General information on kegs and kegging
Packaging your beer is the final step of making it. Kegging is a wonderful step up from bottling for homebrewers, as it cuts down on time and effort when packaging. It's no small thing, though, and requires you to drop a good bit of coin on more bits of equipment. It also tends to immobilize your serving setup, as kegs, CO2 cylinders, the regulator, and the requisite hoses are a hassle to carry around. Pouring from a keg to a growler or bottle works, but the beer will lose some carbonation in the transition.
Before you start to keg, you will need to consider availability of equipment and consumables. Easy access to a homebrew shop and a gas supply shop (PraxAir and Airgas are the main two where I live) are imperative. If you lack a local homebrew shop, be sure to order extra o-rings and seals for your keg; if you lack a gas supply shop, buy the biggest gas cylinder you can so you don't have to drive to the shop too often.
Another aspect affected by availability is the style of keg you use. Because kegs are bulky and somewhat weighty, they are impractical to ship. Pepsi and Coca-Cola used ball-lock kegs and pin-lock kegs, respectively. If restaurants in your town and region tend to serve Coke, you'll likely be able to find pin-lock kegs more easily. My town is a Pepsi town, so I use ball-lock kegs. Most local homebrew stores have a stock of reconditioned kegs that they sell, so check with them prior to buying other disconnects. You can also recondition your own kegs with kits, but beware that sometimes the port for the lid is in need of gentle convincing, which is hassle if you screw up.
Though I go into the equipment needed to do it, I can't direct you in making a kegerator or keezer (keg-holding chest freezer). Your fridge is different from mine, which is different from my fermentation/beer fridge, which is different from my neighbor's fridge. I can't tell you where your coolant lines run, I definitely can't tell you if you need a 4" shank or a 6" shank; I can't tell you this, that or the other thing. I may build a keezer, some day, and I will be sure to write it up. It will still be different than yours. From my absolutely non-scientific research, I can tell you that the internet is full of writeups on how to make a kegerator or keezer; Google "kegerator (insert-your-fridge-model-here)" and you should find something. Personally, I store my kegs in my fermentation fridge, as I don't always have active fermentations, and use a handheld tap. It didn't require any physical modification to the fridge, which is nice.
What you'll need, from the gas-end of it to the tap, along with a few details on each piece's variations. You will need a minimum of a gas source, keg, and handheld faucet, all this assuming you naturally carbonate. The most typical setups consist of a cylinder, regulator, regulator-to-keg gas line with a gas disconnect, keg, keg-to-tap liquid line with a liquid disconnect, and either a picnic tap or a shank and faucet.
Cylinders/gas sources: In order to pressurize the system, you need some sort of compressed gas which can be coupled to the keg. Small, ultra-portable setups use only a small (12 or 16 gram) CO2 cartridge and a regulator built for it. Those systems are not suitable for force carbonation of your beer, as it would exhaust a large amount of canisters. Most systems use a cylinder and a regulator. CO2 cylinders come in 5, 10, and 20lb sizes. Cylinder size does not affect the performance of the system; going larger only means you have to fill the tank less. Caveat emptor: Some gas supply shops charge roughly the same amount to replace a 5lb tank as a 10lb or 20lb tank - in this case, the 20lb tank will be cheaper in the long run.
Regulators: Regulators drop the pressure of the gas from the keg to a suitable level for carbonation and serving. At the lowest price points, regulators generally have one gauge (which reads pressure out of the regulator), a pressure adjustment screw, but no check valve or shut-off valve. More dollars will buy you a dual gauge regulator, which allows you to watch your tank pressure. Handy for knowing when you're near needing a refill, but not much else. Check valves make sure fluids only go in one direction - out of the cylinder. The shut-off valve on a regulator makes it easier to turn off gas flow; otherwise you will have to crank down the cylinder's knob. None of the extras are strictly necessary, though they're all nice touches.
Double/multi body regulators: Another nice touch piece of equipment is a double or multi body regulator. I would suggest sticking with a single body regulator to start with, then purchasing a remote mount extensible multi body regulator like the one offered by MoreBeer. Using one, you can serve and carbonate at different pressures. Useful if you want to serve at and carbonate to style-dictated pressures on the same system.
Note: Double/dual body regulators and double/dual gauge regulators are not the same thing. Some places simply refer to double/dual body regulators as double/dual regulators. Subtle, but important difference. Double/dual regulators will allow you to regulate to two different pressures; dual gauge regulators only allow one output pressure.
Gas lines: If you opt to use a cylinder and regulator, you will need a gas line to run between the regulator and the keg. Simple as that. You can also run a gas line from the regulator into...
Distributor manifolds: The simplest way to pressurize multiple kegs at the same time, at the same pressure. Can you say kegerator? Distributor manifolds are pressurized from the regulator's output line and pressurize any number of kegs or other distributor manifolds. Obviously, you need gas lines and connectors to run from the manifold to the kegs.
Kegs: Kegs come in three flavors: Pin-lock, ball-lock and Sanke. Pin- and ball-lock are preferred by homebrewers; Sanke is geared more towards professionals, so I won't address how to use them. Most brewers use 5 gallon kegs, but other sizes are available.
Gas-in/Liquid-out disconnects: These connectors are coupled to lines (gas and liquid) and allow them to interface with the keg. Be absolutely sure to pick the connectors that your keg uses - ball-lock connectors for ball-lock kegs and pin-lock connectors for pin-lock kegs. The standards are not interchangeable. Period.
Liquid lines: Similar to gas lines, only sized somewhat differently. Size matters. Line diameter and length affect resistance to flow, which must be controlled. It is a semi-complicated thing, which is not within the purview of this node. Consult your nearest local homebrew store for details, otherwise find a foam-free kit to simplify matters.
Handheld faucets: The simple black plastic affair that attaches to the end of the liquid line. They're simple, don't require mounting and are cheap. If you want to get dispensing your beer from your keg, they're the quickest route, albeit with a bit of a hassle.
Mounted faucets: If you want to have a permanent setup for dispensing beer from your kegs, you will want to mount your faucets. In order to do so, you need a few things. First and foremost, you need a faucet. Forward-sealing designs are a few bucks more than normal ones, but require less maintenance to keep clean and free-flowing. Ventmatic faucets were highly acclaimed, but they went out of business; Perlick seems to be the only name in the game now. Avoid creamer faucets, as they plug up much too quickly. Do not forget to order yourself a tap handle! They can be as basic or as ornate as you would like, but they all pull the same pint.
Faucet-mounting hardware: You have two choices, either a surface mounted faucet or a tower. Towers simplify things, as they generally include all the hardware except the liquid disconnects. However, they must be kept cool to prevent foamy pours. Surface mounted faucets will require a shank (with included shank nut), a shank washer, a wing or hex nut, and a tailpiece. The shank acts like a sheath through the surface, so it must be at least as long as the depth of the surface. Measure the depth of the hole the shank must fill and use a size close to, but larger, than that. It has to have enough exposed threads to allow the shank nut to engage properly, so slightly too big is useful, whereas slightly too small is useless. Order up to be sure, just don't go nuts. A 16" shank jutting into a mini-fridge-turned-kegerator will bash into the kegs and cause more problems than a 6" shank.
Beer gas/Nitro: If you're a big fan of pushing beers on nitro and want to own your own setup for it, be prepared to pay. It'll cost about the same as a CO2 setup, but you probably want one of those as well. The cylinders for beer gas are different and you will need one of those; same for faucets and regulators.
On buying used: I would recommend buying yourself a fresh set of lines and, if you so desire, disconnects. Otherwise, buying used can save you money. I picked up a 20lb CO2 tank from another brewer for a third of the retail cost, still cheaper than a new 5lb tank. Check everything for damage. Save some bucks for the beer-making.
As you can see, kegging is a pretty front-heavy operation. Pick a bunch of stuff out, get it all setup, work out the quirks and leaks. That said, once you hit the packaging step of making beer, kegging is smooth sailing. You will need the following:
- Beer to be kegged
- A keg
- Dispensing equipment
- A bucket big enough to hold the siphon and sanitizer
- Optional: Dextrose to achieve desired carbonation level, dissolved in water
Simple, eh? No caps, no capper, no bottling bucket, no bottles. I prefer Iodophor for sanitizing, especially at this stage. I want full contact with all the surfaces in the keg, especially the inside of the diptube - the tube which draws the beer from the bottom of the keg. Not easily done with StarSan, from what I can tell. Here goes:
- Fill the keg completely with water, adding enough Iodophor to bring to no-rinse sanitizing levels. Allow it to sit for 2 minutes.
- In the meantime, connect the gas line and seal the keg with its lid. Pressurize the keg, lightly. It doesn't need to carbonate, just form a good seal. Disconnect your gas line after this.
- Flip the keg over. This will cause the air bubbles in the dip tube to rise to the top and allow the dip tube to be filled with sanitizer. Give it another 2 minutes.
- Flip it back over - right-side up now. Plug in the gas line and liquid line. Use the gas to push the sanitizer into a bucket.
- Sanitize your siphon.
- Remove the lid from the keg and begin siphoning the beer into the keg. If you have a dextrose solution to add for natural carbonation, add it at this time.
- When it is done siphoning beer, remove the siphon, clean it and put it away. Seal the keg up and lightly pressurize if naturally carbonating; otherwise follow force carbonation procedures.
- If you're allowing your beer to naturally carbonate, allow it to sit at room temperature until the carbonation develops; if force carbonating, begin chilling it.
Pretty painless, right? Instead of sanitizing a bunch of little buggers, you sanitize one big one; instead of siphoning and draining, you just siphon. No bottling wand. No capper or capping.