Homebrewing Beer: To Keg Or Not To Keg?

Brewing your own beer is not exactly a simple task. If you know your way around the kitchen at all, however, it is not all that difficult to produce a batch of fresh, tasty ale. The actual brewing of the beer is one of the shortest and easiest parts of the entire process, as it usually takes only a few hours. You’ll need a healthy amount of patience for the next phase, though. The fermentation of the beer takes anywhere from four or five days to a fortnight or more, depending on the type of beer you make and the desired alcohol content. A powerful brew like a barleywine or a Belgian style Tripel can take upwards of a month to age fully.

For many homebrewers the most unappealing part of the job comes after the beer has finished fermenting, when it must be conditioned to provide carbonation and stored away in bottles or kegs. A keg system can be great solution to the bottling blues because it saves time and in many cases, money. Most homebrewers typically brew five-gallon batches, and it can take a lot of bottles to hold that much beer.

Some homebrewers purchase new bottles for every batch and some even go so far as to print labels and affix them to the finished product. Others reuse the same bottles over and over again, and I’ve even found that it can be quite fun to put something like a 7 or 8% IPA in recycled bottles with painted labels. Offer them a beer, they think is going to be a watery “near beer”, and it turns out to be something totally different.

If you have any friends who drink a lot of beer and don’t mind contributing their empties, you might never have to actually buy any bottles. If you do, though, and if you brew with any real frequency, purchasing enough bottles can eventually get expensive. Furthermore, it is crucial that every single bottle and cap is completely cleaned and sanitized because a few unwanted bacteria or fungi can ruin the beer. Even after the beer is bottled it is not ready to drink, because it takes a little while longer to build up the proper level of carbonation. There are high-tech carbonation systems available, but purists often prefer bottle-conditioning.

Some homebrew afficionados choose to use kegs instead, skipping the headaches involved with bottles. Kegs offer convenience, speed, and a much greater degree of control over carbonation levels. A slight mistake in the bottling process can result in beer that is flatter than it should be or, in the worst case scenario, exploding beer when over-carbonation causes more pressure than the bottles can hold. They are convenient because you don’t have to wash or worry about bottles, and kegs usually incorporate a carbonation system that bypasses the conditioning time.

Kegs certainly have their distinct advantages, but there are a few drawbacks as well. A keg system requires an initial investment that may amount to more than a casual brewer is willing to spend. Aside from the CO2 tank that will require regular replenishment it is a one-time expense, so it can provide substantial savings in the long run.

Kegs also require a lot of space, which can be difficult to find if you don’t have a dedicated beer refrigerator. A full size keg is unwieldy indeed, and even the five gallon Cornelius kegs most commonly used by homebrewers are hardly portable. Smaller five liter kegs are also common and have the advantage of fitting in the fridge a little more readily.

Kegging is definitely not for everyone. For someone who brews only a few times per year or a novice who will ultimately brew one or two batches and then give up, it is probably not worth it to use kegs. If you’re going to gift your beer away to various friends and places, then of course a keg is not the best choice. If, on the other hand, the beer is destined to be enjoyed at home, then a keg has much greater appeal.