ONE_WIRE_A line.

ID757_MED

The next challenge that must be overcome before the BeagleBeer plus Coaster system can be beta tested with actual beer in the Venture Café kegerator will be to sort out level translation for the flow sensors. Feel free to offer a ritual sacrifice to the Fickle Gods of Electronics Debugging on my behalf and keep an eye out for the next installment, Operation KEG Part 5: It’s Alive!

Random factoid: NASA astronaut Jack Swigert actually said: “Houston, we’ve had a problem here,” after the oxygen tank exploded on Apollo 13 on 13 April 1970.

Keg Coupler Madness!

Robin and Shahin, still basking in the glory of our Eurobeer experiment with the S-system keg coupler, opted to forge ahead with our beer diversification initiative for Venture Café. Our crash course in keg coupler technology has taught us much about the inner workings of beer dispensing systems, knowledge that we feel obligated to share with our fellow beer aficionados. First and foremost, all keg couplers are not created equal.

keg_couplers

First unveiled in Operation Keg: Part 1, this project has encountered only one minor hiccup to date. Deceived by an incorrect photo on a vendor website, we mistakenly ordered plug connectors for the beer lines with retractable white plastic stoppers (top photo) that restricted flow more than we might have liked.

MCD2203

non-valved

Last Thursday during the Café, we replaced the errant connectors on the S- and D-system couplers with unvalved plug connectors (bottom photo). Problem solved!

During lunch hour on Friday, following the fortuitous arrival of two additional 5/16” plug connectors for the gas lines, we outfitted our brand-new G-system and A-system couplers with their very own quick-release valves, allowing them to join the august company of the previously retrofitted D- and S-system couplers. (Micromatic, the fine purveyor of the Venture Café’s keg couplers, maintains a reasonably comprehensive list of beer brands with corresponding keg taps.)

vc_coupler_collection_1

The A-coupler, aptly nicknamed the “German Slider,” engages the beer line by sliding sideways onto the keg. German breweries Warsteiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Paulaner, and Spaten, among others, distribute their wares A-compatible kegs. Well-known brews from the UK such as Boddingtons, Fuller’s, and Tennent’s use the G-system, as well as the Dutch brand Grolsch. Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco made a name for itself in the 1980s as a contrarian by adopting the G-system instead of the D-coupler used by the vast majority of American beermakers. In recent years, Anchor has caved to peer pressure somewhat. Although they still distribute ½ and full barrel kegs with G-system connections, 1/6 kegs of Anchor beer are D-coupler compatible.

vc_coupler_collection_2

As shown in the photo above (along with Shahin’s hand), the G-coupler, named after the UK manufacturer Grundy, has an O-ring configuration similar to that on the German Slider, but the beer line is engaged by twisting onto the fitting at the top of the keg. At first glance, the beer inlets of the D- and S-couplers also look quite similar. However, because the probe on the S-coupler is longer and narrower than its counterpart on the D-coupler, they cannot be substituted for one another. D- and S-couplers are sometimes referred to as American and European Sankey couplers, respectively.
Who exactly was this Sankey character? An inquiring mind wanted to know. Naturally, I turned to that formidable fount of fantastic factoids otherwise known as Google. As it happens, Sankey refers to GKN Sankey Ltd. (now GKN plc). GKN (formerly Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds), a multinational producer of components for the automotive and aerospace industries headquartered in Worcestershire, England, has a storied history. The company evolved from an ironworks founded in 1759 during the early stages of the Industrial Revolution. The Sankey in question was Joseph Sankey (1826-1886), a producer of steel tea trays whose company, Joseph Sankey and Sons Ltd., began manufacturing auto bodies and steel wheels in the early 20th century. Sankey & Sons was acquired by GKN in 1920. The combined entity continued to diversify, entering the airplane engine turbine blade market in the 1950s. In January 1977, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued Patent #4,002,273, entitled “Dispense Head for Liquid Containers” to Cyril Golding and Eugene Leonowicz, assigned to GKN Sankey Ltd. of Telford, England. Figure 1 looks familiar:

sankey_patent_fig1

Unfortunately, the Sankey brewery products business did not survive the manufacturing downturn in the UK during the 1980s, but the Sankey name (often misspelled as “Sanke” on beer websites) lives on.
Reading through the Sankey patent confirmed that all of the various and sundry keg couplers designs serve a common purpose– dispensing sanitary, good-tasting beer with just the right amount of carbonation. Modern beer kegs are equipped with a spear, a long metal tube that extends inside the keg down the middle from the ball valve at the top of the vessel, terminating at an open inlet near the bottom. The spear facilitates the uniform dispensing of beer at all liquid levels.

keg-spearmicromatic_d-coupler

Pulling the handle down and pushing it into the groove in the side of the coupler opens the CO2 valve. When connected to a gas canister but not to a keg, seating the handle causes CO2 to rush out around the rubber O-ring at the bottom of the device. The act of mating the coupler to the keg by twisting clockwise (or sliding in the case of the A-coupler) pushes down on the ball valve at the top of the spear. Beer flows upwards through the top of the coupler to the tap.

The engaged coupler forms a seal such that CO2 from the gas line cannot enter directly into the beer line. The gas, typically pressurized at 12-14 PSI, increases the pressure inside the keg, forcing beer up the spear and out the top of the coupler towards to the tap. As the keg empties, the CO2 forced into the keg through the gas line on the side of the coupler occupies the resulting empty space in the keg. Every couple of weeks, the CO2 tank in our kegerator runs out of gas and requires replacement. Although some of the CO2 dispensed from the gas canister in the kegerator ends up dissolving in the beer, CO2 also occurs naturally in beer as a byproduct of the fermentation process. Thus, the head of foam at the top of a glass of freshly-poured beer has both natural and artificial components.

TubKegPump

You may (or may not) recall that kegs of mass-produced American swill in frat house bathrooms have keg taps equipped with hand pumps. These decidedly low-brow beer dispensing systems introduce air into the keg, contaminating the beer and accelerating spoilage. Quality counts at Venture Café! Our craft beer selections remain unsullied by the surrounding environment until Amy, Greg, or Robin artfully pour them into squeaky clean, compostable Vegware cups. Stop by this Thursday from 3-8 pm to enjoy a cold beer, brought to you by Venture Café’s impressive collection of keg couplers.

Eurobeer!

At Venture Café this past Thursday (7 March 2013), Robin and Shahin performed a wildly successful full-scale test of our new S-type keg coupler. Check out Operation KEG Part 1 for a blow-by-blow of the behind-the-scenes engineering. The first Eurobeer on tap at Venture Café: Leffe Belgian Blonde Ale. We dispensed an entire 30L pony keg in less than 90 minutes!

We captured the ceremonial tapping of the keg on video:

We had the distinct pleasure of serving an actual Belgian, Alban de Brouchoven de Bergeyck, who seemed quite pleased to encounter brew from his home country at Venture Café.
eurobeer1

eurobeer2