An Indepth Introduction to Kegging

An Indepth Introduction to Kegging

When you first start homebrewing, likely with a kit, you are probably bottling your beer. There is absolutely nothing wrong with bottle conditioning beer, but many homebrewers will eventually shift to using kegs. Moving from bottling to kegging allows for a much simpler packaging and serving process. Instead of cleaning, sanitizing, filling and capping dozens or hundreds of bottles, you only have to clean and sanitize one keg; or a couple depending on how much you brew at a time. Instead of measuring priming sugar and batch priming, you attach an external CO2 tank. There are definite pros and cons to kegging your homebrew, so let’s get into a short introduction to kegging.

Introduction to kegging

 

When you first start homebrewing, likely with a kit, you are probably bottling your beer. There is absolutely nothing wrong with bottle conditioning beer, but many homebrewers will eventually shift to using kegs. Moving from bottling to kegging allows for a much simpler packaging and serving process. Instead of cleaning, sanitizing, filling and capping dozens or hundreds of bottles, you only have to clean and sanitize one keg; or a couple depending on how much you brew at a time. Instead of measuring priming sugar and batch priming, you attach an external CO2 tank. There are definite pros and cons to kegging your homebrew, so let’s get into a short introduction to kegging.

Table of contents:

Anatomy of a Keg

Basic Keg Setup

Overview of Styles, Cost, Etc,

How to Use a Keg

Cleaning Kegs




Anatomy of a Keg

Kegs are very simple pieces of equipment with only a few parts. It is helpful to know the parts you’ll be working with, so let's go over each part of a keg and explain what it does:

The Keg - A stainless steel tube with an oval-shaped opening at the top. It is designed to contain liquid and pressurized gas, generally has a rubberized bottom and some kind of handle on the top. It also has connections to allow gas in and liquid out. 

Keg Lid - Made of steel, it should have a very large o-ring to seal against the opening of the keg. It will also have a bail (handle) with rubberized feet. This provides pressure against the opening of the keg and the o-ring and keeps the kid firmly in place. Some keg lids have a Pressure Release Valve (PRV) that is a pull ring to allow you to release the pressure inside the keg and allow you to open it. 

 

What if my lid doesn’t have a PRV? This isn’t a huge deal - you can buy a replacement lid with one, or you can manually release the pressure by slowly pushing down on the gas in poppet. You can also buy a special tool to push the poppet down (but a pen, screwdriver or butter knife works just as well)

Dip Tube (liquid and gas) - These are metal “straws” that slide into the post holes on the keg. The gas dip tube is short and only serves to allow gas into the keg. The liquid tube is longer, reaching almost to the bottom, and draws beer from the keg through the tube and tap into your glass. 

Posts - These almost resemble lug nuts and screw onto the threads of the keg. On both ball lock and pin lock kegs, the posts for gas and liquid are different to help eliminate confusion. Posts are what you attach disconnects, which we’ll go over a little later. 

Poppets - These small spring loaded metal rods have a small o-ring at one end. They fit inside the posts and sea; the keg except when a disconnect is attached, allowing gas in and liquid out. You may want to replace these when you buy a keg, as they may be quite old, have held soda or some other beverage, and can contribute off flavors. Below are examples of the different shapes poppets can take:

 

A good place to start is to name and explain the different pieces of equipment that you will use when kegging. This image is a great representation of the basic parts of a kegging setup, and all you really need to get started.

 

 

Basic Keg Setup

1.) CO2 Tank: This holds your CO2 under pressure to carbonate and serve your beer. These come in Steel and Aluminum and you can find them used or brand new just about anywhere. They do have to be hydro tested every 5 years and and reading the codes is a whole other post in itself. I linked to a handy guide here. Tip: It is usually easier to fill a cold tank, so if you’re getting your tank refilled, chill it for a day before you bring it in.

2.) Regulator: There are a few different styles from the one pictured, but they all do the same basic things. The CO2 in your tank is under high pressure; the regulator allows you to control the rate the gas is let out from the tank. In the example, the top dial lets you know what PSI (Pounds per Square Inch) are currently going into the keg. The dial to the right is how much gas is left in the tank. The ball valve on the bottom allows you to stop the flow of gas into the line.


A regulator is a very important piece of kegging equipment, and you should make sure you are buying a quality regulator that will last. Taking the cheaper approach with a lesser quality piece might mean that you’re replacing it in just a few months. 

 

3.) Gas Line: Connects from the regulator to the Gas In Disconnect. Generally sturdier than liquid line due to high pressure. Typically 5/16 Inner Diameter x 9/16 Outer Diameter.

4.) Gas In Disconnect: One end attaches to the Gas Line, the other to the Gas post on the keg. This allows gas to flow from the tank into the keg

 

5.) Keg: Where your beer lives until it gets served. A keg is really just a big stainless can with a stainless straw inside it. You can see in the picture that’s really all a keg is. The posts allow the gas in and beer out disconnects to be attached and the beer comes out. The keg lid has a large ring that provides a seal to keep pressure. Some lids have pull-rings like the one pictured, that allow you to release the pressure and open the keg. This is called a Pressure Release Valve (PRV) and we’ll talk more about them later.

6.) Liquid Disconnect: Attaches to the liquid out post and connects to the liquid line to your tap.

 

7.) Liquid Line: Clear vinyl tubing that beer flows through on the way to the tap. Usually 5-6 feet of line is used for standard kegerators, ask your homebrew shop how much you might need based on your setup. Typically 3/16 Inner Diameter x 7/16 Outer Diameter.

8.) Tap/Faucet: There are permanent taps like the one pictured, as well as plastic Picnic/Party taps. Permanent taps like the one pictured consist of the faucet and a threaded piece called a shank that connects to the liquid line and secures the faucet into the fixture.

 

 

Overview of Styles, Cost, Etc

A Keg is a stainless steel serving vessel capable of containing high pressure. There are a few different kinds of kegs, but they all do the same basic things: Allow gas in and liquid out. The most common homebrewing kegs are called Cornelius or “Corny” kegs and they come in two main styles: Ball Lock and Pin Lock.

Ball lock and Pin locks are different in size (height and circumference) and the way the gas and liquid lines attach, but also in price. The pictures below shows some differences between the two. The left keg is Ball lock and the right keg is Pin lock.

Pin Lock kegs are cheaper than Ball Locks, but Pin Lock parts are becoming increasingly harder to find. Ball lock kegs are much more popular with homebrewers. Deciding which style of kegs to go with should depend on a few things:

 

  • How much money do you have to spend on this equipment?
  • What are the space limits you have for the freezer or refrigerator you will use to keep kegs cold?
  • How often do you brew and how much will you use your kegs?

You will also need to decide how to keep your kegs cold. Many homebrewers purchase new or used chest freezers and use a special temperature controller to keep it at refrigerator temperatures. There are a lot of options for chest freezers, and different makes/models and sizes can hold different numbers of kegs. Some may require modification. This handy homebrewtalk forum post is a great resource for planning if you’re going to use a chest freezer.  

Other people will use full size refrigerators, or just use one dorm-sized fridge to hold one keg. Some companies make and modify mini-fridges, called Kegerators, to accept commercial kegs. These often come with attractive tap handles for a sleeker appearance. If you want to pour beer from a room in your house that gets a lot of traffic, something that looks nice makes more sense. If you plan to serve from your garage or basement, appearance might not matter as much to you. There are a lot of different options for kegerators - and buying a cheaper model is not always the right move. A quality kegerator might cost upwards of $800, but will last a lifetime.

 

If you brew a 5 gallon batch and don’t brew again until you finish that batch, a one-keg setup might just be fine for you. But if you’re lucky enough to brew every week or two, you might need to consider multiple kegs and a larger cooling option.

 

How to Use a Keg

As with all things homebrewing, first clean, then sanitize. When you first get your kegs, you should absolutely take it apart, replace all the o-rings and put it back together. Your keg was probably a soda keg in a past life and can be 10 years old or more, and those seals might have never been changed. O-ring replacement packs are inexpensive and changing them will help keep your kegs performing well without bringing off-flavors or smells to your beer. 

 

Just because you have to clean and sanitize doesn’t mean you have to make your life harder, though. In a recent conversation I had with Jimmy, I was complaining that the O-rings on my dip tubes kept shredding because of loosening and tightening of the posts to disassemble and clean. “Why are you doing it that way?” was the question. Just seal the keg, let the hot PBW do the work. Push it out of the closed keg with some CO2. Works the same to sanitize. Once you change the o-rings the first time, you should not need to take your keg apart for a year - maybe more. It was a facepalm moment - why hadn’t I thought of that? The point is that kegging is supposed to make your life easier as a homebrewer, not harder. Keep that in mind.

 

After the keg is clean and sanitized, it is ready to fill. Purging the keg with some CO2 to start isn’t a bad idea, but not entirely necessary. Then simply transfer your finished beer into the keg, close the lid, attach the gas and purge the headspace. Adjust the pressure to the appropriate PSI based on the carbonation chart below and let the beer absorb the gas. Then reduce to serving pressure and pour yourself a pint. It really is as simple as that!

 

Tip: For most beers, 12 PSI at 38 degrees will get you the right amount of carbonation. 

 

To read this chart, first you need to know how much you want your beer to be carbonated. Most beer styles will fall into the Gray/Green categories within the style guidelines. Don’t forget that you can do as you like, it is your beer. Second, identify the temperature your beer is holding at (left column). Beer absorbs CO2 quicker at colder temperatures, which is why carbonating a cold beer will take less time than a warm beer. The top value is PSI, or what you will set your regulator to in order to force CO2 into your beer. Keep in mind this method is pretty slow. You may need to let your beer sit between 5-10 days or a little longer at this pressure to carbonate fully. 

 

There are other methods of carbonating beer in a keg, too. There is always the risk of over carbonating your beer with some of these, so use them at your own risk. One commonly used method is “Crank and Shake.” In this method you set the pressure a little higher than you normally would, about 20-30 PSI. Then you disconnect the gas, set the keg on the floor or in your lap, and roll it gently back and forth for a few minutes. This will allow the beer in the keg to absorb the gas quickly. You should then let the beer sit in cold storage for a few hours and you can pull a sample to test. 

 

The Second quicker method is “Burst Carbonation,” something that the folks over at Brülosophy have messed around with. Basically you set the PSI higher for a short period of time, usually 24-48 hours, bleed off excessive pressure and then reduce to serving pressure. I have tried this several times with mixed results and got mostly overcarbonated beer. It is difficult to control because there is no real way to know at what point your beer is becoming over carbonated. Using the carbonation chart may take longer, but it is the most accurate way to carb your beer. 

 

That’s Pretty Much It

 

When the beer is all gone, disconnect the gas, release the pressure, open the lid and rinse it out. You should try to clean it as soon as possible to avoid forgetting about it until later (when you might need it ready to go). A good Standard Operating Procedure for cleaning and storing kegs is to clean and sanitize, drain the sanitizer, then seal and pressurize to about 10psi. This allows the keg to be ready to go when you need it and keeps pressure on the seals. 

 

How to Clean the Keg

 

Now that your keg is empty, you’ll need to clean it. A great way to do this is to connect a garden hose barb to gas line, with a liquid out disconnect on the other side. Attach the disconnect to the liquid post and take the lid off of the keg. Turn the keg upside down, turn on the water, slowly at first, then increase the flow until it is cascading down the sides. Rinse for 5 minutes using hot water, this will send the hot water into the long dip tube hitting the bottom of the keg, dispersing the hot water along the walls of the keg.

 

After a thorough rinse, add PHO-BW or professional line cleaning solution to the keg in a dilution of about 1 gallon. Replace the lid, attach the gas line and pressurize the keg, shake for 2-3 minutes. Now hook up to your kegerator and dispense the cleaning solution through your faucets. This will clean your dip tube, poppet and lines all at the same time. Once you’ve drained out about ½ gallon of the solution from the keg, disconnect the keg, leaving the cleanser inside your beer lines. Release the pressure from the keg, take off the lid, dump the solution and reconnect the garden hose / ball lock connector and rinse again for 5 minutes using hot water.  

 

Finally, fill the keg ½ way with warm water, connect the gas to pressurize the keg and connect to your kegerator. Dispense the entire 2.5 gallons of water through the faucet that currently contains the cleansing solution. This will properly rinse the chemical from the lines. After this, you can sanitize the keg using your PHO-San or other commercial sanitizer solution. You do not need to sanitize your beer lines from your kegerator.



Thanks for reading, I hope you’ve found this guide helpful. If you have any questions about kegging feel free to reach out to either location and we’ll be happy to talk you through it.

 

Happy Brewing!

 

James Holland is a South Jersey homebrewer, craft beer nerd, and beer and brewing writer. Homebrewing since 2013, he boiled the yeast on his first batch but now enters Regional and National Competitions. He encourages anyone interested in homebrewing to experiment, make mistakes, read a lot and Relax, Don't Worry, Have A Homebrew. Oh, and join a club!

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