Kegging Your Homebrew: The Complete Guide
Kegging may very well be the best thing EVER for us homebrewers, and I’m pretty sure that it’s at least part of the reason that homebrewing is still a thing. As fun as bottling can be, the boxes full of glass bottles that are waiting to be filled, the extra wait time while nature carbonates your bottle for you, and the extra time and process it takes to actually do it can all get really old, really fast. Luckily, kegs are here and they negate all of that! This week we’ll talk about how to keg, carbonate and pour your favorite home brews!
Basic Keg System Parts and Pieces
So what does it take to keg? It’s very simple. For a single keg system, you will need:
- A Soda Keg (also called a corny or cornelius keg which comes in two connection types, ball lock or pin lock)
- A CO2 Cylinder
- A CO2 Regulator
- Gas Tubing, 5/16” ID (length does not matter, but you want enough to make using it convenient - at least 3 feet)
- Draft Tubing, 3/16” ID (length DOES matter, and we usually use 10 feet and a great equalizer for most brewers)
- Gas In Coupler with nut and 5/16” Barb
- Beer Out Coupler with nut and 3/16” Barb
- A Picnic Faucet or a Faucet with a Shank
- A way to keep your keg cold, like a fridge or keezer
- A Pint Glass
This is your basic, expandable system. We have seen some pretty incredible and extremely innovative draft systems from our customers, and the only real limit is your imagination. When designing a draft beer system, I always start with the refrigeration method, because this will determine how you are going to store and pour.
Photo Credit: @oggjm68
The Almighty Kegerator
One of my favorite examples is a standard top freezer, bottom refrigerator fridge. These are easy to drill out for shanks and faucets, and totally customizable, not to mention that most can hold 3 to 4 kegs plus a small CO2 tank. This is the perfect place to start for most home brewers, since most of us already have a garage fridge that we store beer in. It’s a pretty simple upgrade to install homebrew shanks and faucets and stuff a keg full of beer in it!
Photo Credit @kevgorges
Another killer example is a keezer. A keezer is generally a chest freezer with a temperature controller (we love these Inkbird units for both keezers and fermentation chambers because they are super cost effective, high quality, and digital!) to keep it right where you want it. This gives you better control over your beer temp, and they come in lots of different sizes, which means you can fit 1 to 12 kegs! Ideal for both beginners and advanced keggers! They are also super fun to customize. You can build a collar so you don’t drill through the freezer itself, build a full on enclosure so it fits perfectly in the middle of your living room, and even set it on wheels so it’s mobile during BBQ’s!
You can also get already set up, commercial keg fridges with tap towers if you want to skip the whole DIY part and just get to drinking your kegged beer! Options are limitless, and there’s not really a right answer, just what works best for you, just like homebrewing in general!
Once you have your refrigeration in place, it’s time to think about what kind of soda keg that you want to use. There are two types: Ball Lock (aka Pepsi) and Pin Lock (aka Coke). These kegs were what the two giant soda companies started with for dispensing their products back in the day, before they moved to the cheaper and space saving bag-in-a-box dispensing systems that are the standard today.
What Kind of Soda Keg Should I Use?
There are a few key differences between these two keg types. Pin lock kegs are slightly shorter and fatter, and the coupling system is based on a coupler that pushes down and twists to lock on either two prongs (gas side coupler) or three prongs (beverage side coupler). The standard lids on pin lock kegs come standard without a pressure relief valve as well, although they can be upgraded to a Standard Cornelius Keg Lid with PRV. If you don’t upgrade it, you will need an extra coupler to relieve excess pressure from your keg.
Ball Lock kegs are slightly taller and skinnier, and their coupling system is a pneumatic style ball lock, just like on an air compressor. They also come standard with a lid that already has a PRV in place, which means less investment into upgrades! The gas in side coupler is generally grey, and the beverage out side coupler black.
Having used both over the years, we much prefer the ball lock style kegs for a few reasons. First and foremost, they are taller and skinnier, which means it’s easier to fit more kegs in the same space. Let’s be honest, do you need another reason?! We also like the coupling system quite a bit more. They create a better seal, especially on the gas side. With pin lock, the gas side couplers can be jostled and allow a slow leak while you’re carbonating your draught beer, and you only need to exchange your CO2 tank a few times and spend hours chasing a leak that is a pain in the ass to notice before you’ll be ready change all of the posts!
Regulators! Mount Up...
When it comes to CO2 Regulators, remember that they are not all created equal. We have been through our fair share of regulators, and it seems that the cheaper regulators, the more problems you have, and the faster you have them. Bad regulator signs include wild pressure swings, slowly climbing serving pressures without you raising them, and not being able to turn your regulator down.
We’ve settled on the Taprite line of regulators as our top choice. They run right on the line of cost effectiveness and high quality. They are American made, last forever, and have parts and accessories like Gauge Guards and Spare Pressure and Tank Gauges for when your friends knock over your CO2 tank!
Hose for Days
Draft line also comes in many different shapes and levels of quality. While at the most basic level, draft line just has to hold at pressure and be the right size, there are many upgraded lines that make life much cleaner and easier. When I first started kegging, I went for the cheapest stuff that was readily available, which was fine, but found over the years that it drove me nuts that it would become stiff and unyielding when in the fridge. It sounds like a small thing, but when you’re trying to fit 4 or 5 kegs just right in a fridge, these little things make a big difference! Not to mention that cleaning the lines was often a pain, and usually fruitless.
The last few years, we’ve moved over to EJ Beverage Line for both our beverage out and gas lines. This stuff has an antimicrobial coating on the inside, meaning that the bugs that give you dysentery and make the beer taste like mold can’t take hold inside the tubing, especially with a regular cleaning regiment. On top of that, they actually stay pliable in the cold of your kegerator, which just makes everything SO much easier! We use these both on our homebrew kegerator AND our commercial kegerator where we pour commercial beer, and have been super happy with both the price point and the overall quality!
Photo Credit @kevgorges
Expanding Your Draft System
Once you get your first keg, the second and third are generally pretty close behind, but now you have to think about how you’re going to get gas to all of these, and how you’re going to pour them. Luckily, this is easier than you’d think!
Expanding the gas part of your system usually involves a Gas Manifold with Check Valves. The check valves are very important, because if you run out of gas and your keg is still pressurized, especially if you happen to be force carbonating at the time, the beer will flow backwards and can get into your regulator and ruin it, no matter the quality.
Your Gas Manifold size will depend on how many kegs you intend to pour, as you will need a check valve for each keg. These manifolds are perfect for creating a very clean and organized kegging system. You can mount them directly to the side of your kegerator, and even organized them so each keg faucet coincides with the same number on the manifold. This makes changing kegs a nice, organized breeze. Plus, it looks super clean!
From here, you can either dedicate a picnic faucet to each keg, or install a shank and faucet for each. You can even install a Tap Tower to pour all of your brew!
One thing that we do HIGHLY recommend, and have learned the hard way over the years, is any shanks and faucets, tower shanks and faucets included, should be stainless steel. Although the chrome plated brass products will work, and they can be easier on your wallet, you’ll end up replacing them frequently. Once the chrome plating starts to wear away, the cool part of which is that you’ll probably be drinking it, everything gets dirty quickly and easily. Despite being more expensive from the get go, stainless beer faucets and shanks are easy to clean, keep clean, and will literally last as long as your liver does, and maybe longer! They won’t affect the quality of your beer, and you can be confident that your system doesn’t have any weak links.
Ok, enough about parts and pieces, let’s get down to process! Now that you know what to use and where, let’s talk kegging day! It’s a lot like bottling day, only two hours shorter and an eighth of the work!
First and foremost, as with everything in homebrewing, sanitation is key! Clean, clean, clean, sanitize, sanitize, sanitize! This is a lot less work when it comes to kegs vs bottles, but just as important.
Kegs make it easy to have a sanitized vessel on hand at any time. Our sanitization and storage practices go like this:
- Clean with an oxidizer like PBW or an enzyme cleaner
- Rinse with clean water
- Rinse again with clean water
- Add your sanitizer, preferably Star San for this method sense it’s no-rinse
- Close and pressurize keg
- Shake it around and allow 2 minutes for the Star San to do it’s work
- Add gas and hook up your beverage out coupler with a picnic faucet or a regular faucet and transfer Star San back into your sanitizer or into your next keg
Once you transfer out your Star San, your keg is ready for storage or filling. Since you have essentially placed the inside of that keg in a vacuum, nothing is getting in or out until you open it. If you have a fleet of kegs (which you should!!), this method makes it easy to clean and sanitize them all at once in a short amount of time, cutting back on the amount of cleaner and sanitizer you use overall. Once you’re ready to use one, it’s already purged with CO2, sanitized, and ready to be filled!
Now that you’re clean, it’s time to transfer beer into the keg. It’s important to mitigate splashing as much as possible in this point of the process because the less oxygen you get into your beer, the longer it will last and the fresher it will stay. Dissolved oxygen (D.O.) is the bane of both homebrewers and craft brewers the world over!
You can perform a closed transfer into your keg by attaching your siphon tube to your coupler and either opening the pressure relief valve or, if you’re using pin lock kegs, putting a gas in coupler on the gas side with no hose on it. This is probably the best possible way to perform a transfer as it minimized oxidation most effectively. If you’re not doing a closed transfer, make sure you use enough siphon tubing to get all the way to the bottom of your keg.
Once here, I like to purge the top of the fermentor with some extra CO2, just to create a blanket to limit any more potential oxidation. Start your siphon and fill ‘er up! It’s really that easy! Once the keg is full, it’s time to add CO2.
Something to keep in mind is that many of the soda kegs we all use and have access to these days are used. Many date back to the 70’s and 80’s, and it’s not uncommon to have sealing issues. When this happens, keg lube and high pressure are your best friends. I like to bump the regulator up to 20 or 25 psi and give the keg a good, solid blast. This forces everything into place and helps seal everything up. Once sealed, purge via the PRV or your pin lock gas out coupler 2 or 3 times to ensure that no oxygen is in the keg. Now that your beer is safe, let’s carb it up!
Carbonating your beer is both an art and a science. While it’s easy to carb it up, it’s also easy to over carbonate, and surprising easy to under carbonate. Luckily with kegs, your carbonation level is not set in stone, and can be adjusted at any time, although it’s definitely easier to add more than it is to take it back out!
The best possible method for carbonation, and the same one that many craft breweries use, is to use a Carbonation Lid. For us homebrewers, this is a soda keg lid that has been modified to include a ball lock post on the top, a barb on the bottom, and a connected tube with a 0.5 Micron Carbonation Stone on the end. The way this works is that you add pressure slowly and allow the CO2 time to dissolve into solution before raising the pressure. The method is this: Put your keg in the fridge, because this only works when your beer is cold, as CO2 only dissolves into solution with temperature. Put your regulator to 3 psi and leave it for 1 hour. Over the course of the next few hours, bump up your regulator 2 psi per hour until you get to your serving pressure. Serving pressure is different for everyone, but it’s usually between 8 and 12 psi. You’ll have to find yours with a little trial and error until you hit the perfect level of carbonation. We recommend starting with 12 psi as your standard house serving pressure, then adjusting up or down depending on your own personal preference. Once you get to serving pressure, leave your keg on pressure for 24 hours. Once here, pour yourself a pint. You’ve earned it! Judge your carbonation level, and either adjust your regulator up and leave it another hour, or move to the next step, which is simply pulling your coupler off, relieving pressure and switching out your carbonation lid and putting your normal keg lid back on. Hook back up to the CO2, purge out the oxygen, and enjoy the fruits of your labor.
One thing to note is that the carbonation stone is very susceptible to the oils on your fingers. Try not to touch it all if possible. We like to store ours in some 10 Torr Vodka because the ethanol will clean it out as well as possible, and if we do accidentally touch it, the oils will dissolve into the vodka and it won’t be ruined.
Another very popular method is called Force Carbonating. This is a simple method, and can be done in a couple of ways. This method got its name from brewers mechanically forcing the CO2 into solution. To make it work, your beer has to be cold. All you have to do is adjust your regulator to 25 psi and vigorously shake or roll your keg for 5 - 15 minutes. This forces the CO2 into solution, as long as it’s cold, by increasing the surface area that the gas contacts. You can have your beer drinkably carbonated in just 15 minutes, although it won’t be perfect for 5 to 7 days. From there, keep your regulator at 25 psi and put it in your kegerator. After 2 days, pull your coupler off and purge both your regulator and keg completely. Adjust your regulator down to serving pressure and re-attach the coupler, purging the CO2 a couple of times via the PRV or pin lock coupler to ensure no oxygen got in. Leave it for another 4 to 5 days, and your beer will be ready!
We do a lazy version of this, simply putting the regulator to 25 psi and putting it in the fridge for 2 days, then purging and lowering the regulator to serving pressure. It can take an extra day, but still works perfectly well!
Another great, and decidedly less labor intensive, method of carbonation is simply adjusting your regulator to your chosen serving pressure and leaving it on the keg in the kegerator for 5 to 7 days. This method is definitely slower, but works just as well if you aren’t in a hurry to get a pint of your newest creation.
Bottling From Your Draft System
Bottling off of the keg is great for when you want to take a six pack to a buddies house or enter beer into a competition. There are many different options out there, including the Blichmann Beer Gun and Counter-Pressure Bottle Fillers. The important part is that you get full bottles or growlers, minimize any oxidation, and keep your carbonation levels.
The Beergun, while it’s not exactly a counter pressure filler, makes life very easy. It attaches directly to your keg, or even your faucet if you’re using Intertap Faucets with their Ball Lock Spout, and allows you to both purge your bottles with CO2 and fill with one hand. You can even blanket the top of the bottle with CO2 before capping, which will help ensure carbonation levels. With a little practice and proper process, you can bottle off kegs at a time and they will stay perfect for years!
When filling bottles from the keg, you have to remember that you aren’t just pouring into a pint glass for immediate consumption, but into another container for storage. This is why, although probably the messiest possible way to do it, the concept of counter pressure bottle filling is so scientifically sound. The idea is to match the pressure inside the bottle to the pressure inside the keg, and then cap the bottle before that pressure escapes.
Traditional counter pressure bottle fillers are a nightmare. While brilliant, they have tons of moving parts to make them work right, and almost require two people to ease the process. Over the years, we’ve come up with a scientifically sound substitute that works well for a fraction of the price….although it’s still a messy process!
Ok, to make this work, you’ll need:
- A Picnic Faucet
- A Bottle Filler with the Spring Loaded Tip Removed
- A #2 Stopper for Standard Bottles, or a #6 Stopper for Growlers
This method is really straightforward. Connect some your Beverage Out Coupler on one side and Picnic Faucet on the other. Slide your Bottle Filler into the tip of the Picnic Faucet, and put your stopper over the bottle filler at the height of a bottle. Insert the bottle filler into the bottle until the stopper is snug, and begin to fill.
You’ll notice once you get about 20% full that you’ll have to hold the stopper in and the liquid stops filling. This means pressure is equalized! Success! From here, slowly ‘burp’ the stopper until you bottle is full and stop filling. This is where it gets tricky, and it helps to have a friend on hand to help! When you pull out the stopper, your beer is going to foam up like crazy. The trick here is to get it capped quickly. Capping on foam is the surest way to ensure that the pressure stays equalized inside the bottle, and is an integral part of the process, but it gets messy. Have a cap ready and cap the bottle immediately. Now your set! Rinse and repeat!
This method will keep your bottles carbonated almost indefinitely, so it’s perfect for sending beers to a competition, or taking a six pack and a growler to a friends house to enjoy! With practice, it can even get easy!Thank you all for reading! Check out our Kegging Video and Keg Rebuilding Video on our YouTube Channel, BrewChatter TV, to see the kegging process in person and tons of other fun and informative videos! Don’t forget to connect with us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to keep up on everything fermentation, and you can even sign up for our Newsletter for even more fun! Please leave your comments and questions below! We’d love to hear about your kegging trials, tribulations and successes! Brew On!