When we talk about packaging your homebrew or wine after fermentation, you can bottle condition and wait a few more weeks for it to be ready (and have bottle trub) or you can do what we think the best option is—Just Keg It!

In this installment of Just Keg It, we cover the best practices of actual kegging of your homebrew and wine. It really is an easy process, but when there are multiple steps, tools, and parts of equipment, it can get a little confusing to first timers. But all it will take is a little practice and you’ll have excellent, well-packaged, clean, and carbonated beverages ready to drink in a fraction of the time it takes to allow for natural carbonation.

Be Sure Fermentation is Complete

It seems like that would be obvious, but we’ve seen it happen. Some folks don’t check their gravity to be sure it hasn’t changed in a few days and they don’t pay attention to any environmental factors that may have slowed fermentation, so they end up kegging an unfinished beer. Which may not be the worst thing ever, but you may as well put the finished version in the keg because it won’t be changing much once it gets into cold storage. But it if you bottled some and kept those bottles hot later, they could continue carbonating and lead to bottle bombs. So, let your beer finish before kegging.

Keg prep and kegging

Kegging Your Homebrew

You will need the following items to keg your beers:

—A finished beer

—A clean and sanitized keg

—A clean and sanitized auto-siphon and 5-6 feet of tubing

—A sanitary environment with low air movement

—A bucket of prepared sanitizer water (Star-San or other contact acid based sanitizer)

—Paper towels

CO2 regulator and CO2 tank with gas hosing and disconnects (white or gray QDs)

—Kegerator/Keezer for force carbonation, storage, and dispensing

Note: We suggest that your finished beer be cold-crashed for clarification at approx. 34F for two days prior to kegging. This step clears the beer and gets it to an appropriate temperature for quick force carbonation. The warmer the beer is to start, the longer it can take to force carbonate at high or low PSI. Cold crashing isn’t possible for all brewers, but it is worth your consideration. You can also add finings during this step for extra clarification and to reduce keg true prior to kegging. A temperature controlled fermentation space is the easiest way to cold crash. 

Step #1: Move Your Beer to the Transfer Area

Move your finished beer to the transfer location so that it has time to settle a little from the movement while you are prepping for transfer. Even a slight amount of movement can stir up sediment, so be cautious when moving the fermenter. Especially if you are going right from a primary or the secondary has more trub than usual after clarification. For example, fruit puree additions, etc.

Note: The colder the finished beer is, the faster it will settle. Especially if you added any finings, such as gelatin.

Step #2: Prep Your Keg and Sanitizer

A bucket of Star-San water makes kegging much easier. Measure an ounce of Star-San from the container and add it to a bucket filled with 5 gallons of water. Mix. Also, see Just Keg It: Keg Cleaning, Sanitizing, Maintenance, and Storage for help with keg prep. It’s always good to hit that cleaned keg from storage with some fresh Star-San prior to kegging. Personally, I like to place both the Star-San bucket and keg in a large plastic bin and keg from my kitchen sink area. This helps with containing any mess.

Step #3: Sanitize your Siphon and Hose for Transfer

When your sanitizer is ready, be sure to pump it through the auto-siphon and hosing and allow it to sit for a moment before it touches your finished beer. This is a good time to add some to freshen up your prepped keg if you stored it clean and sanitized.

Step #4: Transfer your Beer

Now that you are prepped and everything is clean and sanitized, you can drain the sanitizer from the auto-siphon and hose, put the hose in the keg so that it reaches the bottom (5 to 6 ft of hose), gently put the siphon in the beer without full submerging it and give it a few gentle pumps to get the beer moving without agitating it more than you need to. Once it’s started, slowly submerge it until it gets to a point that you can either leave it without it picking up any trub or where you can hold it just above any unsettled trub (by hand or with a clamp for some fermenters). This keeps any extra from getting into the kegged beer and eventually settling on the bottom of the keg where it might get stirred up should you jostle the keg later (think murky pints for a few pours). 

Sanitation Note: My preference is to lay a clean paper towel across the opening of the keg while the transfer is in progress and also lay the sanitized lid (with lubed O-ring) on a paper towel on my counter. Because counter tops are never as clean as you would like them to be and microorganisms tend to either fall or be blown into your beer to ruin it. Always re-sanitize that lid before you put it back in place. 

Transferring beer to a keg

Step #5: Carbonate the Keg

When you finish the transfer, remove the hose and quickly place the sanitized lid and lubed O-ring back in place and lock it. Sometimes this may require you to shift the lid around until it locks smoothly into place. Next, place the keg in your kegerator and attach the gas line to the Gas In post of the keg (if not marked on the keg, this is the 2 pin post on a pin lock or the post with a hex pattern or etched edges in the base for ball lock). Open up pressure from your regulator or your gas line splitter and check the lid of the keg and posts for any pressure leaks you may have missed when you previously cleaned and maintained the keg for storage. A little sanitizer water will quickly bubble up around leaking points. Especially around the O-ring. That is why you apply food grade keg lube before storage as well. It’s almost guaranteed to eliminate leaks in that area. For information about setting up a simple way to chill and serve your kegged beer, see Just Keg It: Setup a Simple Kegerator or Keezer.

36-48 Hour Force Carbonation: If your beer was cold crashed, you can turn the regulator up to 30 PSI and achieve the appropriate level of carbonation for most light to medium bodied beers in 36-48 hours. For heavier bodied beers like a Russian Imperial Stout or a beer that was kegged warm, it can take the full 48 hours or longer due to the density of the body or the time it takes the beer to chill down and accept the CO2. 

The best way to be sure about using a higher level of PSI for faster force carbonation is to check the beer after the first 24-36 hours. Especially for lighter bodied beers that do not require a higher than usual level of carbonation. Simply turn off the gas valve, depressurize the beer using the pressure release valve (PRV), connect a serving line on the liquid out post and pour a sample. If the head dissipates rapidly and the beer still isn’t quite there, give it another 12 hours before checking again. 

After sampling, be sure to turn the gas on to pressurize the keg again and remove the serving line as a precaution against any higher pressure leaks. The serving line should be able to handle it, but if the liquid QD wasn’t connected well (or is damaged from previous use) or you are dispensing from a beer faucet, the higher level of pressure may win and you may lose 5 gallons of hard effort to the floor. It can and does happen.

Note: My personal preference is 2 days at 30-35 PSI and then several days at 10-12 PSI. 

7 Day Gentle Force Carbonation: With a cold crashed or warm beer, you can keg the beer and set the PSI on the regulator to 12 PSI and simply wait 5-7 days for your first sample. You should usually have a beer that is ready to go by then. This slower method is the preferred method of many homebrewers (some saying it allows for tighter bubbles in the head) and is definitely the safer of the two routes for avoiding over carbonation. And of course, it is still far faster than bottle conditioning. You can then leave the PSI at 10-12 for serving from a picnic/cobra tap or turn it down to a lower PSI for safer and smoother dispensing from a beer faucet.

Final Thoughts
It’s really easy to keg your beer and wine and it definitely beats bottling. Yes, I have mentioned wine and that’s because we’ve found that wine kits that result in what we affectionately call “Pool Wine” are really great cold and carbonated. For example, the Island Mist Blueberry Pinot Noir has been a crowd favorite. The same goes for easier carbonation of a sweet, semi-sweet, or dry mead without having to worry about causing clarity problems with bottle trub from fermenting bottling sugar or leaving any residual sugar from bottling because your yeast have given out after all the effort. And of course, you can always get a beer gun or counter pressure bottle filler (or even a simple piece of clean plastic tube—though not a best practice) and then bottle samples for friends and family or competition with the carbonation perfectly dialed in. Just remember to try and keep the kegs from shifting due to stirring up any trub that may have fallen out of solution (it’ll still happen with most beers) and to ALWAYS perform your keg maintenance after a keg is empty. That way you have a clean and sanitized keg ready to go for the next batch, whenever that may be.

—Greg Etzel
Semi-Media Director/Special Event Coordinator TBI, Producer, Writer, Host, and Host Wrangler Come and Brew It Radio, Homebrew Consultant, Lover of Experiments