The Joys of Kegging – Part 3: Lessons Learned

I had been piecing together a longer post that described my recollection of the first time I tried to carbonate homebrew in a cornelius keg.  But it turned into a meandering mess that bored me while I wrote it, which made it even harder for me to revise it.  These are all pretty good signs that nobody would ever read.  I hated writing it, so who would read it?

Instead of that, here is a list of the lessons I’ve learned about kegging homebrew, with descriptions of what I do now when I keg my beer.

The first couple of times I kegged beer, I went through five pounds of CO2 pretty quickly.  The first time, I barely carbonated and served one keg when the CO2 tank ran out.  Learning as I went, the homebrew store owner suggested using keg lube on the big o-ring on the keg lid.  I asked him how many kegs he usually would carbonate and serve on one five pound CO2 tank.  He told me that he was usually able to get through five kegs on one tank fill.

I still had more learning experiences to endure.  There were still times when, even after diligently checking for leaks and finding none, I would run out of CO2 on kegs in my kegerator.  For a long time, I thought I could keep the gas turned on and feeding into the keg like I could on a commercial keg.  Wrong again!  This would normally happen at inopportune times, but fortunately, I bought a spare five pound CO2 tank so I always had gas in reserve.

Anyway, here are some of my lessons learned.

General Carbonating Methods

It seems I have most frequently read about two suggested ways to carbonate homebrew:

  1. the shake-the-shit-out-of-the-keg method and
  2. the push-gas-through-the-“in”-port-of-the-keg-for-several-days-method.

I don’t like either of these methods.  When they work, they don’t work well.  For me, the beer usually ends up under-carbonated.  And I’m pretty sure that after the first time I tried to push gas through the “in” port, the thought occurred to me, “Wouldn’t it be better to push the gas through the “out” port of the keg, rather than the “in” port of the keg?”  After all, the point of shaking-the-shit-out-of-the keg is to increase the surface area of beer coming into contact with the gas.  So why not just push the gas through the serving line to the bottom of the beer?  The gas is being pushed directly into the bottom of the liquid!  It has nowhere to go but into the beer!  The idea that pushing gas on *top* of the beer will cause it to soak down through the gas-liquid interface to provide carbonation – rather than rise and leak out through the slightest air gap in the lid seal – seems ass-backwards stupid.

What I do:  I use this nifty carbonating hatch lid that pushes the CO2 through an air stone directly into the beer.  It takes approximately 24 hours to get almost precisely the level of carbonation I am trying to get.  I don’t have to shake any frigging kegs.  And it saves me CO2 gas.  A lot of CO2 gas.

Cornelius Kegs

Cornelius kegs are the worst way to deliver five gallons of draft homebrew in the world.  The problem is, there are no other reasonable alternatives.  Here’s what I don’t like about Corny Kegs:

  • The cheapest kegs available are used kegs.  Homebrew stores will sell them ‘as-is’ or ‘re-conditioned’.  The ‘re-conditioned’ kegs are of varying and sometimes dubious quality.
  • They leak.  They leak around the o-ring in the gigantic hatch lid.  They leak if the gaskets on the ‘in’ and ‘out’ ports wear out.  They leak if the poppet valves wear out or doesn’t seal properly.  That precious CO2 that you are using to carbonate or push the beer out of the keg will most likely leak either around the hatch gasket or the ‘in’ valve disconnect.
  • They are not constructed like beer kegs and have a primary function different from beer kegs.  If you have ever served beer by pushing it using CO2 from those sturdy commercial kegs with a Sankey (or other style) tap, rather than having to use one of those hand-pump taps you rent from a distributor, you will know what I mean.  I can sum it up easiest like this:  with a commercial keg, you don’t have to worry about CO2 leaking out from the keg.  There is one way for the beer and gas to come out of the keg.  With Corny kegs, there are three places for gas to escape: the ridiculously gigantic hatch lid gasket, the “in” port and the “out” port.

What I do:  I use Corny Kegs.  I have five of them.  But then, what choice do I have?  Until the design for cheap homebrewing kegs that I have in my head can be produced, I have no other option.  My Corny kegs are due for an overhaul.  I have replaced some of the gigantic o-rings on the hatch lids (which to me are the primary reason kegs can’t stay carbonated).  If the rim where the lid seats has any damage, forget about it sealing.  I also need to replace the ‘in’ connections on each of them.  The ‘in’ lines when the poppet valves wear out stick at least partly open when the gas disconnect is removed and, after the hatch lids, are where I think the likeliest location for gas leaks lays.

Ball Lock Disconnects

When I started kegging, my first instinct was to keep the gas line connected and the gas flowing into the Corny keg.  In theory, I thought it would keep the pressure up against the hatch lid, preventing (theoretically) gas leaks around the hatch lid o-ring and pissing all the CO2 in the tank away.  But assume that the the o-ring gasket isn’t a huge opportunity for a gas leak. The ball lock disconnects are not exactly air-tight.  In reality, this wastes CO2.

I have had the black disconnects that are hooked up on the liquid side of the keg delivery system leak beer when the keg is under pressure.  It stands to reason that, if the liquid disconnects do not prevent liquid leaks from beer pushed up from the bottom of the keg, and if the gray ‘in’ disconnects for the gas line are not really all that different in design from the black ‘out’ disconnects, then gas can and will leak around the gas disconnect.

What I have found with the gas disconnects hooked up to the keg and with the gas kept on, I go through CO2 quicker.

What I do:  I usually (but not always) keep the black “out” disconnect with the picnic tap on the keg and take the gray “in” disconnect off except for when I’m putting CO2 pressure into the keg.  I have found that leaving the gas connection hooked up and the gas left causes me to go through CO2 quicker.  So there still must be some gas leaking somewhere that I can’t detect easily with the soapy water test.

End Result

So which ‘best kegging practices’ do I use now?

  1. Use keg lube on the o-ring hatch lid.
  2. Use the carbonation lid to carbonate my beer within 24 hours.
  3. Once carbonated, keep the gas turned off and the gas lines disconnected from the ‘in’ port
  4. When the pour from the picnic tap slows, hook up the gas line and charge the keg with a quick blast set at about 4-6 psi.  Once charged, turn off the gas and disconnect the gas line from the keg.
  5. When disconnecting the gas line, check to make sure the ‘in’ poppet valve closes.

With these practices, I generally can carbonate and serve seven or eight kegs (sometimes more) using a single five pound CO2 tank.

After nearly ten years and 73 batches of beer kegged, I’m starting to think I’m getting the hang of it…

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