A Tale of Two Kegs
I picked up three cornelius kegs from a buddy in my homebrew club who was downsizing his operation. They were all in pretty good shape, two of them practically mint. At the time I wasn’t in a position to dive into kegging myself, but knew that it was coming down the pike. It seemed so easy, and the idea of having my own beer on draft was just too good to pass up.
Then something occurred that bumped “Get into kegging” higher on my list of homebrew to-do’s: I found a used Sanyo 4912 on craigslist for a song. When I went to pick it up, I explained to the lady (who was utterly baffled by my knowledge of and enthusiasm for this particular model of mini-fridge) that homebrewers scour the Internet looking for these since they have been discontinued — that the 4912 can fit two corny kegs and a CO2 tank perfectly, and since there is no freezer compartment you can drill straight through the top and mount a tap tower. She shrugged and helped me load it into the truck.
Next, to the local welding shop, where I picked up a 5lb CO2 tank: “What you got brewin?” I knew I did not look like a welder, but surely I don’t look that much like a homebrewer. He went on: “My brother-in-law does that stuff. Pretty good, too! I like the dark beers.” I said, “Cheers”, paid my ten bucks, and booked it home: I had just received a package from Austin Homebrew Supply containing my regulator.
I decided to spring for a double regulator, which would allow me to serve beers at different pressures, or to have one carbonating while another is at serving pressure. I figured that this would be useful since I tend to drink a lot of English ales (which traditionally feature lower carbonation) and Belgians (which I like to be pretty effervescent).
There is some debate as to what is the best practice when it comes to carbonating. Some purists say there is nothing better than refermentation in the keg — similar to traditional cask ale. This may be true — I can never wait that long. Some say it is best to hook it up to the gas and let it carbonate slowly over the course of a couple weeks — this way produces a precise serving volume. Again, this may be true, but I can never wait that long. Then, there are those who shake the keg — I am one of those. The practice of shaking the keg consists of putting the beer on gas, but at a high level (think 20-30 psi) and vigorously rocking the keg back and forth, which injects CO2 into the liquid. The trouble with this method (and why some folks don’t recommend it) is that it is very easy to overcarbonate your beer.
To avoid this issue, here is my method, with which I have had good success:
- The evening before you want to keg, crash your beer at 34F or as cold as you can get it. If possible, you want it to crash for at least 24 hours. This will aid the clarity of your beer, make it easy to rack off the yeast cake, and chill the beer (which is essential, since CO2 is absorbed much more easily by cold beer than warm).
- On the day of kegging, assuming you have washed and sanitized your keg (I wash mine with PBW once every couple brews and sanitize thoroughly every time I keg a beer. I also pressurize the keg and push the starsan through my lines and tap at that time as well), rack your beer into the keg and seal it up.
- Hook the keg up to CO2 and “burp” the keg — this refers to letting CO2 fill the headspace of the keg and then releasing it through the pressure-release valve. In so doing, you are ensuring that all the Oxygen (which is bad for beer) has been displaced by CO2 (which has a neutral effect for beer). Once you have done this a few times, your beer is totally safe. I usually turn the keg over a few times and make sure all my seals are intact at this point as well.
- Lie the keg on the floor with the “In” post on the bottom side. Place your CO2 tank some place above the keg (so it is elevated and there is no threat of beer travelling up your gas line), connect the gas, and crank it up to 20psi — You will hear the CO2 begin to bubble inside the keg.
- Vigorously rock the keg back and forth in sharp, quick movements for 6 minutes (assuming this is a 5 gallon keg). Towards the end of this time you will notice that less and less gas is being absorbed by the beer.
- After the time is up, stand the keg back up and disconnect the gas line. What you have on your hands now is akin to a shook-up bottle of beer — it is very agitated. At this point, most folks will put the keg in the fridge and let it settle down for a day or so. What I do, however, is to put a towel over the keg and pull the pressure-release valve. Gas and then a fair amount of foam will spray out, so you will make a bit of a mess (the towel will take care of most of it). Do I waste a bit of beer doing it this way? Yes. But I also get to drink my beer immediately.
- Turn down the gas to serving pressure (for me, this is usually in the ballpark of 9-12 psi, at approximately 50F) and connect the lines.
- Drink your beer.
This method will get you pretty close to your target carbonation level without putting you over the mark. Some folks recommend shaking the keg at 30psi for 20 minutes, which just seems like way too much to me. Using the method I have illustrated will give you a “head start” towards your target carbonation — your beer will be 100% carbonated withing a few days of being on draft.
*Note: The print featured in the above picture is from a Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project event from a few years back. If you are ever up on the East Coast, it would behoove you to suss out a few of their beers. Send one to me too while you are at it — I miss them terribly.