--Over the past forty years we have seen more homebrewers leave the hobby over the tedium of bottle washing more than any other single factor. Let's face it, the novelty and excitement of the new hobby lasts about as long as it takes to clean up, de-label, sanitize, and rinse those first couple of cases of beer bottles. Suddenly it occurs to you, "Hey, this is work!" After you get the routine down, it's not quite so bad, but still it's no fun. Some of us even develop "bottle-phobia," and we'll postpone bottling beer for weeks and weeks just because we can't bring ourselves to go through yet another bottle washing session. Kegging beer is the natural remedy to this dreaded disease. I'll try to briefly outline the basic kegging process.
--Step #1- Equip Yourself! - First you need to procure your equipment. Here's a list of what a typical draught beer system requires:
- 5 gallon stainless steel soda canisters.
- CO2 tank
- Regulator to step the pressure down from 600 - 900 psi to 5 - 30 psi
- 3' - 6' Gas Line (generally 5/16" ID) to go from regulator to gas quick-disconnect
- Pair of Quick-Disconnect (one gas - one beverage) & matching nuts & hose nipples
- 6' beer line (3/16" ID)
- Faucet for dispensing (either handheld "picnic" tap or metal door or tower mount)
As for the 5 gallon stainless steel soda canisters, these may be purchased from your friendly local homebrew shop or occasionally scrounged through a restaurant or bar business (this is getting increasingly difficult as these establishments have largely gone over to disposable "bag-in-a-box" systems). Once upon a time, commercial establishments received syrup in these containers. One of the first tasks is to eliminate the residual odor left behind by the syrup. A thorough cleaning is a good start but usually doesn't completely do the job. Not to worry, as you can replace the large "0" ring on the lid and get rid of almost all residual smell. --Note that there are two different styles of soda canisters. Coca Cola uses what we call "pin-lock fittings" and most other brands use what we call "ball-lock fittings." The kegs appear to be very similar at first glance, but upon closer inspection you will notice some apparent differences in the type of posts used. The Coke kegs have both posts at one side on top of the canister (one has two small pins and the other has three small pins on the posts). The other kind, General Beverage, have the posts opposite each other on top with no pins at all. We can't honestly say that one type is superior to the other, but if you start with one style you will likely want to stick with it. The different styles require different types of quick-disconnects, although these "Q-D's" are fitted with identical threading, so you may swap them out if you have both kinds of kegs. Also, note that the General Beverage canisters tend to be slimmer and slightly taller than Coke canisters, so if space restrictions are a consideration, keep that in mind.
--Step #2 - Keep It Clean!
Clean the keg. In order to do this you must first release any pressure that still may be in the keg. Hopefully your kegs will come equipped with a pressure release valve and pull ring (this is much more common on ball-lock kegs). This would certainly simplify things, as all you have to do is pull on the ring and hold it until all of the hissing is finished. If your keg is not equipped with a manual relief valve, then you'll have to release the pressure through the "gas in" post. With a small screwdriver, depress the center, inner spring-loaded part of the "in" post. This post will be clearly marked on the "ball-lock" Pepsi or General Beverage canisters and will be the two-pin post on the Coke canisters. Get it right the first time, as a mistake can easily result in a face covered with soda syrup or beer sediment. After all the pressure has been relieved, you may now open up the lid and lift it out. Several rinses with hot tap water will take care of most of the gunk inside. A nylon or stainless steel scrubbing pad will speed up the cleaning process. (The Frugal Brewer from D.C. suggests a toilet brush...We suggest using on a new one!!!). After the keg is meticulously clean, it is time to sanitize it. Add 1 oz. (2 tablespoons) of either Iodophor or Star San to the keg and fill up with lukewarm water. In a real pinch, you can add 1/2 cup chlorine bleach instead of the Iodophor or Star San. However, a word of caution is in order here: CHLORINE BLEACH ATTACKS STAINLESS STEEL - DO NOT EXCEED AN OUNCE OF BLEACH PER GALLON OF WATER AND ESPECIALLY DO NOT LEAVE THIS SANITIZING SOLUTION IN THE KEG OVERNIGHT!! Ten minutes of contact time should be sufficient! After you have filled the keg up with sanitizing solution, affix lid and pressurize. Now, depress the inner part of the "out" post with a screwdriver. This will fill the pick-up tube with the sanitizing solution. Turn keg on its side and repeat process with the "in" post. Allow the solution to stay in contact for about 10 minutes, then discard. You can use iodophor or Star San as "no rinse" sanitizers, but many of us still prefer to rinse (note: you will absolutely want to rinse if you have used bleach!) Now fill the keg up with hot tap water to rinse out the sanitizer. Repeat the above process with the rinse solution to rinse both tubes. Discard this rinse solution and give the keg a couple of additional rinses with hot water. I've been known to use my bottle washer for this. I hold the keg over the washer and activate the "trigger" with my free hand.
--Step #3: - Transferring your beer into the keg.
The simplest way to do this is to syphon the beer from the secondary into the keg, just like bottling (only easier and quicker). Instead of using glass carboys, some homebrewers have been known to cut 1/2" to 1" off the pick-up tubes and then use these canisters as secondary fermenters. An airlock can be made by hooking up the "in" post to a short length of tubing and immersing the end of the tubing in a jar of sanitizing solution. We strongly recommend that you "pop" some CO2 onto the beer after you transfer, and before hooking up the "air-lock." This is to insure that the lid will seat properly and all gas must escape through the air lock rather than around the lid. When you need to transfer the beer from the secondary canister to the serving canister, simply rig up a "jumper tube" that goes from one "out" post to the other. The beer is pushed out of the secondary with a little CO2 pressure while bleeding off the the pressure slightly (using the relief valve or "in" post) on the receiving canister. The result will be a little lower pressure in the receiving canister, causing the beer to flow from the secondary to the receiving canister. Don't bleed off the gas too fast or it will cause the beer to foam in the receiving canister and spew out the "in" post or relief valve. The whole idea here is to minimize exposure of the beer to it's arch-enemy: air. The shortened tube will reduce the amount of sediment picked up during the transfer.
--Step #4: Carbonation
Traditional "natural carbonation" practice - At this point is to either: add the priming sugar in the keg (1/4 to 1/2 cup for 5 gallons). If you are going from keg to keg, I suggest you add the priming sugar to the receiving keg first, and then "purge" the keg of as much air as possible by hooking up your CO2 tank to the "out" post of the canister and bleeding off the pressure through the relief valve or "in" post. CO2, being heavier than air will tend to blanket the bottom and help push the air out the "in" post or relief valve. Now transfer your beer. If you are syphoning, add the priming sugar (a simple syrup is nice, but not necessary) and syphon your beer on top. Once the keg is full, re-seat the lid on top and pull the bail down. Make sure the lid is perfectly lined up and is not skewed off to one side or the other, as this can cause leakage. Now comes an important step: Once the beer and priming sugar are in the keg and it is sealed off, hook up your CO2 tank and "pop" some pressure in the keg. This will seat the lid well and minimize problems with small leaks. Now that your beer is sealed up, all that remains to do is to store the keg at normal conditioning temperatures for the usual amount of time. Once it is properly matured, you have only to chill it down and hook up the CO2 tank to the "in" post, adjust the dispensing pressure to 10 - 15 psi, then attach the faucet tapper to the "out" post.
"Force-carbonation" the beer - Our preferred method is to "force carbonate" the beer. This will by-pass the sugar addition at kegging time. Simply transfer the beer to the canister, then hook up the CO2 to the "out" post while bleeding some pressure off the relief valve and/or "in" post. Again this is to purge out as much air as possible while blanketing the brew with C02. After a few seconds of bleeding off, I let go and allow the CO2 to continue to gurgle up through the beer for a minute or so before disconnecting. This will insure a good, tight seal. Now chill the beer down to refrigeration temperature. Next, swap out your gas fitting on the regulator hose with the beverage fitting (This is only temporary). Next, crank up your regulator to 30 psi and attach the gas to the "out" post on the keg. It should start gurgling immediately. Now comes the fun part: start rocking the canister back and forth for three to five minutes. The shaking action allows the CO2 to be absorbed into solution more rapidly than if you simply hooked it up and left it alone. After the 3 to 5 minute period is up, disconnect the CO2 and re-chill the beer overnight. The next day bleed off any excess head pressure that may still be left and hook up the keg system in the normal fashion, (Remember to re-adjust the dispensing pressure to 10 - 15 psi). The advantages of this method are obvious: 1) it's quick, in 48 hours you have carbonated beer, 2) it's easy to control the amount of carbonation simply by adjusting the force carbonating pressure and time, and 3) it does not produce any yeast sediment. To each their own. I guess. Some people just wouldn't consider this "natural."
--Step #5: Dispensing
Here you have another choice to make: Do you wish to drill a hole in the refrigerator door and mount a metal shank and faucet or will a simple "picnic" tapper suffice? Some people are reluctant to drill holes in their fridge, plus the door mount set-up costs significantly more than the simple hand tapper. The hand tapper is obviously more portable, but the door tap is more convenient. Another decision is whether or not to keep the C02 tank inside or outside the fridge. If you keep it inside, you will not need to drill yet another hole in the side of the fridge. By keeping the tank and regulator on the outside you will leave more space on the inside for another keg, and by keeping the regulator out of the cool, moist environment you may prolong its useful lifespan.
--The first glass or so you draw may be cloudy and you may wish to discard it. But if you've done a good job clarifying the beer before kegging it, this should not be major problem. If the beer is way too fizzy, bleed the excess pressure with the relief valve pull ring or by depressing the "in" post. After a little practice, you'll get the hang of it... it's really not difficult. Lately, our kegging customers are increasingly by-passing the priming stage entirely by "force carbonating" the beer.
--Step #6: Bottles?
What??? I thought we were getting away from bottles! Believe it or not, many people who keg their own beer like to have a few bottles for competitions, tasters, saving for longer maturation, etc. By far and away, the easiest way to do this is to first dose each bottle with a measured amount of corn sugar (initially try a rounded 1/2 tsp. per 12 oz. bottle, 3/4 tsp. per 16 oz. bottle, and a rounded tsp. per champagne bottle or 22 oz. beer bottle - slightly more if you prefer dried malt extract). Using a funnel, spoon in the priming sugar. Now syphon the beer onto the priming sugar using your standard bottling techniques. Cap the bottle and give it a little shake to dissolve the priming sugar. After you've finished the bottling part, simply syphon the balance of the beer into the keg and proceed normally. What happens if you've already kegged the beer and you decide that you want to bottle some? This is not a problem if you have a counter-pressure bottle filler (ask us about assembling or purchasing and using one). Without one of these little gems, you will have to fake it using a "poor man's" counter-pressure bottle filler. To construct one of these handy little gadgets, all you need is a plastic hand "picnic" tapper onto which you attach about two inches of 3/8" ID plastic hose to the "faucet" part of the tapper. Now attach a 12" - 15" length of copper or rigid plastic tubing fitted with #2 drilled rubber stopper to the open end of the flexible tubing. You are now ready to fill bottles! First, you need to slide the rubber stopper up or down so that when inserted into the bottle, the rigid tube goes almost to the bottom of the bottle while at the same time the stopper snugs securely around the lip of the bottle. Now open the tapper full blast to the "locked" open position. Initially, the beer should flow freely until the bottle is about halfway full or so. Gradually, as the pressure in the bottle builds up to nearly to same as in the keg, the flow will virtually stop. Now, "pinch" the rubber stopper around the lip of the bottle to "burp" a little pressure off in the bottle. Now the beer should flow again, (if slowly). Keep "burping" the stopper until the bottle nearly full. Now return the tapper lever to the "off' position, and remove the filler, and cap.
--All this talk of bottling has made my bottle-phobia act up again. If you're like most of us keggers, you'll soon break out in sweat at the prospect of washing another bottle. Fortunately, those days are almost behind you now! If you're ready to take the plunge, and forsake your bottles for the ease of kegging, click below: