A beginners guide to kegging

By | April 15, 2011

A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO KEGGING

You know you want to…

SHOPPING LIST

As a bare minimum, you really can’t get away without the following gear (prices are approximate):

1 used postmix (‘corny’) keg ($75)
1 beer-out ‘quick disconnect’ (QD) ($15)
1 gas-in QD ($15)
beer line ($5)
gas line ($5)
beer tap or gun ($10-$150)
CO2 regulator ($100)
==========
TOTAL: $200-$350.
(not bottling any more – priceless).

You’ll also need a suitable fridge and a supply of CO2 (more on this in a minute). You may of course want to consider getting more than one keg – at the least you will probably want to be drinking one while another one is conditioning. You may also decide to get additional serving parts at the same time – perhaps a second tap, a drip tray etc – but that’s all up to you. I’ll just go over the basics here.

There are a number of places where this gear is available. The online suppliers that sponsor this forum (see the banner ads above) are a great start, and are hard to beat in the price department. If you are in a hurry you could probably walk out of your friendly neighbourhood homebrew shop today with everything you need in your arms. Alternatively you could scour the online auctions and classifieds for a mix of new and secondhand deals.

Before you buy anything though, you should first have a good idea of what sort of system you want to put together – hopefully the following will give you an understanding of what it’s all about. Also be aware that not all of this stuff is idiotproof – QD’s can be supplied without hose barbs, kegs and QD’s can be found with ‘pin lock’ rather than the more common ‘ball lock’ connection we generally use, foreign regulators can have different threads, ‘reconditioned’ kegs often aren’t, taps may be supplied without the necessary mounting and plumbing hardware. So if you are scraping a system together yourself, research lots and assume nothing.

CHILLING

Here in Australia, some kind of chilling system is an essential part of the process. How you choose to do it will affect what kegging gear you need. The two basic options are:

1. Keep the keg cold;
2. Keep the keg warm, and chill the beer as it is served.

The first option suits most home brewers well. Used fridges are pretty easy to come by most of the time, and most fridges can take at least 2 and often 4 kegs (perhaps with the removal of the moulded plastic door lining). It is also generally better for the beer to store it cool, and the majority of homebrewers are content with 4 or less beers on tap, so this is a pretty practical solution. If you need more space than that, you could get a second fridge or convert a chest freezer. There is more information regarding the conversion of a fridge or freezer to kegerator duty in the ‘Building A Kegerator’ wiki article.

The second option, chilling the beer at the time of serving, is probably best suited to those who have a large number of kegs in fast rotation (like busy pubs) who can justify the expense of an electric ‘temprite’ inline chiller – as well as those wanting a more portable setup that can use bags of ice for chilling beer (which may or may not already be cold). It is probably worth noting that it takes quite a bit of ‘chilling power’ to serve nice cold beer from a warm keg – it is fine to get through a few bags of ice during a barbecue or camping trip for example, but you don’t want to be buying it every day of the year – and your average freezer just isn’t going to produce it fast enough.

BEER OUT

To get the beer out of a keg, you need at the very least a beer QD (quick-disconnect) – basically a black plastic wotsit that plugs onto the ‘beer out’ post on top of the keg. This post contains a valve and is actually attached to a tube that goes to the bottom of the keg, so when you open the valve (by connecting a QD) any pressure inside the keg will cause beer to be pushed up the tube and out through the QD.

Short of just opening your mouth and drinking the beer that spurts out, you probably want a tap (or gun) of some description. Again, you have a decision to make – whether you want to open the fridge each time you want a beer (either putting your glass to a tap mounted on the keg or using a gun (known as a Pluto gun) or a cheap plastic ‘picnic’ tap inside the fridge); or whether you want to mount a tap in the fridge exterior or perhaps a bit further away in a bar.

Which you choose is entirely up to you of course. There is nothing wrong with opening the fridge every time you want a beer, this is exactly what most ‘normal’ people do after all. There are even advantages with having a self-contained system inside the fridge – you don’t experience problems with warm taps creating foaming, and you can easily relocate the keg and gun into a bin of ice for barbecues etc. Having said that, there is something very satisfying about having a couple of mounted taps and maybe a drip tray. It is more convenient, obviously, but it also looks more professional, and feels more like having your own real pub at home. External taps (and especially fonts) can experience problems with foaming due to the beer warming as it passes through them, but this usually only creates a few mls of foam at a time and isn’t a serious problem. ‘Flooded’ fonts can be chilled with a separate coolant system, and this helps to reduce or eliminate the problem altogether.

The only option that you really should avoid is having a tap which attaches directly to the keg post. These are a convenient solution for portable dispensing, but they require you to adjust your regulator and vent keg pressure in order to avoid making a mess, and they aren’t a good full-time solution. Having some beer line between the keg and whatever the beer comes out of is a good thing – more on this in the wiki article ‘Balancing A Draught System’.

GAS IN – the basics

When you bottle beer, you add some more sugar so the yeast starts to ferment again. However, instead of letting the gas escape through an airlock, this time it is trapped in the bottle and forced into solution in the beer, carbonating it.

When you keg beer, you can do exactly the same thing – ie, add more fermentables and trap the gas. However, as you take beer out of the keg, the overall pressure within the keg will drop – so you need to replace the beer taken with the same quantity of gas. You could use air to do this, but your beer will go stale after a day or so because of the oxygen (and bacteria) present in air. So if you want your keg to last longer than that, you’ll need a supply of clean CO2, as well as a regulator to control the pressure (a bottle of liquid CO2 contains around 1000psi of pressure, something like 100 times greater than the pressure you need to keep your beer fizzy – and 10 times the pressure it takes to explode a corny). You also, obviously, need some gas line (PVC hose or beer line is fine for this) and a grey ‘gas’ QD. Remember, the main job of the gas is to keep the beer carbonated, NOT to ‘push’ the beer. It does both, of course, but the pushing is a side-effect.

At this point it would be remiss of me not to point out that highly pressurised gas is really, really dangerous. Please don’t take risks with old cylinders, mismatched threads, or plumbing fittings that aren’t designed for high pressure gas work. Don’t use PTFE tape (high pressure fittings don’t need it, it can actually impede the proper sealing function of the thread and if a fragment gets into your reg it will kill it). Don’t put your face near the regulator – especially while making adjustments or connecting / disconnecting anything. Failures are rare but nasty. If you have kids, make sure they can’t get anywhere near it – as homebrewers we are kind of stretching the boundaries of what you should have sitting around in the family home here. 1000psi is a huge amount of stored energy and it deserves some respect.

GAS IN – choosing the right gear

A standard regulator provides a single pressure output. If you want to run more than one keg, the cheapest way to do it is to simply get a plastic T-piece to split the gas line to each keg. Slightly more elaborate is a ‘manifold’, which is just a brass splitter with a few outlets. A manifold will often have a non-return valve on each outlet, which protects the other kegs from receiving gas (or worse, beer) if there is a sudden accidental pressure differential. There is nothing wrong with using this method to run multiple kegs, except that all of your kegs will be at the same pressure, and will therefore end up being equally fizzy. If you want to have different carbonation levels in your beers (for example, you want to have British ales as well as Pilseners) then you need to think about using multiple-output regulators. These are usually just 2 or more separate regulator bodies joined together into a single unit so that they connect to a single bottle. Another option is to use a single ‘primary’ regulator to reduce the bottle pressure to your maximum beer pressure, and then use cheaper low-pressure ‘secondary’ regulators to further reduce the pressure for additional lower pressures. These options all increase the cost though, and most brewers are happy with a single regulator – at least for a while.

What sort of bottle you get will depend a lot on your location. Until recently the only CO2 source you could really count on in Australia was a cylinder from BOC, Supagas or Air Liquide, at something like $120 a year for cylinder rental, plus the cost of refills. The refills last for ages and are relatively cheap, but that $120 a year hurts. So people find other options. A recent development is the ‘swap and go’ principle used by http://www.mykegonlegs.com.au, who offer 4.5Kg and 6.8Kg cylinders and have a network of local agents. You buy your initial cylinder outright, then just pay for the gas each time you swap. It may or may not be possible to get other privately-owned cylinders refilled – it depends on the refillers in your area and many of them are a bit paranoid about doing it. Search the forum or ask around to find out what’s available in your area. If you can find a refiller, cylinders can be purchased new, used, or refurbished, or you may be able to get hold of a suitable fire extinguisher. There is a lot of info on this site about getting fire extinguishers converted for gas dispensing, try doing a search for ‘extinguisher’. Sodastream cylinders are another option used by some folks, but the small refills are around $15 a time, so they tend to be used mostly for occasional mobile setups. In summary then, it is wise to work out where you will get your gas from first, then worry about the cylinder.

GAS IN – choosing and using the gas

An important point to be aware of is the issue of ‘food-grade’ CO2. Gas which is produced for the food industry, and the people that handle it, must meet certain standards to maintain the food-grade status throughout the supply chain. Other, usually cheaper, ‘industrial’ grades of gas are available, and they may even be supplied from the same tank in some cases (presumably where it suits the supplier to do so). However, there is no obligation on suppliers to ensure the safety of gas which is not designated as food-grade. So while it is quite possible that industrial-grade gas is exactly the same as food-grade gas, it is also possible that industrial-grade gas may contain traces of contaminants which would render it unsafe for human consumption – from the use of different production techniques, from a lack of appropriate purification, from being handled by contaminated equipment (such as pressure tanks used for other gases) or from a general failure to meet the requirements for food-grade gas at some point in its distribution chain. If you decide to use industrial-grade gas in your setup then you assume that risk.

So now that you have a supply of CO2 and a regulator, something else becomes apparent – you don’t really need to add more fermentables and wait a couple of weeks just to get some gas into the beer – you’ve got nice pure CO2 just sitting there ready to go. So you can now ‘force carbonate’ rather than ‘prime’ or ‘naturally carbonate’ – this way the beer can be ready to drink within seconds of it leaving the fermenter if you want. It will still improve over a week or two, but it’s nothing like having to wait for a whole new fermentation cycle to complete and clean up. If you are using a more expensive option like Sodastream cylinders, then you could still naturally carbonate to save on gas and just use the SS cylinders to dispense with. A Sodastream refill will dispense about 4 or 5 (pre-carbonated) 19L kegs.

Another option you may come across is a blend of carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrogen (N), sometimes called ‘cellarmix’. It has two main purposes in life. Firstly, nitrogen produces smaller bubbles and comes out of solution faster than CO2 – that’s what gives Guinness it’s famous creamy head. The beer is carbonated & nitrogenated in the keg, and served with the mix. Secondly, the lower concentration of CO2 allows pubs to use higher pressures, for longer serving lines, without risking overcarbonating a beer over time. In this case the beer is first carbonated normally at the brewery, and the CO2/N mix is used in the venue to apply pressure for serving. Most home brewers use pure CO2, as it is the most universally-suitable gas for all beer styles.

SETTING UP YOUR DRAUGHT SYSTEM

Hopefully this article has given you enough information to decide whether kegging is something that you want to do, and what sort of equipment you will need in order to do it.

Once you have all the gear, setting up the actual system is pretty simple, although it is important to understand the principles of carbonation and ‘balancing’ a draught system, so that you can do it properly from the start and minimise any problems.

There is more information about correctly balancing a draught system in the wiki article ‘Balancing A Draught System’.

There is more information regarding the conversion of a fridge or freezer to kegerator duty in the wiki article ‘Building A Kegerator’.

Original article was taken from Aussiehomebrewer. Click here to go to the original.