Getting Started Guide to Homebrew Kegging

by Alan J. Richer,
I have seen the light, and it is made of stainless steel....

Greetings. After having asked several dozen stupid questions about kegging, I have decided that I should pull all of this information together into one article for the amusement and edification of the Digest.

I. Items needed for a kegging setup

Kegging is the process of packaging beer so it may be dispensed. To this end, you need a package. The normal container for the homebrewer is the Cornelius or Firestone stainless-steel premix soft-drink container. It is available from many sources, including restaurant auctions, scrapyards, cooperative soft-drink retailers, and other sources. Use your ingenuity, and you will seldom go wrong.

The other items to go with your keg are used for the dispensing process. They allow you to dispense the beer under gas pressure, and to connect and disconnect the equipment from your keg.

These items are:

A CO2 cylinder.
Most hobbyists purchase a 5 Lb. one. If you have the space, though, a 20Lb. cylinder is a good bet. It only costs a few more dollars to fill and lasts much longer. I have both, the 20Lb. for the keg refrigerator, and the 5Lb. bottle for portable use.
A pressure regulator.
This reduces the 800 PSI of gas pressure in the CO2 tank to a manageable dispensing pressure (usually 12 to 15 pounds).
Regulator check valve.
This device attaches to the outlet of your regulator and prevents reverse pressure flow from your keg back into the regulator. This can prevent a considerable mess, and helps prevent contamination of your CO2 lines and fittings.
Hose with gas-in fitting.
These items conduct the gas to the keg from the regulator, and allow you to connect the gas line to the keg. The gas-in fittings come in either ball or pin lock. Buy whichever fits the keg you obtain, as one is as good as the other for the homebrewer.
Liquid-out fitting and beer faucet.
This is the part that the beer actually comes out of. It has a fitting like the gas-in one, but keyed differently to prevent interchange. On the end of the hose from this fitting is a spigot to control the flow.

The liquid-out fitting requires a length of hose attached to provide restriction to the pressure in the keg, allowing the beer to be dispensed without excessive foaming. What I use (with information gleaned from the HBD) is a length of 3/16" PVC tubing between the liquid-out fitting and the beer faucet. One foot of 3/16" tubing will allow for a 3 PSI drop in the keg pressure.

For a standard kegging rig at about 14-16 PSI (chilled keg with a light ale), you'd need about 6 feet of 3/16" tubing. Vary this as your equipment requires.

This can be calculated by use of a chart, which shows the pressure needed for different carbonation styles at any given temperature. These charts are available from the HBD or rec.crafts.brewing on the net, or in the homebrew archives.

When it comes to the pressure-regulating items and the gas bottle, don't scrimp, as cheap or defective fittings can be very dangerous. Gas at 800 PSI is not trivial to handle, and an accident could be fatal.

II. Preparing to keg - How to get ready.

If you buy all of your equipment new, than you can skip this part. What I am going to go into here is the cleaning and overhaul of a standard pin- lock Firestone keg. Cornelius kegs are similar, but I have not worked with them and would not speak of them without personal experience.

WIth a keg that has been used for soft drinks, the rubber parts that are in contact with the drink become impregnated with the sugar syrups. These will then flavor any beer you might bring in contact with them, so they need to be replaced as part of the cleaning and preparation process. These are located in the bases of the gas-in and liquid-out fittings, and around the lid of the keg.

Remove the gas-in and liquid-out fittings, using a 13/16" open-end wrench inserted through the gaps in the handle surround. Once loosened, these should remove easily. Once unscrewed, set these aside, and remove the dip tubes from the fittings welded to the tank. The gas dip tube is rather short, and the liquid dip tube is the long one that extends to the bottom of the tank. Remove the o-rings from both of these and replace them with new ones from the hardware store. O-rings of the proper size are easily availablein the plumbing area of most good hardware stores. Reinsert the dip tubes and reinstall the fittings, tightening them with the wrench. Do not overtighten, as it is unnecessary and will make it more difficult the next time.

NOTE: The gas-in fitting is the one with two lugs. The liquid-out fitting is the one with three lugs. I got them mixed up too...8*)

Replacement of the top gasket is easy. Just open the head by lifting the bail, then drop the head down into the keg and rotate it to remove the lid from the keg. The O-ring should come out with the lid. Simply remove it from the lid and replace it. New ones of these should be available at your homebrew supplier, or try a pool supplier for a pump O-ring of the proper size. Bring the old one as a comparison sample.

CLeaning the keg is rather simple. I usually prepare a solution of washing soda and soak a new keg full of it for 24 hours, followed by purging the solution with CO2 through the fittings on the tank. This is followed by 2 gallons of boiling water, well-agitated in the tank to clear the residue, and purged thru the fititngs with CO2. The boiling water rinse is also a god way to clean out a tank before use, along with a weak chlorine rinse for sanitizing.

III. Kegging - The process

Kegging is considerably simpler than bottling, but has a set of gotchas all its own.

The first step is sanitizing the keg. I personally do this with a rinse of hot water and B-Brite of a gallon or so, shaken in a sealed keg, then expelled through the keg plumbing with CO2. After this, I do the same thing with boiling water, again expelling through the plumbing, to clear the B-Brite residue. One pass is usually sufficient, though if I'm being paranoid, I'll do it twice. After this step, you must handle the keg in a manner to retain the sanitation. This means not taking out the lid and laying it down on the work- bench in the basement. Treat the keg as you would a sanitized bottle ready to fill.

Next, add the priming syrup to the keg. I usually use 1/2 cup of sugar to 1 qt. water, boiled for 10 minutes for sanitation. I cool this to blood temp, then add it to the keg. Next, with a sanitized siphon hose,siphon your finished beer into the keg, being careful not to splash, but swirling enough to get a good mix on the priming sugar. Once filled (keep the beer level below the CO2 inlet, otherwise don't worry), reinsert the lid and cinch it closed. Before doing this, I usually turn on the CO2 to the keg and purge the airspace above the beer to clear the residual air in the tank.

With the keg sealed, pressurize it to 15-16 PSI to seat the head. If it begins to leak, open and reseat it, which usually cures the problem. Make sure that the lid isn't angled, which is easy to do and can cause leaking.

Allow the beer to carbonate for 1-2 weeks before drinking. I usually discard the first 1/2 mug out of the keg, as it brings the yeast out with it. After that, it's home free.