Brewing For Events - A Guide

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Last year, when my wife was part of a group that was planning a couples’ baby shower for my brother and his wife, they came up with the idea of having me brew a beer for the occasion. If you’re reading this, then I assume you’ve been in this position before, or you’re now finding yourself needing to brew beer for an event of some kind. In this guide, we’ll walk through all the different things you need to take into consideration when planning to serve homebrew at a wedding, poker party, or other type of get-together.

Is It Legal?

Before you can commit to brewing beer for an event, you need to check your local laws and ordinances and make sure that it’s legal. For smaller, in-house gatherings, there should be no problems. However, if you’re transporting several kegs of homebrew to a public space that’s being rented out, there could be steps you need to take to make it all legit. If that place has a liquor license of its own, then serving homebrew there is probably a no-go. It all comes down to what is legal and what is not regarding homebrew in your state. For larger gatherings like weddings, it would probably also be a smart idea to check with whoever is catering the event, to be sure that they don’t have a problem with having your homebrew served. The American Homebrewers Association has a list of state laws that may be a good spot to start.

How Much?

Once you have the green light to brew for the event legally, it's time to answer more questions. Photo by Surferdrew
Once you’ve determined that you’re in the clear, the next question you need to ask is how much beer are you going to need. This is going to depend on a few different things. How many people are coming? How much beer, on average, will each person drink? Once you can get some general numbers, you can start calculating how much beer you’re going to need. If you’re going to be serving from kegs, then each 5 gallon keg will give you 40 beers in a perfect world. Let’s say you’re brewing beer for a wedding, and 200 guests are expected. If free beer is served at a wedding (and since is going to be homebrew, by definition it’s free), then you can expect people to drink more than they would at a cash bar. Say an average of 2 per person. That’s 10 corny kegs’ worth of beer, or 500 bottles! Good thing we’re planning ahead.
Oh, and always over-estimate. If you end up with extra beer, then that’s more beer for you!

Keg or Bottles?

Do you have enough kegs ready to fill, or the patience enough to bottle a few hundred bottles? Photo by Niacinj
Once you have a rough idea of how much beer to brew, then you need to think about if you want to use kegs or bottles. Some things to think about here are if the location for the event has existing draft systems set up. If they do, it’s very unlikely they’ll be set up to accommodate the corny kegs that most homebrewers need. Your best bet for a kegging setup is going to be to use a jockey box. They’re portable and work very well. The downside is that they’re really not very cheap to buy or build well. For smaller gatherings, bottles can work instead of kegs, but if you’re planning on serving more than say 5 gallons, you’re going to be spending quite a bit of time filling and capping bottles.

What Style?

Choosing a style appropriate all the guests is one key to success. Photo by Jamatoy
Ok, so now we know how much beer we need to brew, and we know how we’re going to serve it. The next decision is probably the most important to the success of the beer portion of the event. What kind of beer should you serve? This is going to be entirely reliant on the crowd you’re expecting. A good rule of thumb to use is to have multiple beers available, and always have at least one beer that can appeal to the non-craft beer drinkers in the crowd. I always like to have a good blonde ale or a helles lager for those BMC drinkers in the group. After that, have fun with it. Brew what you like to drink, and try to have a good variety of styles. You probably don’t want to have 4 different IPAs (unless you know lots of IPA lovers, then go for it) and nothing else. Using our above wedding example, and assuming a 4-tap jockey box, we’d start out with something like this: one IPA, one helles/blonde ale, one stout, and one porter. That gives you a good range of styles. When the IPA keg blows, make sure it’s replaced with another IPA or pale ale, or something similar. Same goes for the other styles. You’ll know your crowd better than I do, though, so tailor your beers to the tastes of the guests.

Brewing Schedule

A final consideration is to plan out your brewing schedule to make sure you’ve got your beers that need a little age on them brewed first, and your hoppy or wheat beers brewed closer to the event date. Always use worst-case time estimates when coming up with a schedule. I’m a bit of an Excel nerd, so I created a dynamic calendar that helps me visualize the schedule to figure out when I need to brew to have a beer ready by a certain date. When you’re working on your schedule, remember that everyone’s system is different, so you’ll need to factor in your brewing capacity. For instance, I only have room in my fermentation chamber for one fermenter, so I can really only brew once every three weeks. If I needed 10 kegs for a party, I’d have to start months in advance (not to mention buy more kegs!). If you are limited in production capacity, you might also consider doing some collaboration beers with a fellow homebrewer in your area. That can help to eliminate any bottlenecks you might have in your pipeline.
This guide should hopefully set you up for success with your upcoming event. Have any questions or suggestions? Leave a comment below.
Thanks for the read. Ironically i'm conditioning beer for just this purpose. I've brewed my tail off the last 6 weeks to get them done early enough to get some age on them. There are more challenges yet to be made, such as: Cool storage, draft taps, how long ahead of time to get them in place to let things settle. I'm tempted to filter to ensure clarity, but it's so wasteful with Co2 and it would really double the labor transferring and cleaning the next keg. All 8 of these that are pictured in the link below were done on the same day. The beer was crystal clear on the day I racked to the keg, if I can get these into place and still get that clarity, I think it will be a success.
Very nice! I haven't had to brew that much for an event yet, and mine was one that didn't need any conditioning really, so I didn't have nearly the number of challenges you have had.
Last summer, I brewed for my wedding. I did two 5 gallon kegs and throughout the summer, leading up to it, I was bottling partial batches and had close to 200 bottles. I then also had a 15 gallon of BL for the BMC drinkers and a 5 gallon of Switchback. I built an outdoor, self-serve bar for the 4 kegs with a watering troth to hold the kegs and plenty of ice. Then I built a large insulated box for the bottles. It worked out great. Between my beer and the commercial, I had 9 kinds of beer. I had almost nothing left. This was for nearly 200 people. So unless you are planning on having other options like hard liquor, plan on having a lot for a larger wedding.
Great write up. I had the same problem with only 1 fitting in my ferm chamber and needed to brew 3. When ambient temps are greater then wanted ferm temps:
I filled my tub with the correct temp water to cover about 1/2 to 2/3 of my ferm buckets. I left my pocket thermometer in the bathroom and would take temp readings before & after work and at bed time. Add some ice as needed to maintain a good temp. (obviously this is for people concerned about brewing too warm, not winter months). The large mass of water will act as a heat sink so when the yeast are creating heat the first 4-5 days you dont get unwanted estery flavors in your beer and the large mass is slower to change temps. My ground floor tub seemed to work best as the cooler ground underneath the tub/foundation helps keep the temp down.
For the non-beer lovers at the party consider cider. So easy to make.
Yeah, typo on my part. That should be 500 beers. I'll get them to correct it!
I'll work on getting the Excel calendar on Google Docs. It's pretty rough, though, I find errors all the time and fix them as they come up.
Yeah, I probably underestimated in the article. It really depends on the crowd, and the person organizing the event will know best what his/her guests' drinking habits are. For mine, one 5 gallon keg was just right for the ~40 people who were there. It ran out later that night (it was Halloween, and a few of the neighbors gathered in our driveway to hand out candy to the neighborhood kids, and it ran out pretty early into that).
I started a thread a while back on what to put on 4 taps for an event
Obviously it depends on whether you can swap new kegs in as old ones run dry. I've found that in most of the crowds I've served to the IPA/APA drains twice as quickly as other styles, so if I can't bring back-up kegs I'll run one of each. The lager and amber drinkers are the next biggest cohorts (I'll typically run a blonde and an English bitter for them), with the stout-lovers passionate but generally outnumbered.
If you have the taps but are pushed for brewing capacity/capability, augmenting with a commercial keg (eg. for the BMC crowd) is a perfectly legitimate move in my book.
For planning, it's worth remembering that hoppy beers are best as fresh as possible while other styles benefit from more extended conditioning.
If the beer is being served with food, then coordinating with the menu can be fun; we ended one dinner event with chocolate milk stout floats for dessert that were amazing.
My other tip would be serving into 12oz cups - you get 25% more beers from a 5 gallon keg and slows down some of the FREE BEER! frenzy.
Awesome to see so many replies on this article already. I too am planning on brewing for my wedding in a couple of months. So far I have planned a belgian wit, blonde ale, and saison. Plus I bottled a strong golden for the bridal party. Two of my groomsmen are assisting with production. Going to fill 2 cornies each of the blonde and saison, and we are each doing a 5 gal batch of the wit, that we are blending into a sanke. Should make for an interesting beer. I just hope we have enough, I always tend to overestimate, because I refuse to run out.
Thanks for the article!!
I am actually about to brew a light belgian wit for a baby shower! Thanks for making me think about the legality of it all.
About a year ago one of my best friends got hitched, and I offered to throw in some beer. He said I could bring some but they wouldn't need much as the booze is already covered. Last minute, the night before the wedding, he said their bar plans fell short and asked how much I could bring. Luckily, I mainly bottle condition and always age a 12 pack for later. I brought about 25 gallons worth, it was a beer sampling wedding! This was out at a park so looking back I am glad we didn't draw too much attention. Guests drank every beer! It was nice to be there for a friend and save the day with homebrew.
Good piece! I brew each year for an annual gathering of friends, taking suggestions a few months ahead of time. It's a lot of fun to do, but as you point out, you have to work out your schedule well depending on style so all the beer is coming into its own right around the same time.
Good advice all around!
I'll be doing my 4th or 5th big serving event this Saturday. Two big suggestions that others have mentioned
1. 12 ounce cups. Can't stress this one enough mainly due to #2 below.
2. If it's the only alcohol available then you will run out unless you over over estimate. Know your audience. Even non-beer drinkers will be inclined to try one because of the novelty and half of those are going to be predisposition to like it because of the novelty (or because you make good beer). Times that by 50 and one keg is kicked.
Other tips not covered.
1. I have a portable kegerator (trashcan style). If you go this route pack a little toolkit with extra connectors, hoses, wrench, screwdriver and a few picnic taps (for backup if everything else fails). My first couple times it saved my event due to unforeseen failures. Also, I always lug along my extra C02 tank.
2. Unless you filter you should set up as early as possible and get the beer as cold as possible. Sediment will be roused during transport. I usually just go with it and say "naturally unfiltered".
3. Presentation. If you are serving to a non-craft beer crowd then spend some time on presentation. Give the beers unique names (my Butt Crack Ale is always the most popular). I always type up a laminated sheet that describes the beer, the style along with all the numbers. And like I said, I theme my kegerator with tap handles for the event along with an appropriate table skirt. This Saturday is hawaiin so i made tiki doll statue tap handles and used a bamboo skirt. (nope I'm not wearing the coconut bra). Bring some small classes so that people can see the beer that they will be drinking.
4. For styles to serve. If it's the general public be sure to have something like creme ale. The majority will drink this. Lots of it. But then they come back to try the others.
For me this is now the funnest part of my homebrew hobby. I have a fundraising benefit to serve this saturday. A baby shower in two weeks and then the first big pool party of summer in another 2 weeks. Been brewing double batches every 2 weeks to have my pipeline stocked. My 2 fermenters have been in constant use for the last 6 to 8 weeks.
By the way, and I think I saw this asked before, is a 5 gallon corny considered an open container during transport?
Good tips! As for the open container thing, I don't think so, but it probably depends on the state. Here in Texas, I know that when transporting beer for competitions and festivals, I'm technically supposed to have a "bill of lading" for my homebrew.
We do it every year. We live on a cul-de-sac, so it helps get kids to come down our street if we're sitting out on the driveway (our house is on the corner, so we can get their attention as the walk down the street).
I brew for an end of summer event every year. It's a little different where it's a BYOB band/BBQ/party so I'm not on point for providing all the beer but I do bring 8 kegs - so I'm providing a LOT of the beer. All kegs I fill with the same Rye Pale Ale recipe I've been making for a few years. A couple of things I can add to the above....
If you have multiple kegs of the same beer you can daisy-chain them together (i.e. push from one into the next into the next and up to the tap). I've done this with up to 4 kegs in line and it works well for not having to continually monitor how full/empty the kegs are.
That cooler with a hole cut in the top of it makes an excellent portable keg cooler. You can even drill a hole in the front for a tap. An expensive and bulky solution for multiple beers but for a single beer it works fantastic.
For any of your lighter beers or those that might have transferred a little too much yeast when racking I'd advise filtering.
You are amazing. You brewed all that beer, built an outdoor bar, etc., while planning for your wedding? Hats off to you!
Our homebrew club recently poured for a beer festival that had around 1000 attendees. This is the third time that we've done this sort of an event so we are getting better at it but I thought that I would share my $0.02 with everyone. At these sorts of events you are going to have serious beer geeks and very few (if any) BMC drinkers. This gives you free reign to go wild with whatever your imagination can come up with.
Our set up is fairly simple with a 4 tap jockey box (we are a smaller club) but we used to have at least 2 beers in ice buckets pouring from party taps. This event we did something new, I made a dual randall so that we could have 6 beers on at all times; 4 from the jockey box and the 2 randall beers. We ended up bringing 15 kegs up with us. The club went a little bit crazy with the weird stuff but we made sure that we had some fairly standard beers too. Our beer list was the following:
American IPA
American Pale Ale
Berry Cider
American Wheat
American Wheat (w/ Jalapenos)
Mango IPA
Berliner (served through randall with blue raspberry jolly ranchers)
Black IPA (w/ fennel)
Belgian Golden Strong
Oatmeal Stout (served through randall with coffee)
Robust Porter (served through randall with toasted coconuts)
Honey wheat (w/ chamomile)
American Wheat (w/ raspberries)
Since we only had the 6 ways to serve, we changed out all the kegs every 2 hours. Each time we switched the kegs over (for a 6 hour event we switched 3 times) we would have a ton of people come over to try all the new beers. I really liked this way of doing it rather than having so many beers on tap for the entire event. We ended up coming back from that event at most a gallon of beer in each keg. We had kicked 4 of them completely. This is at an event where you have commercial brewers and 5 home brew clubs all pouring. I never thought that we would go through that much beer! People were actually coming to our tent rather than the commercial guys saying that since they could get the commercial stuff anywhere they were only drinking the homebrew! That's a really neat feeling, anyway I digress.
Events take a lot of planning and if you are ever asked to do a big event like this make sure that you have help. We had 8 people who brewed all this beer which was a good number. The other thing I have for advice is taste the beers before you put them on tap, you may not want to start off an event with a beer that isn't your best. It's the first chance that you'll have to impress people and get them to want to come back!