This article provides an introduction to kegging your beer at home. Kegging beer is much easier and less time consuming than bottling, not to mention the cool factor of pouring your homebrew from a tap.
So you want to start kegging? Tired of endlessly scrubbing the gunk from old bottles? Sick of the two hour priming, filling and capping exercise? Do you want to avoid priming altogether? Do you have an extra refrigerator laying around that you could mount a tap on? Want to be the envy of ALL of your friends? There are many reasons for kegging, but the most often cited is simplicity. Kegging is easier, faster and simpler than bottling your beer. It offers the convenience of being able to draw any amount of your own draft beer anytime you want by just squeezing the handle on your tap.
There are a few downsides, however. A keg is not as portable as a bottle of beer. Its hard to take a six pack sampler of different kegs over to your friends house for dinner. Most competitions require bottled beer for registered entries. Still, it is possible to bottle from the keg using a special device called a counter pressure filler, and you can also draw a growler (glass container with a cork in it for temporary transport) if you want to take some over to a friend for dinner. Most brewers find the gain is larger than the pain of kegging. What do I need?
The initial investment is somewhat high - perhaps $150-180 US for an initial setup. In addition, the kegging system works best if you have a suitable refrigerator, usually a second one to store the keg in.
Almost all home brewers use the Cornelius kegging system, which uses 2.5 to 5 gallon Cornelius kegs to store the beer in. Cornelius kegs are the same kegs used for many years for dispensing soda, so they are also frequently called soda kegs. Since most soda distributors have converted to a bag-in-box system there are literally millions of used Cornelius kegs available on the market at very reasonable prices of around $20-30 per keg. The most popular size is the 5 gallon keg.
Home Kegging System Components
- CO2 Tank - CO2 is used to dispense beer rather than air because CO2 will not interact with and spoil your beer. CO2 is stored at very high pressure in a tank that looks something like an oxygen or scuba tank. Liquid CO2 is measured by weight. Tanks are sold in 5 lb, 10lb and 20lb sizes and can be refilled at many locations. It costs about the same amount to fill the tank regardless of size, so a larger tank can be better if you have the space since it will last much longer.
- Regulator - CO2 is stored at 800-1000 psi, but you want to dispense your beer at 8-15 psi. The regulator does the conversion for you. A small screw on the regulator lets you adjust the output pressure, and many have a valve to cut off the flow of gas as well. Most brewers prefer a dual gauge system. One gauge shows the pressure of the tank, and the second shows the output pressure.
- Cornelius Keg - As described above these "soda kegs" are made of stainless steel, very easy to clean, maintain pressure well and are suitable for storing beer for a year or much longer if maintained properly. The most popular size is the 5 gallon keg, which is a tall cylinder that looks very much like a scuba tank with a flat top. Smaller 2.5 and 3 gallon kegs are nice if you have limited refrigerator space or want some beer on the go. Kegs come with two fittings - either ball lock or pin lock. Of the two, the ball lock are more prevelent.
- Gas Hose - A clear plastic hose that runs from the regulator on your CO2 tank to the "gas" input on your Cornelius keg. It supplies the pressure to dispense your beer. The best gas hose is thick walled to minimize leakage.
- Dispensing Hose - Another plastic hose that runs from the "output" of your Cornelius keg to your tap! The length and diameter of this hose is actually critical to proper dispensing of your beer. The recommended diameter is 3/16" inner diameter tubing about 4-5 feet in length if you are storing your keg in the refrigerator.
- Quick Disconnects - Plastic or stainless fittings that join the plastic keg hose to the keg itself. There are two types - pin and ball connectors corresponding to pin type and ball type Cornelius kegs. The ball type kegs seem to be more common, but it does not really matter which you use as long as the quick disconnect matches your keg type (either ball or pin). For the ball style connectors there is also a difference between the gas side connector and the beer side connector since the two have slightly different sizes on the keg to avoid misconnecting them.
- Tap - Ahhh...the end of the line for the keg system. Taps can vary from a simple plastic cobra picnic tap to a complex specialty stout tap for dispensing stouts with nitrogen. Most of us start with a simple plastic picnic tap.
- Refrigerator - Though technically not required, it is almost impossible to achieve proper carbonation without a refrigerator. First, most people like their beer cold, and second if you want to carbonate your beer at room temperature you will need to store it at much higher pressure (and put a long dispensing line on it to compensate!). While beer will carbonate quite nicely at 10-12 psi at 42 F, you will need 27-30 psi to accomplish the same at room temperature. Dispensing at that pressure requires a very long dispensing line to bleed off the extra pressure. Most people use an extra used refrigerator or converted freezer to store and dispense their beer.
Preparing Your Kegging System
The first step when your new kegging system arrives is to take the CO2 tank over to your local beverage supply, fire extinguisher supply, gas supply or other store and get the tank filled with CO2. You might want to weigh your CO2 tank both empty and full since this is the only way you will know how much CO2 you have left as you use it.
When you first fill the CO2 tank it will be quite cold. Allow the tank to sit overnight to settle down to room temperature before attaching the regulator. Next make sure the valves are all off and then carefully attach the regulator to your tank and gently tighten the fitting with a wrench. Hook up the hoses to your empty Cornelius keg and give it a test run by releasing the valves and gently turning the pressure up to 10 psi.
Next it is important to check for leaks -- use some soapy water to check all of the fittings for leaks. Leaky fittings will bubble when soapy water is applied.
If all has gone well you should be able to turn the gas off and release the pressure in the keg using the pressure relief valve on the keg (usually a small key ring on the top of the keg that you pull to release pressure. You can also let the built up pressure out your tap.
Cleaning the Equipment
Your keg must first be cleaned, and then sanitized. Normal detergent can be used for normal cleaning, but you cannot use bleach and some other cleaning solutions on them because they are made of stainless steel (which reacts with bleach). I personally prefer Iodophor - which is an iodine based no-rinse sanitizing fluid - Fill the keg up with water and add the recommended amount of Iodophor. Let it sit for a while, then secure the top and flip it over to sanitize the top.
To make it easy, I disassemble the beer hoses, racking hoses, and fittings and drop them into the keg with the sanitizing solution so they will be sanitized as well. Since Iodophor is no-rinse you can empty it out and let it drip dry for a few minutes before filling.
Filling the Keg
This is the step that makes kegging simplicity itself -- just siphon your beer from your fermenter into the keg. If you are paranoid you can give the keg a shot of CO2 before filling it (leaving it open - CO2 is heavier than air so it will sit in the bottom of the keg and push the air out). Wet the O ring on the top with water so it will provide a good seal and then pop the top on your keg. Apply 10-12 lbs of pressure, and then release the pressure from the release valve to purge the air from the top of the keg. Repeat 3 times until you are confident all of the air is out.
I also recommend giving the keg at least one shot at a higher pressure - perhaps 20 lbs - to properly seat the seals and rings in the keg.
Kegging with Natural Carbonation
You can naturally carbonate the beer using corn sugar if you like. The recommended amount to use for priming is about 1/2 what you would normally use when bottling -- approximately 1/3 cup for a 5 gallon batch. The only disadvantage of natural carbonation is that it takes some time to reach full carbonation and it can leave additional sediment in the bottom of the keg.
A slightly cleaner and faster approach is to force carbonate your beer using the pressure provided by the CO2 tank. The pressure needed varies with the temperature of the beer and desired style. CO2 dissolves much more easily in cold beer than warm beer. It also dissolves more completely, which is why many of us use a separate refrigerator to carbonate and store the beer. You can use a tool like BeerSmith to calculate the carbonation pressure needed for a given desired CO2 level and temperature.
In practice, most of us run our refrigerators at around 42-45 F and pressurize the keg at about 10-12 PSI. The simplest way to carbonate is to simply to put the beer in the fridge, set the pressure to 10-12 PSI and leave it there for a few days. After a day or so you will see hints of carbonation but within 3-4 days the CO2 will fully dissolve leaving nice tiny bubbles. If you find it a little overcarbonated, turn your CO2 pressure down a bit and release some pressure from the keg. If undercarbonated, just turn the CO2 pressure up a bit. Expansion
Once you have perfected use of a single keg, you can add additional kegs to your same system by just purchasing another keg , second tap, and some extra hose and fittings to split your gas line into a second keg. After the second it is easy to then add a third, and of course a few backups for beer that is ageing but has not made it into the refrigerator, etc...
Similarly it is possible to add beautiful long handled stainless steel taps to the front of your refrigerator to replace the crude picnic taps. I recommend spending the extra money for stainless steel because the cheaper taps are harder to clean and do not last as well.
Kegging is in many ways much simpler than bottling, and after you get over the initial sticker shock you will quickly wonder how you ever got along without a keg. There is something beautiful about coming home and drawing a pint of your favorite homebrew off your own kegging system.