I have always wanted to brew beer and have a number of friends that do. The results are almost always delicious and always interesting.
Having helped with the bottling process, I decided long ago that if I were to ever brew beer, I would not use bottles. Instead, I would rack into a keg and dispense from there.
Obviously, I needed a kegerator!
To force the issue, I brewed my first batch of beer a few months ago knowing that i would have to figure out a means of serving said beer from a corny keg before I could enjoy the fruits of my brewing labors. A 5 gallon “corny keg” is the standard vessel used in soda fountains and it has two “ball locks” on the top, one for the gas line and one for the liquid out line.
I actually looked into simply purchasing a kegerator outright, but they were expensive, generally inefficient, and often designed very poorly.
Thus, I decided to build my own.
In particular, I started with a 5 cubic foot GE chest freezer
($170 at Home Depot). Chest freezers are super efficient and a 5 cubic foot freezer can handle two kegs at once with room left over for more than a case of bottles and cans.
Obviously, a freezer is designed for freezing things and the thermostat can’t be set for the ideal keg temperature of 38 degrees. Thus, I added an external temperature controller.
The freezer plugs into the controller and the controller plugs into the wall. The controller has a probe at the end of a thin tube that goes inside the freezer. As seen at the left, I attached the probe to the freezer’s wall with a bit of gorilla tape. It is spaced off of the wall by styrofoam so that the probe is measuring the internal air temperature.
The tank is a 5 pound CO2 tank with a dual gauge pressure regulator and — very important — a shut-off valve with backflow prevention device. The backflow prevention device prevents liquid from entering, and ruining, the regulator.
An angle bracket supports the weight of the tank while the tiny bungie cords anchor the tank to the kegerator. It is critical that the tank remain upright or else you’ll end up with liquid CO2 in your regulator and gas lines, thus ruining the regulator and quite likely the gas lines, too!
A new tank runs around $60 and the regulator is typically less than $50. The CO2 tank will cost around $12-$20 to refill and it will last approximately forever before it needs refilling. I might need to refill it once a year. Maybe.
Ben Holt suggested a neat hack; stick a scale on the tank holder such that you know, by weight, when that 5# of CO2 is about gone. The high pressure gauge is close to useless in that it’ll read about 750-850PSI until almost all of the liquid CO2 is gone, then the pressure drops rather rapidly.
In the picture, you can see that there is a clear hose connected to the tank and then a red hose connected to that. The output port on the tank had a fairly small barbed connector so I needed a step-up adaptor to go from the 3/16″ interior diameter clear hose to the 5/16″ ID red gas hose.
The plumbing inside is pretty straightforward. The gas line comes in, is split and goes to the two kegs. The output of each keg is attached to one of the taps. As I go, I’ll be adding quick disconnects to the various lines such that I can swap different kinds of kegs with different couplers without having to re-plumb anything.
The wooden surround around the top serves a couple of purposes.
First, I can drill holes in it and mount stuff to it. While I could drill holes in the freezer door or walls, there is the risk of damaging the cooling mechanism and, in any case, drilling through the freezer would be a big pain to do cleanly. As well, by doing it this way, I can easily take off the wood and revert the freezer to a plain old chest freezer.
Secondly, the stacked two-by-fours add a considerable amount of height to the freezer. This makes it easier to plumb inside and allows me to use a wider range of kegs and couplers (the adaptor that goes between the keg and the rest of the system), including higher profile mechanisms.
The wooden surround is grossly overbuilt, as is typical of any project I take on. Not only are those solid 2x4s, but they are glued together and have dowels tying them together and have metal plates screwed to them.
Between fridge and surround is about an inch of insulation tape that is normally used to insulate the interface between a camper shell and pickup truck.
To attach the wooden surround to the top of the kegerator, I cut aluminum angle strips down to size and bolted them to the back of the freezer where the hinges originally attached. Since those bolts originally held the lid and were designed to withstand the leveraged forces of opening the lid, they are really strong and, again, I avoid drilling holes in the freezer itself.
The lid’s hinges are then screwed to the surround.
The weight of the lid, surround, and tank hanger is enough to press down the surround on the insulation material and provides a very good, airtight, seal.
Oh, and did I mention that the surround is way overbuit? Yeah. The bolts at the corner are actually about 4″ long.
I initially used the screw style hose clamps. They suck. I have since moved to nylon clamps, as seen on either side of the quick disconnect on the gas line.
The coupler in the picture is a Sankey, the most common keg coupler used. Note that Anchorsteam’s full sized kegs actually use a different coupler. It seems that most brewers use the more common Sankey — D system coupler, as it is otherwise known — for their 5 gallon kegs specifically because said kegs are often used in home kegerators of which most come with that particular coupler!
The 5 gallon kegs run around $50-$100, depending on the beer within. That is about 40 16 ounce pours or slightly more than 2 cases of beer. Thus, really, buying the 5 gallon kegs isn’t really much cheaper than buying a a couple of cases of bottles. However, the quality is much better and, obviously, returning an empty keg is a hell of a lot more environmentally friendly than recycling 2 cases of empty bottles!
At the moment, my taps have undecorated plain black levers. I’ll have to get some stylish handles at some point but this will do for now!
When tuned properly, the kegerator delivers beautiful pours of ice cold beer. Nothing like having fresh beer on tap in your garage! And, yes, beer on tap really does taste better than anything from a bottle!
The system isn’t quite perfect yet; like any good hack, it’ll be refined over time.
• I need to insulate the inside of the wood surround. While the wood doesn’t conduct that much heat, there is a noticeable temperature gradient within the unit and I both want to maximize efficiency and I might actually add a small fan to stir the air to ensure a universally even temperature. As well, the first pour tends to be foamy because the beer in the tube is actually warmed a bit!
• Need a bottle cap catcher.
• Need something better than towels on the floor to catch drips off the taps.
All in all, though, the kegerator works quite well and a number of my friend’s spouses are mad at me because they know such a hack will soon be taking up space in their house!
Not bad for about $400!
I picked up all the beer-specific parts from Micro Matic. They have a wonderful catalog. If I didn’t already have the tank from my forced carbonation adventures, I would have started with a two-tap kegerator conversion kit, though that does come with 2 D system (Sankey) couplers which may be overkill if you plan on keeping a keg of homebrew on tap most of the time.
Update: As per a suggestion in the comments, I moved from the 8″ or so beer line on the coupler to a 5′ 3/16″ ID line. Vast and huge foam reduction. Big improvement. Thank you!! I’m still running a short line on the homebrew keg as foamage on that particular keg is not a problem. In the end, I might end up with several different length tubes with quick disconnects in the middle to enable fine tuning without ripping everything apart.