In this section, I want to lay out some of the basics of kegging homebrew. If you ask homebrewers about what they consider their best move to be, many will say kegging has made life easier and there's no question that it does. Instead of cleaning and bottling 50-60 12-ounce bottles, you clean one keg. You can still carbonate the keg with priming solution if you wish or you can force-carbonate it using a Co2 tank.
The biggest reason that people DO NOT get into kegging is the expense. The kegs used for kegging homebrew (often referred to as corneluis or challenger kegs) can be costly, especially if the kegs are new (or newer) or "reconditioned". There are places online that will sell 5-gallon kegs for as little as $15. They may be a little dirty and they also may have tape or stickers on them. The key to the keg is that it holds pressure. It's nice when the o-rings, poppets, etc. are new and in good working condition. But sometimes these items need to be replaced. One slightly more expensive option is to buy reconditioned kegs from a local homebrew supply shop for $20 to $30 each. I just recently picked one up for $26 that was exceptionally clean and pretty much ready-to-use. There are also a few different ways to dispense beer from a keg. The keg can be placed inside a standard fridge and have a "picnic" or "cobra" tap connected. This means that when you want to tap a beer, you open the fridge door, grab the picnic tap and dispense away. You can also get "shanks" and "faucets" which you mount to the side or front of your fridge. The hose from the keg runs to the shank which is placed through a hole that is drilled through the fridge wall. The shank connects to a faucet which is mounted outside the fridge. There are also "draft towers" that come in single, double and triple varieties. The tower is typically mounted to the top of a half-height fridge. Each brewer has their preference and the setup can be as simple or as customized as the brewer would like to make it. Let's look at the basics required to keg homebrew and dispense it.
1. 5-gallon kegs often referred to as Cornelius or Challenger kegs. Ball-locks are more common... $12 to about $75.
2. A Co2 tank. These come in 2.5, 5, 10 and 20 pound sizes. They are filled with Co2 by homebrew supply shops, welding supply companies and Fire Extinguisher maintenance companies. I use 5-lb tanks and they are usually $10 or less to fill and they last for quite a long time, depending on how you use them. The tank also requires a regulator to make it easy to control the tank. The 5-lb tanks can run between $45 and $80 new. The regulators can run from about $30 and up.
3. Tubing to run from the Co2 tank to the keg and from the keg to the tapping device (shank & faucet, tower, picnic tap, etc). These smaller pieces are only a few dollars.
Here's a picture of my first keg system with 5-gallon cornelius style keg, 5-lb Co2 tank, tubing and a single tower:
The red tubing is the gas-in line which runs from the tank to "IN" side of the keg. The clear (beer-colored) tubing is the liquid-out line which attaches to the "OUT" side of the keg and then runs up to the faucet on the tower on the top of the fridge. The length and the inside-diameter of the tubing can make a difference in how the beer dispenses. You want 3/16" inside-diameter tubing for your liquid-out line. You also (typically) want around 5' or 6' of liquid-out line from the keg to the faucet. There are also connectors (usually quick-disconnects) that connect to the tubing and then attach to the keg. There are both "gas" and "liquid" connectors and you should use the correct type. The gas-in line always seems to be the same dimension, which is a little thicker than the liquid-out line.
When You First Get Your Kegs
If the outside of the keg is troubling you (stickers, tape, etc), you can scrape all of it off and use a Scotch pad to get it clean. It's a good idea to take the keg apart when you first get it to ensure everything is clean, sanitary and in good working order before you use it. One of the posts has an unusual fitting on it, but most people can loosen it with a standard wrench or pliers. Take the posts apart and look at the poppets (small colored spring-loaded gizmos that are in the center of the post assembly). Take all of this apart and take out the long dip tube that runs through the beer-out post. Scrub all of these parts and sanitize them. Inspect the o-rings and make sure they are new or newer and are not worn. These parts are readily available and inexpensive if they need to be replaced. Put everything back together the way it came. None of this is complicated... I consider myself to be mildly handy and it's very simple stuff.
Kegging A Batch Of Beer & Force Carbonating
You have 5 gallons of beer either in a primary or a secondary. If the beer is in primary, you may have more yeast in your beer glass when you begin tapping beers. If the beer is coming from a secondary, you have a good chance of getting very clear beer when you start tapping from the keg. The keg is cleaned and sanitized and the beer is racked from the source vessel to the keg. The lid can be attached and secured by adding a bit of Co2 to the keg. Connect the gas-in line to the "IN" side of the keg, turn the Co2 tank on and listen. There will be a hiss and then it will stop because the headspace (area above the beer in the keg) has filled with Co2 and has tightly closed the lid. At this point, you should get the beer cold if it's not already. Cold beer will absorb carbonation much faster than warm beer. I typically leave the keg in the fridge overnight and begin carbing the next morning. There are many different ways to get a keg of cold, flat beer force-carbonated. Some will use lower pressure for 1 week or so and others will use high pressure and rock the keg for 10 minutes and get carbonated beer. I prefer to use medium pressure for about 48 hours. What got me into kegging in the first place is that instead of waiting 4-6 weeks to drink my corn sugar-primed bottles, I could be drinking that same beer in 48 hours. So I set my regulator to between 25 and 30 psi (pounds per square inch) and leave the tank on, leaving the keg in the fridge for 48 hours. If I take the keg off the gas after only 45 hours or not until 50+ hours, it doesn't seem to make a HUGE difference. When the keg is done, it can remain in the fridge with the Co2 tank disconnected for a VERY long time with no ill-effects. Since the beer is not in contact with outside air, it's conceivable that the keg could stay that way for years. But once you're ready to tap it, pull the release pin on the top of the keg to relieve the keg of headspace pressure. If you don't do this, the first few (or more...) pints will be terribly foamy and the dispensing will be out of control. Next, set the pressure on your Co2 regulator to around 8-10 psi for dispensing. This will push Co2 into the keg, forcing it out of the beer-out line. The pressure for dispensing can vary depending on your system (length of tubing, diameter of tubing, etc). Adjust the regulator on the tank up or down if necessary. Tanks can sit inside fridges, chest freezers, etc. alongside the keg with no ill-effects. The gas can be left on at all times and will only push more Co2 into the keg when the pressure in the keg is lowered, usually by tapping a beer. I do know some brewers who turn the Co2 tank on & off as needed, but I do not see the point in doing this and depending on your situation, your tank may not be in a convenient location.
Kegging A Batch of Beer with Priming Solution
You can keg 5 gallons of beer and use the keg as if it were a giant bottle. You can prepare a priming solution with water and just 1/3rd cup of priming sugar as opposed to the 3/4 cup (5 oz) used for bottling. When doing this, simply prepare your priming solution, add it to the clean and sanitized keg and rack the beer on top. If possible, it's best to use your Co2 tank to ensure that the hatch is securely in place. Simply connect the Co2 tank to the "IN" side of the keg, wait until the hiss stops and disconnect it. For a primed keg, you will want to leave the beer in a room-temperature place as you would with bottles. Also, it's possible that primed keg beer will have a "green beer" flavor if you attempt to drink the beer too early. Once the keg is carbonated, release the headspace pressure, connect the keg to the Co2 tank and set the pressure to 8-10 or your normal serving pressure.
But I Still Want Some Bottled Beer!
You can still get your beer into bottles even if you keg. I like to connect a keg and drink some part of it and then bottle some. This way, I have a better selection and I can get one of my other kegs into the draft fridge. Some brewers have had excellent success with the Blichman Beer Gun which usually runs from $75 to $100. Some of the local brewers I know in the Chicago & Milwaukee area have shown me how to get beer into bottles where the carbonation is very good and will last a long, long time. Bottles still need to be cleaned & sanitized as always. You also need a picnic or cobra tap (these often come with kegging systems and resemble a hose with a faucet on it... it looks like the dispenser you would see at a keg party). This cobra/picnic tap also needs to be clean and sanitary. Then take your keg of beer, disconnect the Co2 tank and release the headspace pressure. Lower the pressure on your tank regulator so that it shows NO pressure. Connect the gas line to the "IN" side of the keg and slightly turn up the pressure. When the keg begins to hiss, stop raising it. The dial on the regulator should show ZERO or just above ZERO. Get your bottles handy. It's best if they're still a little wet. You can also get them cold, but it doesn't seem to be necessary. Grab a bottle and angle it. Begin tapping into bottles and cap them immediately. You will get into a rythym where you will know how full to make the bottle. It's good to have a small bucket handy in case you have any foaming issues. Also have a towel or paper towels around, just in case. If the pressure seems too high (foaming), release the headspace pressure and try lowering the pressure. If the stream of beer seems weak, carefully and slowly adjust it upwards. I have done this many, many times and have bottles in my fridge that have been there for over a year and they are still well-carbonated. This method can also be used to fill growlers or any type of container.
When a keg is emptied and while I am cleaning and sanitizing it, I will hook the keg up to my tower and run cleaser and sanitizer through my beer lines to make sure everything is clean. Place a bucket under the faucet and let a gallon or two run through the lines and faucet. This is simple way to make sure the beer lines do not get funky. There is also Beer Line Cleaner which can be run through the lines. Many homebrewers will break down their kegs on a regular basis (sometimes every time they fill the keg), but I have to admit that I am lazy and it does not seem necessary. I vigorously clean and sanitize my kegs between batches because I would never want to risk infecting the next batch going into the keg. But when a keg is emptied, I simply run cleanser and sanitizer through the faucets, fully drain the keg after the sanitizer has run through the lines and rack the next secondary full of beer into the keg.
Remember that kegging equipment can be found online, on forum "classifieds" and many other places. If you purchase the equipment from an online supplier or local homebrew supplier, you will probably pay more. The kegs you purchase can run from dirty, smelly and ugly to perfectly reconditioned and ready to use. The Co2 tanks can be old or new and some places that fill tanks will fill your tank or swap your empty for another one that's full. If you buy a brand-new tank and you don't want it swapped for an older, uglier one, mention this to the person filling or exchanging your tank. Also know that Co2 tanks can only be used for 5 years until they require what is called a "hydro test". There is a date stamped on the neck of tanks and if the tank is expired, most reputable suppliers will not fill the tank until it is tested. The test usually runs about $20 and makes the tank eligible for refills for another 5 years.
Although it can seem like a lot of information and the expense can be too much to justify, almost every homebrewer I have spoken to about kegging has wondered... why didn't I do this earlier? It does make brewing more fun and packaging your beer much easier. Questions? You can always email me from the link on the home page.