I don’t think I had finished bottling my first batch of homebrew when I realized that my least favorite part of my new passion was messing with all those bottles. As with most new homebrewers, I was eager to pinch pennies any place I could so I went to the local pool hall where they only sold beer in long neck returnable bottles. The cool thing was that they only charged me $0.05 per bottle for the deposit and a case of bottles in a nice box for only $1.20, it seemed like a great way to save money. Well after washing the bottles and removing the labels, I started thinking I just might not be saving so much after all.
Pros and Cons of Kegging
After a few batches, I decided that I really liked the idea of having only one bottle to wash for each batch of beer, one really big stainless bottle. The pros of kegging seemed obvious to me. The ease of cleanup was great, but the ability to artificially carbonate my beers virtually overnight was the clincher for me. Another benefit is the ability to use a counter-pressure bottle filler to fill a few sediment-free bottles (for homebrew contests or to give to friends) from the keg.
I really didn’t stop to consider the cons of jumping into kegging my homebrew. As far as I was concerned “there were no stinkin’ cons.” The cons turned out to be manageable, but really should be considered before buying your system.
The main negative, besides the total expense of getting set up, would be the size of the kegs and the requirement that you refrigerate and serve from them standing upright. The most common 5.0-gallon (19-L) keg will fit in most refrigerators only after most of the shelves have been removed. Also, having draft beer on hand will require a certain amount of maintenance and cleaning of your draft equipment to keep everything operating smoothly. As far as I’m concerned, this is by far the most common problem with draft systems, homebrew or commercial — the lack of regular and thorough cleaning of the system.
The reason that I love having homebrew on tap is because you can pour as much or as little as you like. Unlike with bottles, with a keg you are not committed to finishing another 12 or 22 ounces (354 or 650 mL) — and who doesn’t have time for another half glass of homebrewed goodness? Also, showing up at a party with a 5.0-gallon (19-L) keg of homebrew is a great way to make new friends!
Basic Kegging Setup
After a little deliberation, I placed my order for a homebrew kegging setup from my local homebrew shop. My setup was pretty typical. It came with one used, but reconditioned, “Corny” soda syrup keg, a 10 lb. (4.5 kg) CO2 tank, a dual gauge CO2 regulator, quick disconnects for both gas and liquid, a plastic spigot and all the needed hoses and clamps. I thought it was strange that they called these soda syrup kegs Cornies, but it turns out that the Cornelius Company was one of the main manufacturers of these and so they have picked up this nickname over time. (The kegs are also manufactured by Firestone and Spartanburg.) This is important because not all the parts from the different manufacturers are interchangeable. As such, whenever you disassemble more than one keg, be sure you know which parts belong to which keg.
Five-gallon (19-L) kegs are by far the most common size, but 3.0-gallon (11-L) and 10-gallon (38-L) versions can sometimes be found. (Even rarer are the 2.0-gallon (7.6-L), 2.5-gallon (9.5-L) and 15-gallon (57- L) varieties.)
I chose to go with the dual gauge regulator mainly because I figured two gauges must be better than one. With a dual gauge regulator, you have a gauge to display both the CO2 tank’s pressure and the pressure being applied to the keg. The pressure on the keg side is what we are most concerned with and is very low compared with the pressure in the tank. The high pressure gauge holds steady at around 800 PSI (at room temperature) as long as there is gas in the tank. Once this gauge starts dropping, you are out of gas.
Your gauge set should come with a special washer that fits between the gauge and the CO2 tank. You should not use any type of thread tape on this connection and use the washer provided to ensure a proper seal. Most regulators today come with a ball valve for attaching the hose that will run to the gas side of your keg. This is convenient because you will want to occasionally shut off the gas to a keg without disconnecting it from your system. Most systems also include something called a check valve or a back flow preventer. These devices prevent beer from flowing back up the gas line and into your gauge. This may not seem like much of an issue, but when I explain force carbonating later, you will see that it can be surprisingly easy to do.
The quick disconnects you get will depend on what style of keg you have. They come in two different styles, ball lock and pin lock. The difference has to do with the type of connection posts at the top of the keg. These connection posts are used to connect the gas and the beer line to the keg. Because these kegs were originally made to hold soda syrup, the soda companies did not want their customers to be able to switch between the two brands so they made the connections incompatible with each other. It should also be noted that because the soda companies no longer use these kegs for syrup, the supply of these “used” kegs is unpredictable. Because homebrewers tend to prefer the ball lock style — which was used by Pepsi and soda companies other than Coke — those are becoming increasingly more expensive.
The type of quick disconnects I received with my setup was the ball lock style, but both types work just fine. Recently I have seen new universal ball lock replacement posts for pin lock kegs that might be useful if you really want to avoid the pin lock style. These look interesting with the only issue being that they are made of aluminum and might be harmed by the caustic nature of draft cleaning chemicals. As long as they are not soaked in caustic, I’m guessing they would be fine. Both ball lock and pin lock quick disconnects are easily disassembled by unscrewing the top of the valve with a large screwdriver. They should be disassembled and cleaned regularly to keep them fresh and clean.
The faucet I received is sometimes referred to as a picnic or cobra tap. It is usually made of black plastic and has a small lever on top. As inexpensive as these simple faucets are, they are surprisingly good for serving draft beer. They are super easy to clean and use. To take them apart, you only need to unscrew the top and pull it apart. To use them, just press the lever with your thumb. As with all beer faucets, you should always open it fully to keep the beer from spraying into the glass and creating a bunch of foam. These faucets can also be locked in the open position by rocking the lever forward which is nice for cleaning and flushing.
The CO2 tank I received was a 10-lb. (4.5-kg) tank and that is a nice size to have. It is a nice balance between portability and volume of gas. You can find tanks that are smaller, such as 2.5-lb. (1.1-kg) and 5.0-lb. (2.3-kg) tanks — and these are nice and portable — but are top heavy when you get your gauges attached and they hold less gas. You can also get larger CO2 tanks like 20 lbs. (9.1 kg) and above, but these can be very heavy and hard to move, but they last a long time. I get my CO2 refilled at a local welding supply company. They let me trade my empty for a full tank instead of refilling my tank. That is pretty normal, so don’t get too attached to the shiny new tank that came with your setup.
The kegging system described here will allow you to dispense beer pushed with CO2. If you would like to serve beers, such as dry stouts, pushed by “beer gas” — a mixture of nitrogen and CO2 — you will need an entirely separate set of equipment. Beer gas, sometimes called Guinness gas, comes in a different cylinder and requires a different regulator (because the pressure in the cylinder is different). In addition, most nitrogen systems use special faucets to enhance the pour. (To set up a nitrogen kegging system, visit here.)
Anatomy of a Keg
The anatomy of a Corny keg is pretty much the same for both styles of kegs. There will be the keg body, made of stainless steel. Most kegs come with rubber handles on the top, but some have metal handles. On top of the keg will be the two connection posts and an oval shaped lid that is held on with a clamping mechanism. The lid usually has a pressure relief valve in the middle and uses a large rubber O-ring to seal. Look for lids that don’t have any bends or dents in them.
A small dent on the edge of the lid can make it difficult to get it to seal well. The two posts on top of the keg will be where you connect the gas and beer lines. While these posts look similar, they are not interchangeable. The post for the gas is usually marked with the word “IN” near it, and at least for ball lock style kegs, its quick disconnect is usually colored gray. The post for liquid, in our case beer, is usually marked with the word “OUT” and often the quick disconnect for this side is black. “Grey is for gas, black is for beer” is an easy way to remember this, but this does not work for pin lock style kegs. For pin lock style kegs it is a bit easier because they use small pins protruding out from the post to latch onto. The gas post has two pins and the liquid side has three pins so it is obvious that they are different and cannot be connected incorrectly.
Used Kegs and Cleaning
My experience has been that the folks that wholesale reconditioned kegs to homebrew shops have wildly different ideas of what “reconditioned” means. For some, “reconditioned” means checking, testing and replacing all the rubber parts. For others it means they just dumped out the contents and pressure tested the keg. (For step by step instructions on how to refurbish a used keg, visit here.)
Once a keg is refurbished, or if you buy a new keg, it will still need to be taken apart and cleaned before each use. (The same article explains keg disassembly.) One helpful hint to ensure that the keg holds pressure when you reassemble it is to use keg lube. Keg lube is basically food grade grease used to lubricate the rubber parts of your draft system. Rub a tiny amount on the O-rings — especially the big ring on the lid — and this will seal off any microscopic links. It does not affect the flavor or head retention of your beer. This stuff goes a long way and one tube will last most homebrewers a lifetime.
When it comes time to carbonate your beer, you can do that a few different ways. It is possible to naturally carbonate your beer in kegs just as with bottle conditioned beer. Some folks do prefer this method of carbonation but many prefer to force carbonate their beer as soon as it is good and clear. If you do want to naturally carbonate your beer, you might consider cutting off the last half inch (1.3 cm) of your liquid dip tub. This will help reduce how much yeast sediment is drawn into the tube and after the first glass or so you should not see much yeast being drawn up the draft line.
If you choose to force carbonate your beer, you can go about that a couple basic ways. I have also seen people use hybrid versions that combine both ways. For lack of an official name, I will call the first the “Crank-N-Shake” method and the second the “Set-N-Wait” method. Before we jump into the differences between the two methods, we need to talk a little about how CO2 and water react together. Carbon dioxide is interesting stuff in that it can be dissolved into liquid. This gives us the delightful fizzy sparkle we all know and love. The thing is that the amount of CO2 that can be dissolved into liquid is related to the temperature of the liquid (beer in our case). The key thing to remember is that the colder the solution, the more CO2 it can hold. For this reason, the first step to force carbonating your beer is to get it good and cold. You can do this by placing your carboy in the refrigerator the night before or you can transfer your clear beer to a clean and sanitized keg and refrigerate that overnight. It is a good practice to squirt a little CO2 into your empty keg before starting to transfer your beer into it to help reduce any oxidation in the final product.
To make this and the process of carbonation go as smoothly as possible, I like to add a small plastic “T” at end of my tubing. Off of each side of this “T” I attach two quick disconnects, one gas disconnect and also a beer disconnect. This way, when I want to direct CO2 to the very bottom of the keg as in flushing or force carbonating I can attach the gas line onto the normal liquid post and force CO2 down the liquid dip tube.
Once your beer is chilled to serving temperature and is transferred to your keg, you are ready to get started.
The Crank-N-Shake Method
The “Crank-N-Shake” method is named because you basically crank up the pressure and shake the CO2 into solution. If you choose to use the “Crank-N-Shake” method, attach your keg to the gas and turn the pressure on your regulator up to about 20 PSI. Some use higher pressure, but I really don’t think that is necessary. Before you start, make sure your CO2 tank is secure and will not get pulled over as you start to rock your keg back and forth. As you start to rock the keg, you will hear the CO2 rush into the keg. As more and more CO2 is dissolved into your beer, less CO2 will rush in to take its place. If you keep shaking the keg, it will soon reach equilibrium and this sound of hissing gas will stop. Rock the keg for awhile, I find that about the time I’m getting sick of rocking it is about right, but shoot for about 10 minutes of gentle rocking. Now you essentially have a big can of shaken beer. This is not the time to pour a sample. Place the keg back into the refrigerator and let it settle down. I usually let it sit overnight before giving it a try. If it needs a little more carbonation, you can take it out and shake it some more, but be careful because it is easy to overdo it. If you do over carbonate, you can reduce the level by unhooking it from the gas and repeatedly venting the pressure using the pressure relief value in the lid.
One valid criticism of the Crank-N-Shake method is that you have no idea how much CO2 you are dissolving into the beer, and for most beer styles you want a specific amount. With trial and error, you can learn to get close to your carbonation goals; but if you want to hit a specific goal, the Set-N-Wait method is much better.
The Set-N-Wait Method
The “Set-N-Wait” method involves hooking the keg up to the gas at normal serving pressure, for me about 12 PSI, and letting it sit. It will reach the correct level of carbonation in two or three days. This is basically what the “Set-N-Wait” method is, because we know how much CO2 can be held in solution at a given temperature, we can simply set the pressure to the correct level and just wait for the CO2 to dissolve. Depending on how much fizz you want in your beer, and how much is appropriate for the style, you can adjust the total volumes of CO2 you dissolve into your beer. (The table on page 78 will show you how much pressure to apply to get your tagret level of carbonation, based on the temperature of the keg.)
However, because most homebrew is stored at refrigerator temperature (38–40 °F/3.3–4.4 °C) and most “regular” beers are served at between 2.0 and 2.5 volumes of CO2, a simple rule of thumb can be given — set your regulator to between 8 and 12 PSI, let the beer carbonate and adjust the pressure later if you want more or less fizz. (If you want to serve British-style ales at cellar temperature (around 52 °F/11 °C) with 1.8 to 2.0 volumes of CO2, you will need to use an external thermostat on your beer fridge to set the temperature. At this temperature, set the gauge pressure to 8 to 12 PSI and you will get this lower level of carbonation.
This is by far the easiest carbonation method and I find that, for most of my beers, simply getting them chilled to serving temperature and putting them on gas at serving pressure will result in a nearly perfectly carbonated beer in about a week.
It is important to remember that ifyou accidentally have your gas line hooked up to your liquid post (an easy mistake to make), you set up a situation where beer can flow up the gas line and potentially into the gauge if not protected by a check valve. Even if you have a check valve, you still don’t want beer up in your gas line that you will need to clean out. So be careful.
I have both a kegerator and a large three door commercial refrigerator that I use to hold my kegs. The kegerator is nice and has two chrome faucets on a stainless tower that sticks up from the middle. Faucets on a kegerator like this are exposed to room temperature and allow some beer to dry in them between uses. This means they require regular cleanings to keep them fresh. A sour faucet will ruin every beer poured from it. Contamination from a faucet can make its way back down the draft line and into the keg if allowed to go on long enough. The entire bottom of the three door refrigerator is dedicated to kegs. In there I use the picnic taps exclusively and they work great. Because they stay inside the refrigerator with the keg, they stay just as cold as the beer. They seem to stay fresher longer and are easy and quick to clean out if needed.
Cleaning Your Lines
Cleaning your draft equipment is vitally important to serving fresh beer. I use a product called Beer Line Cleaner that is made specifically to clean draft lines. This stuff is pretty strong, so you should be extra careful when using it. A little common sense goes a long way here; always follow the manufacturer’s mixing and usage instructions. I have heard of others using other products to clean draft lines, but I really like using the stuff that is made to professionally clean draft lines.
My process is pretty simple; I mix up about a gallon (~ 4 L) of beer line cleaner and place it in the bottom of my dirty keg. I put the top back on, shake and roll the keg around for a minute or two, working it around good in the keg. After that I hook up the gas to the “IN” post and hook up a faucet to the “OUT” side. Turn the pressure up enough to push the cleaning solution out of the faucet.
I like to collect this in another keg or bucket for reuse if I have more than one keg to clean at a time. I usually don’t rush this process; I let out about a cup and then let it sit for a few minutes before draining some more. I really like to have the cleaner stand in the lines for awhile to allow it to break down any gunk or beer stone in the line. As I mentioned, the cleaner is really strong so letting it stand in the lines for a long time or even overnight is not recommended. I repeat this process until the entire gallon (4 L) has been pushed through the system.
Pushing this volume of cleaner through the lines does a great job, but leaves them full of beer line cleaner. The next step is to flush the lines. You can use plain water, but I prefer to use a mild acid-based sanitizer, like Star-San or Sani-Clean to neutralize and rinse the residual cleaner from the lines and leave them packed with sanitizer. Once again, push the sanitizer through the lines with CO2 pressure — when the pressure blows, it will leave sanitizer foam in the lines.
Now that your beer is all carbonated in your kegs, there is only one thing left to do — pour some beer! Don’t be discouraged if the first glass you pour is all foam. Foaming can be caused by several factors, one of which is dirty draft lines, but we will assume that since you just rebuilt your kegs and taps that will not be the problem. To completely understand the relationships between gas pressure, temperature, tap height and the diameter and resistance of the draft line can be quite complicated. (You can read about all these details on page 28 of this issue). However, because most homebrew is stored at the roughly the same pressure and dispensed at roughly the same height, most homebrewers find that beer pushed through 3.5 to 4.5 feet (1.1 to 1.4 m) of 3⁄16 ID tubing works well.
For the most part, if problems with foaming do arise, they can be resolved with the following technique. First, turn the pressure on the regulator down to around 2 or 3 PSI, then shut off the gas to the keg in question at the ball valve. Then, using the pressure relief valve, vent almost all the pressure from the keg. At this point, try to dispense a beer. Almost no beer should be coming out, maybe just a trickle. Then open the ball valve and check the pour again. The idea here is to gently sneak up on the proper serving pressure for your setup. Keep turning up the pressure until you get a nice foam-free pour.