Homebrew Kegging Explained
Kegging is such a convenient way of storing and dispensing your home made beer. I bottled three five-gallon batches before I had enough of that fun. Sure it costs a bit to get started, but have you ever put a value on your time before? If you think your leisure time is worth say, $10 per hour, it won't take too many batches to pay for a kegging setup. Much of the equipment can be located cheaply and sometimes it is free (I found a large chest freezer in someone's yard with a sign that said "Freezes well, free for the taking").
If you are thinking of kegging, but just don't know the in's and out's, read on. Here are just a few of the
Reasons For Kegging:
- Foremost, it's about convenience. Admit it, you hate storing empties, cleaning, sanitizing, drying, filling, capping, labeling, finding a place to put them all, then waiting weeks for carbonation to occur in all those bottles of homebrewed beer (about 50 bottles for each 5 gallon batch).
- You control the amount of carbonation in your beer. If you have ever over or under carbonated your beer for whatever reason, you know how frustrating it can be. After all that work you find that your beer is flawed and there is no way to correct the problem once it's bottled. With kegging, you can easily adjust the carbonation level up or down whenever you like. If you get gigged at a competition for too much or too little carbonation, just correct the problem, then re-bottle a few for the next competition (more on this later).
- Let's not forget another big perk, you will be the envy of all your friends.
- Having the ability to filter your beer. There may be another way to filter your homebrew, but I don't know of it. All you need is an empty sanitized keg to transfer your crystal clear homebrew into, a jumper hose with connections, and a household filter housing with filter, that's it. I don't filter often but I have the option to filter or not since I started kegging.
- Oxygen-free transfer is another great plus for kegging. All you have to do is purge the kegs or carboy with CO2, put a little pressure on your keg, and stop worrying about oxidation or contamination.
- Dispense a taste or a gallon, you now have the option.
- What about the ability to serve a Guinness-style stout the way it was intended, on beer-gas with special European faucets which produces the signature "Guinness cascade".
- And last but not least, did I say that you will be the envy of all your friends?
About the only drawback is that you can't take a 6-pack of different kegs to an outing. For most homebrewers the pros far outweigh the single con, and there is even a few work-arounds for the con. You can buy growlers (large quart sized bottles with a handle and Grolsch-style swing top) to carry your kegged beer in or purchase small kegs (as small as 1 gallon) which will fit in a small ice chest. You can purchase CO2 chargers for your kegs and use a picnic tap. Some inventive homebrewers even build elaborate travelling kegerators in a large wheeled trash can which they fill with ice.
I'm Interested, What Will I Need?
Although the initial cost is pricey, between $150-$180 for the
initial kegging set-up
(cheaper if you're a scrounger), you will make that back many times over in the convenience. Small chest freezers or old refrigerators are everywhere, at garage sales, on Craig's List, on the side of the road (that's where I found one of mine) or at used appliance stores. Almost all homebrew kegging systems use Cornelius brand soda kegs.
The soda manufacturers are going to the plastic-lined bag-in-a-box for their soda concentrate so there WERE a lot of these used kegs around. The most popular ball-lock kegs are getting harder and harder to find, and many homebrewers will have to settle for the less popular "pin-lock" corny kegs. Used corny kegs once averaged about $35-$45 each with brand new ones quite a bit higher. But lately, online prices have skyrocketed. If you have access to some, grab as many as you can afford while the getting is good, you'll be glad you did. Most homebrewers purchase the used kegs. They come in a variety of sizes with the 5-gallon keg the most popular and most available.
Here are some of the other items you will need:
- CORNELIUS KEGS
These are the old soda kegs used everywhere for dispensing soda concentrate. They are made of stainless steel with inlet and outlet valves, a lid to fill and clean the keg, and some have a pressure relief valve for releasing pressure inside the keg (these are mostly found on the ball-lock style Cornelius kegs).
To learn all about cleaning your kegs, click here.
Most have black rubber protectors around the top and bottom of the keg to protect the valves and keep the bottom from being dented. There are two types of kegs with different connections, the ball-lock and pin-lock kegs and the connections are not compatible.
- REFRIGERATOR With temperature control just about any old freezer or refrigerator will make a great kegerator. I use a small chest freezer with a
Johnson Controls temperature controller
to keep the temperature where I want it. You will need to be able to adjust the temperature from just above freezing at 33°F for lagering to 50°F for serving cask ales. Most people like their beer served cold but you have the option to serve at any temperature.
- CO2 TANK
Specialized tanks filled with liquid CO2 that supply the pressure needed to dispense and carbonate your kegged beer. Since CO2 is a byproduct of fermentation anyway, it makes sense to use it to dispense your beer. It won't react with and oxidize your beer like pressurized air would. These tanks are sold at every homebrew supplier and are even available on ebay. They are can be refilled at welding supply storesfor a nominal cost. The CO2 is in liquid form so the bottles are sold by the amount (weight) of liquid carbon dioxide they hold. Common sizes are 5 lb., 10 lb, 15 lb., and 20 lb. and bottles are either steel or aluminum. If you have the space for a larger bottle inside your kegerator (which is what your fridge or freezer is now called), the larger bottle is more convenient. You can even drill a small hole in the side or back of your kegerator (be careful of freon lines) to run an air line and keep the CO2 bottle outside.
Since the CO2 in your tank is under high pressure, between 800-1000 psi, and you will be dispensing your beer at around 5 psi, you will need a way to drop the pressure coming from the tank. This is what the regulator does. It has a screw which adjusts to the pressure you choose. There will be at least one and usually two pressure gauges on the regulator for precise control. The two gauge set-up is used so you can read the pressure in the tank and also read the dispensing pressure This allows you to guess when the CO2 tank is almost empty. There is nothing worse than running out of CO2 in the middle of your party. You will use the regulator to apply the correct amount of CO2 when carbonating your beer.
To learn how to force carbonate your homebrew, click here.
- HOSES AND CONNECTIONS
You will need to connect your CO2 tank to the kegs and to the faucets. This is usually accomplished with two quick connects (one for gas and one for beer on the keg), a gas line and a beer line. The most commonly used type of kegs are the old Pepsi soda kegs which use ball-lock connections. Decide on one type, ball-lock or pin-lock, and don't try to mix the two. If you happen to have both types purchase your quick connects with the 1/4" male flare fitting instead of the barbed hose fitting. This gives you the flexibility to connect to either type of keg with your CO2 or beer lines (fitted with 1/4" ffl fittings).
- TAPS and TOWERS
The dispensing end of the whole kegging system. It can be a simple picnic tap or a chrome or brass faucet with a tap handle.
To Learn about dispensing your beer and balancing your kegerator, click here.
I keep a few picnic taps around for purging keg lines with sanitizer, or to dispense a keg that isn't connected to the faucets on the tower. The best faucets are the foward-sealing Perlick faucets which minimize contamination inside the tap. Keep a spray bottle filled with StarSan or vodka to spray inside the faucet with when you're finished using them for the day. There are many tap handles available on ebay and some homebrewers have a collection.
When Your Kegging System Arrives
Complete homebrew kegging systems
are available from many online kegging equipment suppliers, or from most homebrew stores. The specialty suppliers are probably the most knowledgeable and will gladly help you with all your questions. If you have a special request, such as combining a commercial sanke keg with a cornelius kegging system, they will be able to help you with all the fittings (they may even be able to design the system from scratch and put it all together for you). Almost all homebrew suppliers, local and online, are also homebrewers who keg their own beer. They are very knowledgeable and will help you with all your kegging questions and equipment needs.
Because of the dangers involved in picking up glass carboys full of fermenting beer, many homebrewers are learning to ferment in their kegs.
To learn all about fermenting in a keg, click here.
After you have gathered or purchased your equipment, the first thing to do is check it all out. The CO2 tank will be shipped empty, so you will need to have it filled with carbon dioxide. New tanks come with a 5-year DOT certification stamp which will be required for filling. The tanks must be re-certified by hydrostatic testing every 5 years. Check the date on the tank and then have it filled at a welding supply, fire extinguisher companies or industrial gas suppliers. The CO2 should last about 6 months to a year (for a 5 lb. tank) of normal homebrewer use.
A really good article from the Brewing Techniques Magazine archives is called Discover The Joys of Kegging Set up a Simple Home Draft System, by Kirk R. Fleming; John Palmer, column editor. Republished from Brewing Techniques' January/February 1997 issue.
Access the article Discover The Joys of Kegging by clicking here.
Good luck with your foray into the wonderful world of kegging. Be sure to check out the links above for more information, and don't forget to support your local homebrew shop.
Information for this article taken from my own experience with kegging, and the article by Ed Westemeier called A Bottler's Guide to Kegging which appeared in Zymurgy Magazine Summer 1995 (vol. 18, no. 2).
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