Packaging From A Keg: Considerations for beer on the go

Even in today’s climate of, “Hey, why not just go straight to all-grain with brew-in-a-bag,” homebrewers almost all start by packaging their beer in bottles. We suppose you could drink it straight from the fermenter, but we’ll assume for the moment that we’re all people of refinement who enjoy cold and briskly bubbled beer. Inevitably, a large portion of “dedicated’ (read obsessed) homebrewers eventually reach peak bottle frustration and switch to kegging and draft beer.

Kegs and kegging beer — it’s wonderful. What more needs to be said? Drew has close to 30 5-gallon (19-L) Corny kegs in his brewery. Denny has around 25. (We both got into the hobby when you could buy clean pressure tested kegs for $10–20. It’s harder to get a stash like that these days!)

Honestly, if it weren’t for kegging of beer and all of the ease of one container to clean and sanitize we both would have stopped brewing a long time ago. But kegs aren’t always what you need/want. After all, it would be a bit awkward to hand a keg to a co-worker who wanted to try your beer. (“Hey, Alice, I brought that beer you wanted to try. Just bring it back to me when you’re done!” “Uh . . . thanks, Bob?!?”) And try as we might, there are still only a few draft-friendly competitions.

Let’s face it, the convenience of a keg begins and ends at the kegerator/fridge/chest freezer. The spontaneous fill of a half glass, a full glass, or a liter and the care for one vessel is grand until you need to go someplace else with it. That’s when our problem of how best to package beer on the go arises.

Let’s face it, the convenience of a keg begins and ends at the kegerator/fridge/chest freezer.

The first question our erstwhile desirer of mobile beer, Bob, needs to ask is: “How long does this beer need to be good for?” Is Alice going to drink the beer that weekend? Is Alice likely to wait until her husband is back home from a month-long project? Will Alice keep the beer refrigerated? Maybe Bob is sending his beers to Charlie’s competition? Who knows how long that beer will be sitting and in what state of storage.

The longer the beer will sit unopened, the more careful Bob must be about how he actually packages the beer from his kegs. Remember, once fermentation is over the entire game becomes about doing as little damage to the beer and slowing the aging process down as much as possible. Finished beer is a living, fragile thing!

First step — figure out the package. If Alice is going to crack that beer in a hurry, then a growler will be just fine. You can even just pour it from the tap using a silicone tube over the faucet or a growler tap kit to fill from the bottom of the glass, seal it and be done with it. Just remind Alice to keep the growler cold and consume fresh (and to please rinse it out after finishing).

If Alice needs a few days to enjoy your precious brew, take a tip from crowler filling and flood the growler with CO2. You won’t be able to get a perfect purge, but every little bit helps. Use a low psi setting for a gentle flow of gas. After 30 seconds, fill the growler as before, seal, and send off with some basic instructions.

Anything longer than a few days and it’s time to break out the bottles. While the 12-oz. (355-mL) glass long-neck bottle with a crown cap is ubiquitous, the same steps apply to using flip-top bottles, cans, and our favorite for shipping podcast beer: PET bottles.

We’re going to start by assuming that you have perfectly carbonated beer in your kegs. (Sidebar: One of the other great reasons to bottle from a keg is bottling perfectly carbonated beer). Now, you need to mess it up. Because you’re going to lose some carbonation in the process of transferring and capping, we recommend adding some additional carbonation about 24 hours prior to bottling. Not too much – just ~1 psi (or ~0.1 v/v) above what your kegs are already carbonated. As you become more experienced, you may find you don’t need to do this.

The name of the game for bottling day is: Go smooth, go fast, stay cold.

Go Smooth — Jostling carbonated beer damages the beer, sprays foam everywhere, and in general makes the whole experience sticky.
Go Fast — To minimize exposure to oxygen and contaminants, you’ll want to move the newly filled bottle through the procedure to close it back down with all due haste.
Stay Cold — Heat is your enemy. Cold beer retains more CO2 and is easier to manage foam. Cold beer also takes less damage from its wild adventure in the air.

To aid in all three efforts, we suggest setting up a bottling station and practice. If you want to be truly fancy, take a look online and you’ll see plenty of examples of homebrewers building bespoke bottling and canning rigs.

While they’re enviable and make Drew re-think his garage layout, they are not necessary. As we pointed out before, for short-term storage you can use a piece of tube on a cobra tap and fill bottles. (Mike McDole was famous for this method and won many competitions, but not all of us are as special as Mike). A few bucks invested in a beer gun or a counter-pressure filler is money well-spent if Alice is a prospective member of your mug club.

No matter what you’re using to fill your bottles, when you view your bottling space, think of how and what you need to move. Are you moving the keg from your freezer or fridge? Will that stir up sediment. Where are you going to fill? How will you keep the bottle steady and how do you move quickly to your cappers and caps? Where does your filler go while you’re capping? Can you employ a helper so one person fills while the other one caps?

A BeerGun® bottle filler is one tool homebrewers can use to fill bottles that may not be consumed within a day or two. Photo by Aaron Hyde

For Drew, when he’s got to do some serious bottling, the kegs stay in the chest freezer to avoid stirring up anything in the keg bottom. The long draft line of his Blichmann BeerGun® gives plenty of maneuvering room to a low mobile table where in order lay a heavy pitcher full of sanitizer fluid for holding the beer gun between fillings, a container of caps, and a capper. Bottles are kept at his feet in a cold batch of sanitizer fluid. (A spare slop bucket is also handy). Filling becomes one smooth motion of:

  • Grabbing a bottle.
  • Draining the sanitizer from bottle.
  • Purging with carbon dioxide.
  • Filling the beer slowly and smoothly.
  • Removing the filler and giving a last little squirt of beer to cause some foam.
  • Placing the filler back in the pitcher.
  • Grabbing a sanitized cap and topping the bottle.
  • Sealing the crown – do this smoothly and don’t jostle things around too much!
  • Dunking the bottle in sanitizer or water to rinse, placing to the side.

Denny follows the same general principles as Drew — cold, fast, and smooth — but his equipment is decidedly lower tech. His bottling equipment consists of a piece of tubing (hard plastic tube works well) pushed through a single hole #2 rubber stopper. You need to have enough tubing to reach the bottom of the bottle with about 3–4 in. (8–10 cm) of tubing sticking up above the stopper. Sanitize the assembly when you sanitize your bottles.

Make sure your beer is carbed to a bit higher level than you’d use for serving, then turn the pressure down to about 1 psi. Push the end of the tubing above the stopper into a tap. Shoot a bit of CO2, either from your CO2 bottle or a keg charger, into the bottle then quickly seat the stopper in the bottle. Then open the tap. The bottle will fill maybe a 1⁄3 of the way, then stop filling because of the back-pressure. At that point, crack the seal on the stopper just a hair by pushing it with your thumb. The beer will start flowing again. Once the bottle is full, close the tap, remove the stopper/tubing assembly and cap quickly.

Let’s review a few key points here and a goofy thing that Drew does differently:

  • By keeping the beer in the chest freezer and the bottles in cold sanitizer, the beer will be easier to control and generate less foaming in the bottle.
  • Using a long narrow draft line like what’s in the BeerGun® kit helps create a slow, smooth pour of beer into the bottle. Note: When dispensing beer, it’s recommended to have enough resistance in the beer line that you get a small positive differential at the faucet. (e.g. a beer served at 12 psi should be run through ~4–5 ft./1.2–1.5 m of 3⁄16-in. ID line, which has a resistance of 3 psi/ft. or 10 psi/m.) By the by, you should think about this when you’re serving beer regularly.
  • To also help make sure the beer is pouring at the right speed, Drew briefly drops the head pressure in the keg and then re-attaches the gas at the desired serving pressure.
  • Drew’s secret purge trick – use a second tank. The BeerGun® is designed to help you easily purge your bottles with CO2. Normally you use the same CO2 tank to supply the purging gas, but Drew attaches a second CO2 tank, set to a lower psi (~3–4). While the powers of the almighty CO2 blanket are overstated, you will improve your chances of a thorough oxygen purge with a slow laminar flow of gas. Drew lets the purge be the slowest part of the whole filling process. Note: This specifically works with the BeerGun® or any open top filling method. If just using a tap line, consider creating a “CO2 tap line” to purge the bottle first.
  • If you’re using a classic counter-pressure-style filler, you must run the keg and your purge gas at the same setting to avoid excess foaming.

Everything else is about keeping things in reach so that the process runs smoothly. If Drew were bottling/canning more often, things would be a lot more fixed into place!

What Changes?

There are some specialty situations to consider:

You want to bottle a beer that has a high carbonation level.

Bob’s made a killer hefe or a sublime saison and he wants Alice’s opinion. If he wants that bright brisk fizz that his keg version is giving to him, he’ll need to compensate for the extra carbonation. The biggest change needed is the length of the line to add extra resistance to the system and allow that extra cheerful beer to hit the bottle cleanly.

Keep everything even colder – add ice to the sanitizer bucket that holds the bottles.

Work fast as more CO2 will come out of solution in the keg and throw off your balance.

One thing that Drew has found with the rush to cans is that a number of styles that should be highly effervescent are lacking the full burst of CO2 when canned. Why? Canning systems are far more sensitive to beer that’s carbed out of spec (or in this case the nominal “average” of 2.5–2.7 volumes of CO2). Your local craft brewery using a mobile canner can tell you horror stories about the wasted beer and abundance of short fills.

You want to can a beer instead of using bottles.

Cans are the new hotness and machines like MoreBeer’s Cannular, Oktober seamers, and Wisconsin Aluminum single canners are mainly falling into the price ranges of the obsessive homebrewers.

Because of the finicky nature of cans and can seamers, we highly recommend that you practice and practice some more. Carbonate up a keg of water and use it to test run your setup before you pour perfectly good beer into a bad setup (and having a keg of seltzer water is a very nice thing to have anyway).

The purge and “capping-on-foam” procedures are even more important thanks to the big wide-open top of a can before the end (lid) is added. Take your time and get it right!

Tools of the Trade

While we don’t promote any one system over the others, there are several filling systems available from vendors. If you want to move up from your current filling system, you can design your own counter-pressure bottle filler and instructions can be found in the interwebs. Some vendors sell pre-built versions of these counter-pressure fillers. As mentioned earlier, there is the Blichmann BeerGun®, which is a handy tool and now you know how Drew uses his. There are a few knock-offs available too but we cannot vouch for their quality. For those with Perlick or any forward-sealing faucets in their kegging system the Tapcooler counter-pressure filler is an option to check out.

Issue: March-April 2022