I have finally upgraded to CO2 kegging my homebrew after seven years of doing without. Seven years of other homebrewers hiding amusement behind the bottoms of their imperial pint glasses. Seven years of worry and hardship! Did I use enough priming sugar? Did I clean those bottles well enough? Ok, it wasn’t that much hardship. I still got to drink good beer. But after clawing my way up the initial learning curve (and forking out the startup cash), keg beer already promises to be a huge leap forward in ease, simplicity and quality.
The internet was less helpful on the matter than I expected–a lot of overviews, a lot of filler, not enough detail. Though pretty much every single post I came across assured me I was soon to be “the envy of all your friends”. The most useful resources I came across were the brief but succinct kegging appendix in good old Papazian, the single sheet of instructions that came with the CO2 regulator, and the school of hard knocks.
While I sit back awaiting the fame that must surely accompany maturation, here, for the next person who goes looking, are the details.
- Those tall skinny kegs with black rubber tops and bottoms and stainless steel in the middle are called Cornelius or Cola kegs. They used to be used to dispense soda, they hold 5 gallons, now homebrewers use them. They’re cheap and easy to come by, $50 from a homebrew supply store. Mine came free from fellow blogger Scott. Thanks, Scott!
Cornelius kegs come in two flavors: ball lock and pin lock. You can use either or both, but you have to buy hardware specific to the flavor, which means if you got yours free like I did, you have to figure out what kind they are. The internet made this complicated until I understood what I was looking at and it became painfully obvious. Look at the thumb-sized cylindrical stainless steel connectors on top of the keg. There are two: one for pressurized C02 to go in, one for carbonated beer to come out. On a pin lock keg, the cylinders have stubby pins sticking out of the sides for the nozzle connector to grab onto: two pins for gas, three pins for beer. On a ball lock keg, there are no pins. I bought new gaskets for all the connections, 12 feet of rubber hose, various related widgets and etc for say $50.
- If you have a choice, which flavor of keg should you use? I can’t tell you how long I spent trying to get a straight answer on this from ye half-in-the-bag homebrew forums. I’ll make it easy: pin lock. With pin lock, you can tell the difference between the gas connection and the beer connection. With ball lock you can’t. Otherwise they’re both just as easy to procure and cost pretty much the same.
What the hell are all these little widgets for? The red plastic nozzles with gray or black bottoms hook onto the pin lock connectors. Gray means gas, black means beer. They look slightly different for ball lock, but the color coding is the same. The long thin metal tubes fit into the keg underneath the black connector for the beer to get drawn up through, and the short stubby metal tubes (see them in the lower right?) fit underneath the gray connector for the gas to enter through. Each keg gets five gaskets: one for each of the silver tubes, one for each of the gas and beer connectors (pin lock or ball lock), and one big one for the lid.
How much pressure? The regulator ($80) has two pressure gauges situated opposite the connections they measure. The left one measures the pressure in the canister ($150), 800 psi or above when full (less if you have a smaller canister). The top one measures the pressure in the keg. The gray knob on the front lets you adjust how much pressure goes into the keg. The red lever below is a safety cutoff. The black knob on top controls the gas from the tank–it always stays all the way open or all the way closed. So, the process is like this:
- Make sure the keg is full of primed beer and sealed, with both gas (with the short metal tube underneath) and beer (long metal tube underneath) connectors screwed on tightly by hand and the big o-ring evenly seated around the lid.
- Screw regulator tightly, with crescent wrench, onto full CO2 canister.
- Make sure safety valve is horizontal like in the picture, closed.
- Unscrew black knob all the way to open up the gas.
- Connect the nozzle below the red safety valve to some tubing. Connect the tubing to the nozzle on the red and gray gas connector. The tube has little metal crimping widgets (sorry, not shown) at either end to tighten that connection. They take a screwdriver.
- Connect the gray plastic part of the gas nozzle to the two-pin steel connector screwed to the keg.
- Pull out on the gray control knob on front of the regulator and turn it clockwise to open up the gas. The gauge on top goes up. Stop when it gets to 5 psi.
- get a spray bottle full of mild soap solution and spray it all over every single connection to make sure there’s no leaks. If anything bubbles, tighten it.
- You’re done. Go away for a few weeks. Buy an extra fridge ($250).
Sort of feels like writing lego instructions. So much for my brilliant plan to write short, succinct posts. Next time.
A Cautionary Tale
It took me awhile to wrap my head around the physics of all this, simple as they are once you get it. Gas goes into the keg through the short metal tube, causing pressure to build up on the liquid, which is in turn forced up the long metal tube and out to your tap. The two pin(or ball)-lock connectors each have a poppet in the top that moves up or down when pressure is applied. Press it in with your fingernail, and if the keg is pressurized, either beer or CO2 will come spilling out. Imagine my confusion when I pressed them and beer squirted out in my face from both! Stupid me, I had filled the keg up high enough to cover the end of the short metal tube! Gas could still get in and bubble up through the liquid, but when I pressed to get gas out, first it would have had to suck up all the liquid between it and the gas. Heh! The mop is the brewer’s best friend.