Nothing says “party” quite like a full keg. Long a staple of rowdy backyard parties, and even longer a critical element to any serious home bar setup, the keg allows an efficient means of storing and distributing large amounts of beer without wasting bottles or losing freshness.
Few people make the leap into keeping and refilling their own keg. Generally, we all play on the merry-go-round of paying a deposit, getting a full keg, returning an empty one, and getting the deposit back.
But with the rise of homebrewing, more and more people find themselves needing a keg of their very own. While the process does require a little planning and attention to detail for both safety and quality control purposes, virtually anyone can do it.
In this article, we’ll answer some of the most common questions about keg ownership and how to refill a keg yourself. If you want to take your beer aficionado status to the next level, read on!
Why Should I Refill A Keg Myself?
The reasons to refill a keg yourself run long, but we can boil it down to three main takeaways:
- Cost Savings
Almost anyone who has drunk the same beer from a can or bottle, and then had that brew on tap knows that keg beer tastes better. A few different reasons come into play here, from the lack of light strike that can affect bottled beers to the amount of carbonation or nitrogen that flows into the draft version.
Which brings us to the topic of control. There are reasons bars and brewers use kegs for their best or most popular beers. With a home keg setup, you can adjust the level of gasses to give your beer just the right mouthfeel. You also ensure the ingredients stay evenly mixed throughout the whole batch, whereas canned or bottled beers might have less consistency.
Last but certainly not least, refilling your keg can have significant cost savings. Even if you don’t brew your beer, having a keg setup can save you anywhere from 40-60% compared to the same beer bought in cans or bottles.
Related: What is a Thumper Keg?
What Equipment Do I Need To Fill A Keg?
Now, into the nitty-gritty stuff. Kegging beer comes with a fair few upfront costs, but in the long run, it will all seem worth it when you take that first sip from a glass poured out of your own tap. Let’s take a look at the necessary equipment to fill or refill a keg yourself.
- CO2 Tank
- ISO 9001 and NSF Certified
- 5 Gallon Ball Lock Keg
- Stainless Steel Tank
Most home keg setups will use some variation of the Cornelius keg, AKA, the corny keg. Corny kegs became popular with the soft drink industry, which would deliver full kegs of syrup pressurized with CO2 that forced the syrup up a line. The syrup would then get mixed with carbonated water to make early soda.
Today, corny kegs remain popular with in-home keg systems because they are easy to obtain and maintain. They come in two different styles related to the delivery mechanism: pin lock kegs and ball lock kegs.
While both varieties can hold up to five gallons, they do have a few pros and cons. Pin lock kegs generally sit a little shorter than ball lock kegs, though they do have slightly larger “posts,” the little things that stick up to let in gas or let out beer.
Ball-lock kegs became more popular because they make it much simpler to release pressure from the keg – a key feature if you want to refill the keg yourself. They generally have a taller profile, but for most kegs, you can swap a pin lock lid for a ball lock lid and vice versa.
Slightly less common, the Sanke keg has only one entrance/exit. A spear extends from the post to the bottom. Gas gets forced through the post and fills the top of the keg. That pressure pushes the beer underneath up through the spear.
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- 5.25 inch diameter, 14.2 inch length, 1.125" UNF inlet thread.
- 5 LB capacity, 1800 PSI, DOT-3AL & TC-3ALM designed
Carbon Dioxide makes your beer all nice and fizzy. To fill or refill a keg yourself, you will need an appropriate level of CO2 so the beer will flow and maintain its carbonation. The tanks range from 2.5 to 20 pounds in size, but it only takes about ⅓ of a pound to dispense a 5-gallon keg.
You can get empty CO2 tanks refilled, but be cautious. Aluminum tanks will need hydrostatic testing every five years to make sure they won’t leak or fail.
Mount up! The regulator will provide two readouts: the amount of CO2 remaining in the tank, and the pressure going into your keg. Pressurizing a keg requires a sensitive touch: getting the right mix in your keg requires a fairly precise application of CO2.
The amount flowing from the tank to the keg adjusts with a simple twist of a valve. A word of caution: gas plus pressure equals danger. Make sure to tighten the regulator securely to the CO2 tank to ensure nothing goes flying with 900 PSI of force behind it.
Taps, like kegs, come in a few different styles. When we think of kegs, many of us picture a “picnic style” tap, with a ball on the end of a pump that manually adds pressure to the keg, forcing the beer out of the line. It gets the job done, but this will make beer go bad faster because it adds oxygen.
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For kegs you plan to savor a little more, you’ll want a pressure-dispense tap. These attach to a CO2 tank, which adds pressure to the keg. At the other end, a simple lever opens the line and lets the beer flow out.
You will need to keep the beer cold. Kegs do great at evenly cooling a batch of beer, but finding the fridge space can prove challenging. Many home setups have a dedicated “kegerator” to handle their kegs. Kegerators often come with a line and tap, so you can fill up without even opening it.
All-In-One Keg System
- New 5 lb aluminum CO2 cylinder with new CGA320 brass valve
- Class 1 reconditioned 5 gallon ball lock keg, cleaned and pressure-tested
- New dual-gauge CO2 regulator
The equipment list may seem like a lot, but many options exist for getting an all-in-one keg system. These systems typically come with the keg, line, tap, and regulator. Others go a step further and put the whole rig inside of a refrigerator, giving you a totally dedicated stand-alone unit.
But you will need to provide your own CO2, and of course, you’ll need to make sure to get cartridges that fit the regulator on a given all-in-one keg.
Preparing The Keg
First and foremost, you will need to make sure you have a clean keg to fill. Bacteria can easily get into a batch of beer, and you generally want to avoid harmful bacteria when drinking beer or doing anything else, really.
Make sure to release the pressure before starting any cleaning operation. On Sanke kegs, failing to relieve the pressure can turn the spear into an actual spear, and on corny kegs, the pressure can break parts of the posts or attachments.
After relieving the pressure, rinse out any sediments left over in the keg. A little warm water swished around will do an excellent job of removing most of them, especially if you do this right after the keg has emptied. If you don’t have time to clean it right away, filling a spent keg with water will keep the sediments from sticking to the bottom.
Once you have a relatively sediment-free vessel, fill the keg up with hot (boiling, even) water and your preferred brewing cleaner. Let the solution do its work for several hours or overnight. You may also want to remove the posts and soak those in the cleaner to remove any leftover residue.
After the brewing cleaner has worked its magic, fill the keg again with warm water and let that also sit for several hours. Dump the rinse water out, and you now have a clean keg to fill with delicious brew.
How To Refill A Keg
Once you have your beer ready to go into the keg, you will have a few different options. Many homebrewers use glass or plastic carboys to ferment their beer, and these vessels will require siphoning.
To siphon the beer, carefully unscrew the lid just a little bit to give the gasses in the keg somewhere to go once displaced by liquid. Make sure to unscrew only far enough to relieve pressure, and seal off any gaps with sanitized tin foil to keep excess oxygen out of the keg. With the sanitized hose close to the keg’s bottom, start the siphon and avoid excessive sloshing.
If you have a pressurized fermenter, you can add the beer without unscrewing the lid, which does a better job keeping oxygen away from your beer. You will still need to depressurize the keg, keeping the fermenter’s pressure higher to make sure beer flows from fermenter to keg. Too much pressure in the keg could force CO2 into the fermenter, disturbing the brew.
Remember that you will need some space remaining to add CO2 and pressurize the keg. You can either measure the amount of beer in your fermenter, ensuring you have no more than will fill your keg, or use a scale.
Placing the empty keg on a scale, zero it out. When you start adding beer, remember that one kilogram (2.2 pounds) equals one liter (0.26 gallons). If you have a five-gallon tank, you will need 18.9 liters of beer for a full fill.
Once full, you can seal the lid and start adding CO2 slowly. Set the regulator to 5-8 PSI and turn the valve on. Lift the bail on the lid to begin depressurizing the keg again. This allows the CO2 to displace any oxygen in the tank. Repeat this process 3-5 times to make sure you got all the air out so your beer will last a long time.
Once you have the air out, you can set the regulator to about 10 PSI and let the keg fill with CO2. That should provide adequate CO2 without the risk of forcing beer back through the regulator – potentially ruining it – if the pressure gets too high due to an overfill.
You can check for leaks during the pressurization process by applying a sponge with soapy water to any valves, gaskets, or potentially leaky spots. The soap will bubble if it has any air escaping. You might need to repair or replace parts of your setup if you find a leak since air will quickly ruin a batch you plan on savoring.
After that, just wait! The CO2 will carbonate the beer over the course of a week or so. You just want the beer to come in contact with the CO2. This will happen naturally, but if you want to speed it up, you can crank the CO2 to 20 PSI for 24 hours, or manually agitate the keg by shaking it around.
While you wait for your beer to carbonate – and after that, if you like cold beer – you’ll need to keep it refrigerated. Around 40°f should suffice.
Nothing beats beer from a tap, and nothing beats a tap in your own home. Anyone can refill their keg with the right preparation. Just remember that gasses under pressure can do severe damage, and contamination will ruin a perfectly good batch of beer very quickly.
Done right, the process will make you feel like a boozy mad scientist. If you homebrew, you can save a tremendous amount of time and energy by cutting out the laborious process of bottling. Moreover, it will give you better, more consistent beer by using forced carbonation instead of the sugars that carbonate home-bottled beer.
A home keg can seriously level up your home entertainment possibilities. A customized tap handle allows you to stylize your pour. Instead of cleaning up a bunch of empty bottles the next day, you just have some glasses to clean. Anything that improves the quality of beer and decreases cleanup is a big win in our book.