One of the key steps in brewing beer at home is carbonating it. When it comes to home brewing, and brewing beer in general, there are two main methods to do this: bottle conditioning or kegging.
Most new homebrewers naturally begin with bottling their beer as it involves a lot less additional equipment and is fairly easy to do.
So, if you already have a tried and tested method of carbonating your latest beer creation, is it really worth the trouble to move into kegging your beer instead?
Kegging beer is worth the investment as it saves you a lot of time, toil, and disappointment. Kegging beer instead of bottling it is also more cost-effective as well as being less of a strain on the environment and the homebrewer’s resources. Beer carbonation and taste can also benefit from kegging.
As there is a fair amount to consider before you rush off and invest a lot of money into a brand new kegging system, I thought it best to go over all the details in the rest of this article.
So please read on for more information.
Firstly, what is kegging exactly?
By kegging, we mean storing a fermented beer in a sealed container, known as a keg, and adding carbon dioxide (and/nitrogen) at high pressure to enable it to be absorbed into the beer over days and weeks. The beer is then also served from the keg by lowering the PSI of the CO2 being forced into the keg.
In addition to the keg and CO2 canister, you usually need a dedicated refrigerator or chest freezer to help you keep your keg of beer at the correct temperature for serving and preparing the beer for tasting.
Should I keg or bottle homebrew?
I should mention here that almost every beer can be either bottle conditioned or kegged (I’m sure there will be one obscure recipe that can’t somewhere!), so it really doesn’t matter which method you use.
However, there are a few things that make kegging beer a much better choice than bottling it and they include time, effort, and, well, time again!
I’ll explain exactly what I mean by that a little later in this article, but for now, let’s just say that you don’t HAVE to keg your beer if you really don’t want to.
There are plenty of famous brands, Duvel for example, which commercially bottle condition their beer and have done for decades.
So, if you are only just getting into homebrewing and are just a few batches in I would definitely say stick to bottle conditioning for now as you want to be sure that you are a brewing fanatic before you take the next step.
How much does it cost to start kegging?
While most costly than bottling beer, the cost of kegging beer depend on whether you buy new or second hand equipment.
Assuming you already have a spare fridge or freezer, a brand-new kegging system will cost between $200 and $350. This includes a 5-gallon corny keg, CO2 regulator, and canister with tubing equipment as well as a vital temperature control unit for the refrigerator.
Most things that you need for kegging can be found cheaply on the internet these days and you can often refill CO2 canisters at a variety of stores from pet shops to car mechanics to paintball venues.
If you don’t want to spend so much, picking up second-hand kegs and CO2 equipment is also fairly easy to do.
Recommended Kegging Equipment
As a matter of fact, there isn’t a lot of equipment that you need in order to start kegging beer. However, a lot of it is fairly specialized and it’s not as easy to DIY it as with other brewing equipment.
You can find a lot of this equipment waiting for you at your Local homebrewing Supply Store, but I’ve listed similar items that you can get delivered to your door directly from Amazon.
Homebrewers generally use converted corny kegs or similar designs rather than the commercial Sankey models. Make sure that when buying your keg you know the type of keg it is (pin lock, ball lock or Sankey) so that you can get the appropriate fixtures and fittings.
You can find this keg and more sold on Amazon.
Being able to regulate your CO2 and accurately set the PSI will help you get the best results and ideal level of carbonation of your beer.
Make sure that you know the measurements of your gas canister or buy them as a set to avoid buying the wrong size (I never did that, honest!)
You can find this CO2 regulator and others sold on Amazon.
Although you can get a fairly basic picnic style beer faucet which will connect directly onto your beer line out of the keg, if you are going to do something do it right.
Temperature control unit
It’s perhaps the most overlooked item in the home brew house but I think it’s by far the most useful. I have two of these babies for my fridge and chest freezer.
The Inkbird temperature control unit is cheap, easy to use, and effective. Great for fermentation, cold crashing, and kegging.
What are the benefits of kegging beer?
As I eluded to before, the advantages of kegging your beer over bottle conditioning really amount to the time it takes you to do it and the effort. There are also environmental factors which are an added bonus too.
Bottling day vs kegging day
If you have been brewing for a while then you already know that bottling your beer takes a fair chunk of your time, especially if you are trying to do it on the cheap.
What I mean by that is recycling beer bottles from a previous batch or from your latest yard cookout. Cleaning, delabeling and sanitizing beer bottles are just the beginning of your bottling day.
Next, you have to carefully siphon your beer (ideally pre-primed with sugar) into the waiting bottles and then cap them without any mishaps.
It’s frankly tedious and backbreaking work.
Your average kegging day is much different.
Basically, a keg is one large bottle. You still need to clean and sanitize it, but you only have to do it once. There is also no need to prime your beer if you are going to rely on artificial carbonation by forcing CO2 into your beer.
Once you have kegged your first batch of homebrew you will honestly wonder why anyone bottles beer at all.
Time from grain to glass
Another advantage of kegging beer instead of bottling it is that you can actually reduce the carbonation period from weeks to days. However, this does take a little more work to achieve.
Forced carbonation can be done in a number of ways.
There is the ‘set and forget’ method which involves introducing CO2 into your keg at a relatively low PSI (10-12) and leaving it for about the same time as bottles take to carbonate naturally (7-14 days).
Then there is the more active method of setting a very high PSI (30) and shaking the keg periodically over a couple of days to help the beer absorb the gas. A good guide can be found here for that.
Protect the environment and your wallet
Another great benefit of kegging over bottling is that you save a lot of water because you don’t need to clean and rinse so many things.
There’s the water you need if you want to remove the labels from your bottles as well as the water needed for the actual cleaning and also for the amount of star san you’ll need to sanitize all those bottles.
So, for this one point alone and the lack of water wastage, kegging is king.
Is kegging better than bottling?
In my opinion, kegging certainly has a lot of advantages over bottling beer, but mainly because of the fact that the actual task is a lot easier.
That being said, there are some other advantages which make kegging a lot better than bottling.
Better overall carbonation
One of the biggest complaints I’ve heard from newer homebrewers when it comes to bottle conditioning is a lack of carbonation uniformity.
That’s just me saying ” some of ’em are gushers and some of ’em are flat“.
The issue with using priming sugar and relying on yeast to carbonate your beer is that you don’t have as much control over the process as when you are kegging beer.
If you over or under prime your beer or don’t have enough viable yeast left in each bottle, then you could have a surprise every time you open another beer.
Personally, I’ve had times when the same beer from the same batch has come out completely uncarbonated and the next one nearly took my eye out as I uncapped it.
Kegging really fixes both these issues.
Zero oxidation methods
I remember having a chat with my professional brewer friend, Tom Ashton, early on in my homebrewing journey about bottling beer.
We were talking about some nagging off-flavors I was getting in my beer, one of which was obviously down to oxidation.
I was foolishly attempting to say that oxidation while bottling is an issue that only homebrewers had, but he corrected me.
Anyone who bottles beer faces some level of risk from oxygen getting into their beer. However, with kegging, you can set up a system that can remove 99% of the risk.
So, if you have been getting strange tasting beer, kegging could be one method to improving its taste.
What are the drawbacks of kegging?
Now, as happy as I am with my little kegging setup, it’s not all perfect. There are some reasons not to keg your beer and to stick with bottles.
Dedicated kegging space
If like me, you don’t have a lot of space to brew in because you live in an apartment or you have to share your brewing space with other family members or for other activities, kegging could be an issue.
For a stress-free kegging set up, you really want a dedicated fridge or freezer and a spot you can leave your beer while it slowly carbonates. You certainly don’t want to be swapping out groceries for beer and vice-versa if you can help it.
Personally, I’m lucky because my wife agreed to allow me to put both a fridge and a small chest freezer in my personal office in our apartment. What a woman!
Just as a reference, you’ll probably need at least a 7 cu (141 liters) chest freezer for a 5-gallon keg, but bigger is always better.
A long wait for beer
Another thing to consider is that once your kegging space, assuming you only have space for one or two kegs, is taken up you have to finish that beer before brewing another.
This can be even longer when your kegerator doubles up as your fermentation chamber as mines does.
Unless you throw regular parties or have a lot of friends popping in, drinking an entire keg of beer yourself can (and frankly should) take you a fair bit of time.
Also, if you are brewing a big beer or a lager you have to sacrifice that keg and space to the long process of aging or lagering that beer. This could take several weeks or even months.
In these cases, bottling would be a lot less inconvenient and take up less of your available resources.
Sharing is caring
Another reason that kegging is not the right choice is when it comes to sharing your beer with friends and family outside your home.
As a member of a popular running group (who like to drink a lot of beer too), I’ve actually tried to take kegs up mountains and down gorges. It’s not that easy, to be honest.
It’s not that convenient to give beer away from a keg either. Although you can absolutely bottle beer directly from a keg, it’s not something you want to do as your guests are about to leave the party.
So, if you want to share your beer around, consider bottling some up in advance.