The Homebrew Draft System

beer selection

Sooner or later you'll meet a brewer who shares with you the joy of home-brewed draft beer. Drawing a glass of fresh ale or well-aged lager from the keg has an appeal that somehow goes beyond mere words. After you've seen for yourself how much fun (and how cool) draft-at-home can be, you'll probably be on your way to the store to get set up.

Understanding the benefits, costs and special considerations involved in kegging will help you make better choices when it comes time to set yours up. This page describes what you'll be getting into and what you'll get out of the whole experience.

First, kegging is all about convenience and control. Convenience because you can forget about cleaning and sanitizing bottles, storing empties and waiting weeks for beer to condition in the bottle. Control because you'll be able to easily adjust carbonation levels to your liking for a given style or batch. A home draft system also opens the door to other possibilities like closed beer transfer and filtering for crystal clear beer.

Of course all these benefits have some cost, depending on the type of draft setup you choose. The cost of the basic equipment itself can be relatively high (though it will pay for itself many times over in convenience).

Storage and refrigeration of [[Sooner or later you'll meet a brewer who shares with you the joy of home-brewed draft beer. Drawing a glass of fresh ale or well-aged lager from the keg has an appeal that somehow goes beyond mere words. After you've seen for yourself how much fun (and how cool) draft-at-home can be, you'll probably be on your way to the store to get set up.

Understanding the benefits, costs and special considerations involved in kegging will help you make better choices when it comes time to set yours up. This page describes what you'll be getting into and what you'll get out of the whole experience.

First, kegging is all about convenience and control. Convenience because you can forget about cleaning and sanitizing bottles, storing empties and waiting weeks for beer to condition in the bottle. Control because you'll be able to easily adjust carbonation levels to your liking for a given style or batch. A home draft system also opens the door to other possibilities like closed beer transfer and filtering for crystal clear beer.

Of course all these benefits have some cost, depending on the type of draft setup you choose. The cost of the basic equipment itself can be relatively high (though it will pay for itself many times over in convenience).

Storage and refrigeration of kegs is another concern. Kegs come in a variety of sizes, including convenient 5-L mini kegs. While the smaller kegs fit neatly into any refrigerator, larger kegs are a bit bulky and place demands on storage locations, transportation and cooling needs. A dedicated beer storage refrigerator is almost a requirement and it takes a fairly sizable fridge to store more than a couple of kegs. Other options are available for getting cold beer from a keg (jockey boxes, for example) and many brewers get by just fine without dedicated refrigerators.

Hardware You'll Need

By far the most common system used by home brewers for draft beer is the 5-gallon soda canister, originally manufactured by the Cornelius Company (Annoka, Minnesota). Though other companies also make similar models (notably the Firestone brand [Spartanburg Steel Products, Spartanburg, South Carolina], whose kegs are virtually identical to Cornelius's--though parts are not necessarily interchangeable), the style is usually referred to as a Cornelius or "Corny" keg. These stainless steel canisters were developed and used to distribute premixed soda for common restaurant dispensers. The keg shape, capacity and fittings are standardized and over the years millions have been manufactured. It takes only a small conceptual leap to see they can dispense beer the same way they once dispensed diet cola.

The complete keg draft-beer system is very simple. A typical system includes a Corny keg to hold the beverage, a CO2 (carbon dioxide) gas tank to pressurize the keg (for force-carbonation and dispensing), a gas regulator to lower the gas-tank pressure to a usable level, a hose with a quick-disconnect fitting to connect the CO2 tank to the Corny keg, a hose with a plastic faucet or "picnic tap" and quick-disconnect fitting to dispense the beverage.

The keg: Most kegs are 8-1/2 in. in diameter, about 26 in. tall and hold 5 gallons of liquid. The top and bottom ends of the kegs are covered with shock-absorbing plastic caps. The cap on the top end of the keg is molded to provide handles for easy lifting, although older kegs made by the Cornelius Company had no end caps at all but relied on a single metal handle bolted to the top. Kegs may or may not have a pressure-relief valve in the lid--an important safety feature.

Kegs are available with two types of valves, ball-lock and pin-lock, which refer to the method used to couple the hose fittings to the valves. The fittings are threaded slightly differently and are not interchangeable, so it's a good idea to pick one keg type and stick with it to avoid confusion. Ball-locks are a bit easier to disassemble with your average socket set. Plan to buy at least two kegs so you won't have to finish one batch before kegging another.

CO2 tank: You'll also need a high-pressure CO2 tank to provide gas for carbonation and dispensing the beer. All tanks should be stamped near the top with a pressure test or certification date and must be recertified every five years. If you can't find a date stamp, ask the person selling the tank to show it to you. No responsible dealer will fill a tank with an expired certification. Recertification, if needed, will cost you extra.

Pressure regulator: You'll also need a single or dual-gauge gas pressure regulator for the tank, which is used to drop the gas pressure from the 800 phi or so in the tank to the 10-30 psi you'll need for force carbonation and dispensing The regulator is adjustable so you can set the output pressure to control carbonation levels and to control how the beer serves. Regulators include a pressure relief valve that will blow at or below the maximum pressure indicated on the low pressure gauge.

One or two gauges? Both single and dual-gauge styles work perfectly well. Both include a gauge that indicates the output (low) pressure setting, which is the most important information you need.

The dual-gauge unit also includes a second gauge that indicates the tank pressure, which tells you roughly how much gas is left. Knowing the tank pressure, though, is only marginally useful; it drops from 400 to 0 psi in what often seems to be the last few minutes of use. When the gauge says "almost empty," for all practical purposes, it's empty.

Connections: To connect the gas tank to your keg and to dispense the beer you'll need two quick disconnects, a gas line and a beverage line with a picnic faucet.

Disconnect fittings are available in both ball-lock and pin-lock styles to match the keg type.

To gain the most from your investment, use the flare-style outlet -- it's a short metal insert with a male thread. This style of fitting allows you to connect either pin-lock or ball-lock fittings to your regulator and even connect several kegs at the same time.

homebrewed beer with malted grains and hop flowers

Home Beer Brewing

Brewing beer is an American Tradition.