How-to: Build your own custom keg system
I guess this is a “how-to” kind of week. The best kind of how-to’s: Those that involve beer!
But first, I’m excited to say our Chai Latte Milk Stout is DONE and pouring beautifully out of our very own custom built tap system. You might remember that this recipe started out as a basic milk stout recipe. We then added a chai tincture that we made by soaking chai spices (cardamom, cinnamon, etc.) with vodka. We had to do some fancy math to figure out exactly how much tincture we wanted in the beer. When was the last time you did cross multiplication? Hubby was all over that one. This way, we knew the ratio of tincture to beer that would give us the exact flavor we wanted. Once the beer was ready for kegging, we used a sterile syringe to measure out the right amount of tincture and added it.
OK, keggerator time. Since hubby built this sucker, I’ll let him tell you exactly what he did:
The Keggerator (aka “keezer,” short for keg freezer)
When you decide to make the equipment investment to jump from bottling your homebrew, to kegging it, you will never look back. Kegging gives you results faster (force carbonation takes 48 hours, compared to at least 2-3 weeks of bottle conditioning) and you no longer have to strip, clean, and sterilize all those bottles! The equipment investment is not small (ours cost about $900), but it works flawlessly, and even looks good enough to keep it in the dining room. It can be done for much cheaper if you are looking to have just one keg on tap at a time or have an old chest freezer lying around unused.
A few things to think about for your own system:
- How many beers will you have on tap at a time? note: it is easier to build big and leave a little room for growth than to outgrow your system and start from scratch. Look here for some keg configuration ideas.
- Where in the house is it going? (i.e. does it need to be pretty?)
- How are you going to keep the beer cool? You can look to build from a fridge or a freezer. Most fridge models require the tap to come out of the front door, and obviously fridges tend to be tall and cumbersome. Freezers can be short and stocky, which works great but you need to control the temperature to keep your beer from freezing. We chose to go with a freezer.
- How is the beer going to get from the beer to the cup? Do you want little tap faucets that come out the side or big towers that come out of the top?
- Be creative. This project is custom by definition, so build something that works for you. A quick Google search will show you the vast array of systems out there from practical to ridiculous. Here are just a few ideas I used for inspiration: Massive keezer with collar. Full bar.
I chose to use a chest freezer based on the aesthetic I was going for (something that would pass as furniture in the house and not be banished to the basement). Picking the appropriate freezer might be the hardest part of the whole project. You need to look at internal dimensions of the freezer compared to the dimensions of your kegs (especially the height of the keg plus an inch of clearance of the disconnects). I found that most 5.0 cubic feet freezers will fit 2 kegs and a CO2 tank easily, and most 7.0 cubic feet freezers would fit a tank and 3 kegs. You are able to squeeze a few more kegs in if you build a collar, which is a wooden piece that adds height to your system. I really didn’t want to do this. It seemed like it would end up poorly insulated and take a lot of work to gain the aesthetic I was going for.
I found a nice white chest freezer on sale at Sam’s Club. They delivered the thing for free, which was a bonus. Unfortunately, all of the economical chest freezers are white. This will look fine in your basement and maybe your kitchen, but not the dining room. So, I gave the whole thing a rough sand and painted it with black black appliance paint. It’s a glossy epoxy based paint which worked perfectly with minimal effort.
Obviously, beer freezes in freezers, so a little temperature regulation was necessary. There are both analog and digital temperature controllers that will measure the temp inside the keezer and cut the power to the whole unit to maintain the right temp. No fancy installation necessary: just place the probe inside the fridge, plug the freezer into the controller, and set the temp.
Given the shape of the chest freezer, I loved the look of shiny tap towers. I initially looked at single towers that had 3 tap handles, but ultimately chose to go with 3 separate single tap towers. They look great and were cheaper than the triple tower. For installation, I just had to drill 3 holes in the lid of the freezer big enough to pass the beer lines through. A few sheet metal screws later, the towers were secured on top of the freezer. This method works very well since the lid of a chest freezer is just a slab of insulation. The sides of the freezer have all the working parts (chilling pipes), so they are not safe to drill through.
Now that you have found your freezer and your dispensing method, you need the guts of the keezer. This requires kegs, a CO2 tank, a regulator, and hoses. I bought mine all in one nice package from Midwest Supplies. I specifically chose the double gas regulator, which allows me to run two different pressures out of the tank simultaneously. I can use high pressure to be carbonating a new beer, while still having the other kegs on low pressure for beer dispensing.
Don’t stress too much about the CO2 tank. I picked a nice small 5 lb tank which is plenty of gas to carbonate and dispense 5+ kegs of beer. This small talk also fits easily into the keezer, so there are no gas lines running outside the system. I suggest that you buy a refurbished tank. Most gas fill places (large liquor stores and welding shops) will just exchange your empty tank for a full one for the price of the gas (at least in Ohio).
Kegs can be purchased new or refurbished. Most homebrewers use old soda kegs (exactly 5 gallons) for their systems. Mine were refurbished and in great shape except for a few cosmetic scratches and dings.
Once the kegs and the tank are in the keezer, you just need to hook up the hoses. Beer lines go from kegs to faucets. Gas lines go from the gas regulator to your keg. You’ll figure it out.
To top it off, I added a couple oversized bar mats on top to catch any dripping beer. These just get rinsed as needed. Don’t put them in the dishwasher. They might warp a little. Learn from our mistakes.
Eventually, I hope to add a small nitro tank, and change out one of the faucets to a stout faucet. Unfortunately, this requires buying a nitro tank, a nitro regulator, and a stout faucet. None of these are cheap, so this upgrade will need to wait for another day.
For now, we always have at least two to three beers on tap in our dining room at any given time. It seems to be popular with guests, and our house gets volunteered to host gatherings quite frequently. As a bit of fair warning: it is difficult to walk past the keezer without at least considering pouring yourself a beer. Beer on tap in your house will certainly increase your beer consumption. You will love it because it’s delicious homebrew, but you and your liver have been warned.