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Homebrewing: How to Keg Your Beer

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[Photograph: Sarah Postma]

Have you ever been washing your 45th homebrew bottle, elbow deep in sanitizer, and thought, "There's got to be a better way to do this"? Congratulations! You're ready to start kegging your homebrew.

Kegging is not for everybody. The most basic setup, which includes a keg, CO2 tank, regulator, and hoses will cost at least $175. Additional used kegs start at $35 and are often more than that. Plus, you'll need a temperature controlled refrigerator that is big enough to fit your kegs and CO2 tank. It's a pretty large space and money commitment.

Is it worth it? Absolutely.

Nothing feels better than being able to pour a pint of your own homebrew out of a tap. It's much easier to pour samples for friends and family that don't want to commit to a full glass, and you never have to worry about yeast or sediment like when you present your beer in a bottle. And the best part is, you'll never have to wash another homebrew bottle again. Here's an introduction to the basics of kegging, and what steps you'll need to take to get started.

The Setup

Homebrewers use old five gallon soda kegs to store and dispense their beer. These kegs come in two varieties: ball lock and pin lock. The variety describes the type of connection that is used for connecting the hoses. Ball lock is the most popular, but there's nothing wrong with the pin lock type. You'll have to stick with the variety you chose for future keg purchases so you don't have to switch between connection types on your hoses.

Kegs have two ports, usually labeled "in" and "out", and a large oval lid that opens to allow you to transfer beer inside. The "in" port is connected to a short tube, which is where the CO2 comes in, and the "out" port is connected to a tube that goes all the way to the bottom. The idea is that CO2 pressure on the top of the beer will force the liquid to travel through the tube at the bottom of the keg and out the dispenser. The ports look like they're the same size, but they're actually slightly different, so you should never try to connect the CO2 line to the "out" port or vice versa.

In addition to the keg, the other important pieces of equipment are the CO2 tank and regulator. When you're looking at the regulator, you'll notice it has two dials on it. One will tell you how much gas is left in the tank, and the other will tell you how much pressure is going to the keg. Never open the main valve on the CO2 tank unless the regulator is tightly connected, since the high pressure can be dangerous. The dial that indicates how much CO2 is in the tank will almost always read somewhere between 600 and 900 psi, depending on the temperature. When the needle starts moving below 600, you'll have to get a CO2 refill within a few days.

If your local homebrew shop does not fill CO2 tanks (many don't), you will have to find a welding supply shop. The most common practice for "filling" a tank is actually to do an exchange. You give them your empty tank and they give you a full one. This is important to realize before you start customizing your CO2 tank with stickers from your local brew pub. It's also a good reason for not buying a brand new CO2 tank; they're more expensive and you might not have it for very long before you have to exchange it for an old, beat up tank. I've seen fill up and exchange prices range everywhere from $13 to $25 for a 5 pound tank, but a full tank will carbonate and dispense between 5 to 8 kegs.

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Left: A detailed view of the top of the keg, ports and lid. Right: Closeup of a regulator. The left dial is shows the amount of CO2 left, the top shows the pressure going to the keg.

The Process

If you've bottled a few batches of beer before, then cleaning a keg will be pretty easy. The first step is to soak the keg with a quarter scoop of OxiClean Free, or the same cleanser you use to clean your carboy, with 5 gallons of water. It should sit for about a day to make sure there is no grime holding on to the inside of the keg or the long dip tube. Thoroughly rise the keg, then fill it with enough water and sanitizer (Star San or Idophor) to make 5 gallons. Connect the keg to the CO2 and dispenser, and dispense some sanitizer through the line for a few seconds so that it flows through the long dip tube. You should pour out the sanitizer and let the keg sit upside down for a few minutes so that the residue drips off, but remember that leaving a little residual Star San or Idophor in the keg shouldn't impact the flavor of your homebrew.

Never use bleach to clean or sanitize a keg. Bleach corrodes stainless steel, and will actually eat holes through your keg if left in contact for a long enough time. Even short contact times can produce micro pores and pitting in your keg.

When your keg is sanitized, use your sanitized auto-siphon racking cane to transfer your fermented beer to the keg. As always, try to minimize the amount of splashing you make when transferring so the beer doesn't get oxidized prematurely. There is no need to add corn sugar as with bottling, since the beer will be "force carbonated" from the CO2 pressure.

Once the beer is transferred, turn the regulator up to about 10 psi for 20 seconds, and then pull the release valve. Repeat this 2 or 3 times to purge the residual oxygen from the top of the keg. Place the keg in your refrigerator, set the temperature to 40°F, and turn the regulator to 11psi. After 2 weeks, your beer will be fully carbonated and ready to drink. The 11psi your regular is set to is also a perfect serving pressure, so grab a glass and pour yourself a pint!

If you want your beer to be more or less carbonated, or if your refrigerator temperature isn't 40°F, you'll have to adjust the regulator pressure to get the right carbonation level. Here's my favorite chart on the internet for determining the right temperature and pressure combination.

Over the next few weeks we'll look at some advanced kegging techniques as well as troubleshooting your system to get it running perfectly.

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