Why Would I Keg Beer?
The average batch of homebrew makes around 5 gallons, which is equivalent to over 50 12 oz bottles. Why spend hours cleaning and prepping all those individual bottles when you can put it all into one Corny keg? Not surprisingly, most homebrew ingredient kits are designed to make around 5 gallons which is the same size as the Corny keg.
What Equipment Do I Need To Keg Beer?
The upfront cost is usually between $150-180 US for an initial setup to keg beer. This may seem high, but when you factor in the convenience and the time saved, it is more than a worthwhile investment. It is also recommended that you have a refrigerator or modified freezer to keep the kegged beer chilled. A used fridge can be found for as cheap as $30, or sometimes even for free, on sites such as craigslist. Having a fridge to store the kegged beer is highly recommended.
Basic Equipment Needed To Keg Beer In Detail:
Cornelius Keg - Also known as a Corny keg or soda keg, it is a stainless steel container that was originally used by the soft drink industry, but now is largely used to store homebrew beer. They are very easy to clean because of the large opening at the top. If well-maintained, they can store beer for long periods of time. An untapped keg can store for between 45-60 days. Most home brewers buy the 5 gallon size, but they also come in sizes of 2.5, 3 and 10 gallon. The smaller ones are sometimes used for root beer or for easy transportation.
CO2 Tank – CO2 is preferable to dispense the beer because the oxygen in plain air will chemically react with the beer causing it to become stale. CO2 Tanks come in 5 lb, 10 lb and 20 lb sizes. It is usually rather easy to find a local place to refill your tank at a reasonable price. Larger tanks are better if you have the space because they require less refilling and tanks cost about the same to fill no matter the size.
Regulator – The initial CO2 tank pressure is usually around 800 psi but you want to serve between 8 and 15 psi for most beers. This is where the regulator comes into play. It is attached to the CO2 tank and the small screw or dial on the front of the regulator allows you to decide at what pressure to dispense the CO2 when you keg beer. Most regulators also have a cut-off valve and a pressure release valve in case the pressure gets too high. You should get a dual gauge regulator. The high pressure gauge shows the pressure of the tank, and the other shows the output pressure into the keg. It is recommended that you have both so that you can more easily see if there is a leak in either side of the system.
Beer Line Hose – A clear 3/16” I.D. vinyl hose that connects the Cornelius keg to the tap. The length is very important to insure proper dispensing with minimal foam. If using a 3/16” hose, the hose should not be more than 6 feet.
Gas Line Hose – A clear or colored 5/16” I.D. (inner diameter) vinyl hose that connects the regulator to the gas input on the Cornelius keg. A clear hose is preferred by many home brewers because it is easier to visually detect problems such as beer back-up or moisture in the gas line.
Keg Couplers – These are the fittings that connect the vinyl hoses to the keg itself. They come in two types – pin lock and ball lock connectors. Make sure to get the type that fits the specific kegs that you are ordering. Ball locks are the most common, but be sure to check before ordering. For the ball lock, make sure to order the liquid-out fitting as well as the gas-in fitting. They are two different sizes to ensure that they are connected correctly.
Tap (Faucet) -This will dispense that delicious beer you have worked so hard to brew and store. Taps can range in price and quality from as cheap and simple as a plastic picnic tap for around $5.00 to a stainless steel tap faucet, which could cost up to $100, that allows you to control the flow of beer and top it off with the perfect amount of head. Most home brewers start with a plastic tap for simplicity and cost.
Refrigerator -A refrigerator is not necessarily needed, but it is highly recommended when you keg beer. Not only do most people enjoy their beer cold, but it is much easier to carbonate at lower temperatures. Carbonating beer at room temperature requires a much higher pressure and will also require a longer beer hose to compensate for that higher pressure. When carbonating cold beer at a temperature of around 40°F, a pressure of around 10-12 psi will be needed. If you were to carbonate that same beer at room temperature, somewhere around 70°F, you would need a pressure of around 30 psi. That is more than double the pressure. A used fridge can be found for under $40 on sites such as craigslist and is highly recommended.
Checking Out The System
Once all the equipment you have purchased to keg beer arrives, inspect it to make sure there are no obvious defects. Next, you will want to take the CO2 tank to be filled. This can be done at a variety of locations such as a local welding shop. Do not assume just because a location uses CO2 that they will fill your tank. Call around to make sure the location fills tanks before driving over.
After being filled, the tank will be cold due to the cold liquid gas that is now in the tank. Let it rest overnight and allow it to warm to room temperature. Once at room temperature, turn all the valves to the off position, usually at 90° to the valve opening, and attach the regulator. I recommend using Teflon tape on the threads to ensure a tight seal. Connect all the hoses to an empty keg; test for leaks by opening the valves and slowly turning the pressure up to around 10 psi. The best way to check for leaks is to rub soapy water on all the points of connection. If there is a leak, the soap will begin to bubble. If you do not see any leaks and the pressure on the regulator appears to be stable, turn off the gas and release the pressure in the keg. This is done by pulling up on the pressure relief valve on top of the keg. The pressure relief valve is a small key ring on the top of the keg.
Clean and Sanitize All Equipment Before You Keg Beer
Before you keg beer, the equipment needs to be cleaned and sanitized. Never use bleach because the kegs are made of stainless steel and will react with the bleach. I recommend Clean Flo. It has worked well for me and seems to effectively break down sediment and clean the equipment. For a sanitizer, I use Star San, but iodine could also be used. Iodine can easily be found at any grocery store. Star San is also known to be a good sanitizer. Follow the directions on the package carefully to ensure the right dilution of the chemicals.
Disassemble the keg so that all components may be cleaned thoroughly. Soak the keg components and the hoses in a bucket full of diluted Clean Flo solution. Fill the keg with the same solution. To make the process easier, the components can be placed in the keg while it soaks. Once all parts have thoroughly soaked, for no less than 10 minutes, rinse everything and reassemble.
Now it is time to sanitize. Pour a diluted solution of iodine or Star San into the keg. Lock the cap into place and shake the keg for a few minutes. Connect the hoses for the beer and gas lines. Open the valve on the regulator to allow the CO2 to flow into the keg; this will push the sanitizer through the beer line. Once all of the sanitizer has passed through the beer line, turn the regulator valve to the off position and take the cap off the keg. Now you are ready to keg beer with a clean and sanitized keg.
Filling the Keg
Here is the magic behind kegging beer vs. bottling beer. When you keg beer, all you need to do is siphon the beer from the carboy or bucket into the keg. Make sure anything that will touch the beer is sterilized such as the siphon. It can sometimes make things easier to put the carboy/bucket on a counter so that gravity can help the beer into the keg. Once all the beer has been transferred, either wet the O ring with water or apply a small amount of keg lube to ensure a tight seal, and place the lid on the keg. Give the keg a shot of high pressure, around 20 psi, to ensure the lid has been sealed properly on the keg. Release the pressure and apply around 10 psi of pressure to the keg. Repeat 3-4 times to ensure all the air is out of the keg. This is sometimes called “burping” your keg.
When you keg beer, there are two choices for carbonating your beer. The first is natural carbonation. Natural carbonation can be obtained using corn sugar. About 1/3 cup should be used for a 5 gallon batch. However, there a few disadvantages to natural carbonation. When you naturally carbonate, you are counting on the residual yeast to ferment again in the keg. The issue is that the yeast may be done fermenting, especially in higher gravity beers of over 1.060 which will lead to under-carbonation. Another issue is that this process will leave sediment. Luckily, when you keg beer, most of the sediment stays in the keg, but it still leaves the possibility of some getting into the beer you are drinking. Although sediment can give flavor, and is normal, it is a big turn-off to many beer drinkers.
The second option for carbonating your beer is cleaner, quicker, and the more popular method. With this method, you “force carbonate” the beer using the pressure from the CO2 tank. The pressure is dependent on the temperature and the style of the beer. As stated earlier in this article, CO2 dissolves much more easily in cold beer than in warm beer and dissolves more completely. This is why it is recommended to carbonate in the refrigerator. Most home brewers keep their refrigerators around 40°F and at a pressure of around 10-12 psi.
There are two basic ways to force carbonate. The simplest, and preferred way, is to put the beer in the fridge, set the regulator to the correct pressure, and leave it alone for at least 3 days if not a week. The correct carbonation pressure needed for a given desired CO2 level and temperature can be found in this temperature vs. pressure chart or calculated using an online tool such as BeerSmith. After 3 days, the CO2 will be almost completely dissolved. If it appears to be over carbonated, you can always turn the CO2 pressure down a little and release some pressure from the keg. If you have the opposite problem, and it is under carbonated, then just turn the CO2 pressure up slightly.
If you are either too impatient or in too much of a rush to wait a few days for your beer, you could use this second method although it is not recommended. Set the CO2 regulator to a very high pressure of around 50-60 psi, or as high as it will allow, then fill the tank until you hear or feel the gas stop. Disconnect the keg and shake vigorously for around 5 minutes. Repeat this process until the keg accepts no more gas. Once this is achieved, set the regulator to a constant pressure of around 10-12 psi and let the keg settle for a few hours.
Either method will work, but I recommend taking the slower route. Not only do you lower the risk of hurting yourself, but why would you want to shake and abuse that delicious beer you worked so hard to create?
Once you learn to keg beer and have gotten comfortable with one keg, or you already know you want to have multiple beers on hand at all times, then you may want a larger system. Additional kegs, taps, and some extra hose and fittings can be purchased to accomplish this. You may also want to build a kegerator using a kegerator conversion kit. Not only is it nice to have a designated beer dispenser, but they look good when done right and your friends will be jealous.