Tapping systems bring the bar to your back yard

DRAFT BEER at home? What will they think of next?

Actually, the newest thing in beer has been around for as long as fathers have sent their kids down to the local saloon for a bucket of freshly tapped suds.

New, high-tech tapping systems, though, make that task even easier.

This summer, Coors Light became the first domestic brewer to introduce kegs for man caves with its Home Draft System. The self-contained unit fits in a fridge and promises 16 12-ounce pours of real draft beer.

The system, available in much of the nation by the end of the year, was spawned by the 5-liter Heineken DraughtKeg, produced in 2004 in conjunction with the Krups Home Beer-Tap System. (The sleek-looking, $200 Krups gadget, by the way, is an unnecessary yuppie doodad; the DraughtKeg will maintain its pressure for 30 days without it. )

What makes these home draft kegs such a marvel is their size and simplicity: No heavy stainless-steel barrels to hoist out of your car trunk; no bulky CO2 tanks to fill. These babies tap with less effort than it takes to pry open a can of Bud.

Now Newcastle Brown Ale is available in DraughtKegs, too. A couple of weeks ago, I brought one to an outdoor party, and it was an instant hit. After chilling it overnight, I plunked it down on a picnic table on a 90-degree afternoon. It couldn’t have weighed more than 15 pounds.

Easy-to-decipher instructions showed me how to insert a small plastic lever into the top, and before I knew it, the suds were pouring. (Make sure you have a cup ready; otherwise you’ll be wearing soggy sandals. )

There are no pumps or regulators. Instead, the unit has an internal CO2 canister that maintains perfect pressure. It stayed cold over the next two hours, and each cup filled with a handsome, two-finger collar of foam. The flavor was notably fresh – fresher than Newcastle in a bottle.

At $22, the keg is cheaper than what you’d pay in a bar, but it’s about 50 percent more than you’d shell out for a 12-pack.

Then there’s the matter of space. You may have a battle on your hands when your beer bogarts the milk shelf.

And finally, until this trend catches on, you’ll find only a handful of brands on tap.

In the meantime, if you’re jonesing for your favorite draft at home, there are alternatives, all available online:

_ Kegerator: It’s a draft tower atop a cooler that fits a half-barrel. The costly unit ($500 and up) takes up a lot of space and requires vigilant maintenance to ensure clean lines. Hint: outfit yours with a twin-spigot tower and stock it with two smaller, one-sixth (sixtel) kegs for added variety.

_ Door-mounted refrigerator tap system: Haul that ratty old Kenmore out to the garage, outfit it with tapping hardware (about $100) and stock it with your favorite kegs.

_ Jockey box: It’s a picnic cooler outfitted with a cold plate or coils. Fill the box with ice, then connect a keg and CO-2 canister. Even warm beer is quickly chilled before it reaches your glass. Cost: about $150.

_ Party pump: Load a heavy-duty plastic barrel with ice and a keg and pump away. Because you’re adding air (not compressed gas) to the keg, this is a short-term solution, good for one-night parties only. Cost: about $50, plus $10 for the barrel.

After that, the beer will be stale and undrinkable; you’re better off sending your kid down to the pub with a bucket.

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