So You Want To Get Into Kegging Cocktails

Let’s say you’re a bar or a really enthusiastic home drinker and want to serve cocktails on draft. You’re wondering what it takes, money-wise, to get into the whole kegging thing. If there’s one thing I’ve gotten a lot of experience with over the last few years it’s kegging cocktails, so I thought I’d share some tips.

I’m going to recommend you don’t go the cheap route. I had initially included cheap components in my barebones carbonating cocktails post. I regret it. Every time I’ve tried to save money by buying something less than I really wanted, I ended up replacing it later, sometimes because it broke, sometimes because it sucked and I needed something better. I’ve talked to several people who’ve said the same. So here’s what I think you should get.

Necessities

Tank: $50.

clip_image002Find your local gas supply store and pick up a used tank from them. They’re cheaper that way. I think I got a 10 lb. tank for $50 last time, whereas a new one is $90. If you buy from the supply store, they’ll often let you just swap tanks later for convenience, so you’ll not have to worry about getting them recertified (which you’d otherwise have to do every 5 years for about $30). You also won’t have to drop it off then come back a day or two later to pick it up, you just walk in and swap it like exchanging propane at the gas station.

They’ll be a lot cheaper to fill than at the local homebrew store (LHBS) too. Usually the LHBS is buying from the gas supplier and reselling at 2-3x the cost. (They’re also using a different method to fill the tank  that is faster but fills it less, so you end up paying for CO2 you aren’t even getting!) Google for dry ice in your area, the local dry ice seller probably does tank swaps. I hear welding shops do too but have never been to one.

I’d get at least a 10 lb. tank. They’re only slightly more than a 5 lb. tank, and of course hold twice as much. For home use these last me quite awhile, however for my commercial stuff I blow through 10 lbs. for a good-sized event so I use a bigger tank.

Regulator w/cage: $85

Primary Double Gauge - CO2Get a good dual gauge regulator. It’s like $10 or $20 more than a cheap one. If you get the cheap one, you’re going to replace it later. I promise. I got the crappy Kegco I recommended in my first post for $45 on Amazon and it was the first thing that bit the dust. (Should have known from its 3.5 star reviews.) A crappy one is also going to require a wrench to adjust, whereas a good one can be adjusted by hand.

I love the Micromatic 642, pictured here. (I’ve only used a few, but it’s the best so far.) I’ve also got a couple of the dual regulators for when I need to set two different pressures. For bar service you’re probably going to want at least two different pressures available.

Get a gauge cage (or two if you go with the dual regulator). You’re going to have your tank tip over sooner or later, I promise. This will save it from busting a gauge and pay for itself quickly. I’ve had to replace gauges, they are very fragile.

You can do a double regulator on a ten pound CO2 tank, but it’s precariously balanced when full and a serious tipping hazard. Make sure to strap the tank in place. With a 5 lb. it won’t even stand up by itself. A 20 lb. is no problem even for a dual regulator, but still can be tipped so get the cage.

Perlick Adjustable Tap/Shank ($80)

These puppies aren’t cheap but boy are they worth it. Without them you have to use line length calculators and match the length of the line to the PSI of what you want to serve. If you’re just doing beer it’s not as bad. A lot of home brewers say they just serve everything at 12 PSI. I don’t do this, even with my beer, because some beer tastes better with more carbonation than others. If you want to be able to change your pressure you either need a flow control faucet or to be constantly swapping out the line.

If you’re doing cocktails you’re doing high PSI, and they can vary a bit more widely. (1) You need to either get an adjustable faucet or be constantly changing lines. If you want to serve different drinks at different pressures, and you probably will, you’ll want these.

Gas Line

As far as I can tell, gas line is just gas line. I usually buy whatever’s cheapest and I’ve never had any problems with any of it. Just do some rough math as to how far you want to run the line, then add a few feet in for good measure and you’re done.

Beer Line

image Beer line lengths are a little trickier. Use a line length calculator to figure out proper pressure. Set your Specific Gravity to 1. Set your PSI to the lowest you’d carbonate anything at, which is probably around 30. If you followed my recommendation and got flow control faucets, then make the line a bit shorter than it says.

If the number that pops out is shorter than your run, you have to use line with a higher Internal Diameter (ID). The homebrew standard is 3/16” line.

You can see on the right, using some assumptions I made, I need 26 feet of line between each keg and the tap. Or, I could just get good flow control faucets and run very little. In my camper I’m serving at 40 psi on 12 feet of line and thanks to flow control I have no foaming.

Niceties

Manifolds.

I’m not counting the price on here, because they’re only necessary if you’re distributing gas. A manifold basically lets you distribute gas (at the same pressure) from one regulator to multiple kegs. This is quite useful if you are serving more than one thing at a given pressure, as it’s far cheaper than having a separate regulator for each. A homebrewer with a keezer might want a 2-way. A bar might go way more. If, like me, you’re doing several carbonated cocktails on draft, you can probably run them all off of one regulator with a big enough manifold. (I still have 3 of this 3-way manifold in the camper though because beer comes out at lower PSI and shaken drinks at higher, often with nitrogen. I can configure my 6 taps in very many different ways as a result.) I use 6-way manifolds when carbonating because I have to do a lot of kegs at once sometimes.

I recommend getting one with check valves. I made the mistake of not having them originally, and learned the hard way that that is a great way to get liquid to back up through the gas line. Then you have to clean everything out and dry it to avoid mildew, and you also might get product from one keg going through the gas tube and into another while shaking.(2)

Also, for safety, I highly recommend getting ones with pressure relief valves. Especially if you’re doing something with some particulate matter in it, like an unfiltered beer. I don’t think there’s really much chance of one exploding, and you’ve got relief valves on your kegs and regulators, but better safe than sorry.

Stainless Ball Lock Disconnects

If you’re kegging cocktails, you’re probably using homebrew Corny kegs. The standard homebrew disconnects are made from plastic. These break. Like all the time. The last thing you want is to be changing over a keg mid-service and have your disconnect break on you.

I love my stainless disconnects. They don’t break. I stepped on a plastic one once and it broke and lodged a chunk of plastic in my shoe sole. I accidentally ran a stainless one over with my Airstream and after I dug it out of the ground it still worked.

Another advantage, if you use the Liquid Bread Carbonater, it was redesigned to not allow the ball lock disconnect to stay on, which makes it a huge pain in the dick to use. (The old red ones were not like that, the new blue ones won’t allow it. If you don’t already own the liquid bread, I highly prefer the newer stainless ones as a result, but if you’re like me you’ve probably got a few of the old ones kicking around.) A stainless disconnect will clamp on to any of them.

Also, some of the stainless ones come with an MFL connector rather than a hose barb. That’s useful if you need to use line with a larger ID than 1/4”. (Which would be rare.)

If you have any questions about any of this, feel free to drop it in the comment section. In my next post I’ll give you a great couple recipes.

Notes

1. In Liquid Intelligence, Dave Arnold recommends the pre-mix soda valves by C.M. Becker. I called them when I was building the camper and had them make me four of them. I can’t say enough good things about that company’s customer service. The owner himself got on the phone with me and made me what I needed. That kind of thing doesn’t happen much these days.  

Unfortunately the quality of service is much better than the quality of the valves themselves. The shanks were a pain in the ass to install in my beer tower. They’re just a tiny amount larger than a normal beer shank, so getting them in without stripping the threads with a wrench was a bitch. The nut/hose barb at the end leaked like crazy and I had to use PTFE tape and plumber’s putty, something I’ve not experienced on the several beer shanks I’ve used. Even then it was a pain to get to seal properly.

And worse the product is unreliable. It’s made of a chintsy plastic, rather than stainless. Even if you don’t worry about plastic touching your high alcohol, high acid cocktails, they just look bad. But I’d deal with that if they worked ok.

Unfortunately they do not. They have a flow adjustment valve on the side, but it’s odd. It rotates all the way around (the Perlick only rotates maybe 180 degrees) so it’s hard to tell where you’re at, and it doesn’t seem to do much regardless. I constantly experience dripping. I can have three faucets hooked up to three kegs that have the same pressure and get a trickle out of one, a torrent out of another, and the middle one be just right.

The one that’s just right will be incredible though. You can pour a highly carbonated ginger beer out at 32 PSI and see no foam at all. When they work they do a better job of keeping the bubbles in than a Perlick, but they just aren’t reliable enough for service.

2. For instance I was once force-carbing a couple sodas. I had shut off the gas at the regulator, but left all the ports on the manifold open and vented all of the kegs. When I shook one keg, the higher pressure in it forced the soda through the gas line, through the manifold, and into another keg. Thankfully they were the same soda so the product wasn’t damaged, but it’s a bitch to disassemble your setup, disassemble the manifold, then force cleaner through the whole thing.

Also for my launch party I had left the gas on in the camper as we drove to the event. Big mistake! The shaking caused by bumps in the road flooded all of my gas lines with a mix of six different cocktails/mixers/beers. Gross! I didn’t realize what had happened until days later, and the manifold and gas lines were so gross I just threw them out.

13 comments

  1. Steve · February 25, 2016

    I just had some cocktails on tap while in Portland and luckily have a nice kegging system for homebrew at home. Do you think beer gas would have any advantages over CO2 for this? What else do I have to take into consideration, do I have to add water to the cocktail in the keg since it won’t be stirred?

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    • Genius · February 26, 2016

      So beer gas is a mix of nitrogen and CO2. Usually something between 60/40 and 80/20 (commonly 70/30) in favor of nitrogen. Nitrogen is insoluble so it just pushes the liquid, whereas CO2 dissolves into the liquid. You might use that for a drink you want to be lightly carbonated, but then you could just use CO2 at lower pressure.

      I use straight nitro for dispensing “shaken” cocktails. Keep meaning to play with beer gas for that. Might contribute to extra foaming and aeration. I only have one nitro tank right now, so doing a side-by-side is rough.

      And yes, definitely have to dilute. I have a calculator I am building that I will post a link to here soon for that.

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  2. Ryan · July 12, 2016

    Matt, awesome information, bless you for posting actual knowledge. I have been playing with carbonated cocktails and regular sodas for a while since originally reading Dave Arnold’s Liquid Intellgence. Now I am trying to understand how to keg in 3 and 5 gallon ball lock kegs, and the science of kegging is foreign to me. I have read quite a few other posts and watched videos on how to produce carbonated sodas and cocktails in the 5 gal kegs and everyone is saying something different. A break down of how I have just today and yesterday failed to get a carbonated soda. I cooled the soda in the keg down to roughly 34 degrees hooked it up to 42 psi of co2 for 8 hours, then brought it out and shook it for 5 mins every hour for three hours. Let it sit another hour and then brought it out purged it to drop the psi of the co2 down to 12, hooked up my out line bev line (20ft of 3/16 in hose with the shitty dispensing end you get for a highschool or college party not the control flow you show in this post) let it sit for 10 mins and tried to dispense. The line was cool and level with the top of the keg. This produced a flat mostly foam at first, soda. I have carbonated cocktail recipes I want to try too, but will not throw down that money until I can figure out the sodas. Please help!

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    • Genius · July 14, 2016

      I can help! First off, what’s in your soda? All clarified stuff?

      Second, it’s best to let a keg sit a whole day after shaking. You wouldn’t shake a 2 liter bottle of Coke, wait a little, then open it. Agitating it knocks CO2 out of suspension and you need to give it time to dissolve back in. Shake it right when you hook up CO2 and then let it sit for a day.

      Third, did you do a line length calc on your dispensing? 20 feet is REALLY long for 12 psi. Use this and set specific gravity to 1.0: http://www.mikesoltys.com/2012/09/17/determining-proper-hose-length-for-your-kegerator/ (I wouldn’t think an overly long line would lead to foaming so much as a really slow pour though, but it can’t help.) I’d keep the keg at full pressure (I usually do something like 35 PSI) and balance the line for that.

      Fourth, picnic taps are just plain foamy. I’ve never had much luck getting anything out of them without a lot of foam, least of all a cocktail. Even beer that pours perfectly from a tap will foam a bit coming out of these.

      My advice: get a carbonater cap! Work your recipes out in 2 liter or 1 liter PET bottles. There are great stainless ones on Aliexpress for $15.

      Or if you’ve got a bit of a budget, try to get a bit of a tap system set up. Like a Keezer. Or just get a draft tower mounted to something (I use an old WWII ammo crate) and run your lines to the keg from that.

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      • Ryan · July 15, 2016

        Matt! Thank you so much for taking the time, apologies now if I ask to many questions. So, this last batch was not clarified fully. It was strained through cloth several times over (didn’t have a super bag) but! I have new access to a centrifuge. Any advice with a centrifuge would also be much appreciated, they scare me to death. Essentially not to get to specific the ingredients were sugar water line and mint. So after I shake the keg right when I hook it up (at 35psi? Or 40 or 42 or 50 I’ve heard so many things?) do I leave the gas at that psi attached? I have also been told not to cool the gas tank Bc it compresses..? And after 24 hrs it is ready to serve and you hook up the bev line with the gas still at 35psi? Do you purge before serving (heard that a lot)? If so with the gas attached? So I feel I miss calculated the line length now look at this calc link you gave me. Not sure I understand what to put in the flow rate box on this calc. But when I put 35 psi .1875 diameter 1.5 vert 10 flow rate and 1 gravity, it says 30 ft of line…?

        So long story short I have worked out the recipes at a smaller portion and have served them at small events, but I am looking to start serving from kegs in a “cart” like situation do you have any suggestions for setup?

        So just to see if I have any assumptions wrong here, hypothetically I plug up a chilled (34degrees) clarified keg to co2 at 35psi shake it for 5 or 10? Minutes. Then with the gas still attached store it at a cool temp (below 40?) for 24hrs. I then attach the bev line and serve with the gas still attached still reading 35 psi, with my calculated bev line and a control flow tap on it, no purge no nothing? Or.. When serving with nitro, unplug co2 and plug nitro up at 35 psi? At the serving point can the keg be transferred into ice or will that not be cold enough, what would you suggest setup wise for a cart? So what is your line length and serving psi? Does a keezer need electric? And lastly what and how do you clean your system with, I have seen so many videos that are again saying different things, but I know with sugars and citrus you must keep all lines as clean as possible to prevent foaming and bad taste.

        THANK YOU SO MUCH YOU ARE MY SAVIOR!

        Ryan

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  3. Genius · July 15, 2016

    Ok, lots of questions!

    I don’t have a centrifuge. Wish I did! Liquid Intelligence has lots of advice for that. That’ll clarify the shit out of your lime!!!

    For batching mint cocktails, I’ve been using 100% pure, steam distilled mint oil. Wow is it awesome. I think I recently posted on my mojito with it.

    Anyway, here’s the process I use when making a soda. (Assuming all clarified ingredients.)

    Mix everything and chill. Attach gas at desired PSI. (Depends on your drink, play around with different to see what you like. The carbonater cap is really good for this.) Shake the bejeesus out of it. Let sit, attached to gas for at least a day, though more is better. Doesn’t matter if the gas is in the fridge or not, mine is outside the fridge to save on space inside. Most places that sell beer on draft have them in the fridge. Whatever works for you. The regulator will let the gas out at the proper pressure regardless of temp.

    At events where I have my camper, we have a full fridge in there. At events where I don’t, I bought 7 gallon buckets from US Plastics. I put the keg in the bucket and load with ice to keep it cool. It’s a bit of a pain in the dick on a long hot day because I have to keep dumping ice in, but do not let your kegs get warm.

    I use Perlick adjustable taps (650ss) so I don’t have to balance line length. I’m always switching between things with different pressures (beer, sodas, etc.) and don’t want to have to constantly change out lines. It’s got an adjustable valve to add resistance, so I just use a short line length. I only need about 8 PSI to push stuff out at full speed, and I use a wider line (1/4″ instead of 3/16″).

    I like to serve at full pressure. If I carbonate to 35 PSI, I serve at 35 PSI. The reason is if you lower the pressure, over the course of a long event it will lose carbonation. (And vice versa if you raise the pressure, which is why you don’t want to serve beer at 35 PSI!). If you know you’re going to blow through the kegs quickly, then you can do whatever. If you serve at lower pressure, vent the keg all the way down, then hook up the gas. For instance if you carbonated to 35 PSI and serve at 8 PSI, it’ll be coming out at 35 PSI at first and gradually decreasing down to 8 if you don’t vent. That makes it hard to balance a line length if you’re not using an adjustable faucet, or to have to keep adjusting the faucet if you are. Much easier to just balance it once and be done.

    I don’t serve anything carbonated with nitro. What’s the point? Nitro is usually for things with little to no carbonation like a stout. Stout faucets are designed to remove what little carbonation there is to make it nice and foamy. I use nitro for still drinks.

    For serving without my camper so far I’ve been using someone else’s jockey boxes but they kinda suck. I got an old WWII ammo crate that looks like this: https://img1.etsystatic.com/055/0/8862460/il_570xN.752912197_lkp6.jpg

    My plan is to use some of that spray sealant to make the inside water tight so I can pack it with ice. I’m going to drill the tower into the top, then drill a hole for the lines. The lines will run through the ice to keep it cool before serving, and I’ll wrap foam insulation around the line running from the keg to the box. Remember, the colder the better!

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  4. Robert Charles Volz · February 25, 2017

    Great info, thank you for not just advising but taking the time to explain the “why”.
    I’m looking forward to your dilution chart.

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  5. Deborah · April 2, 2017

    Hi there – when you shake the keg, is the keg horizontal or vertical? If horizontal, does the contents inside the keg not go up into the gas line? Or does that not happen because there’s incoming gas going into the keg? If vertical, doesn’t it get heavy?

    Thanks!

    Like

    • Genius · April 6, 2017

      Vertical. You don’t have to pick it up, just rock it vigorously. I’d say full a 5 gallon keg is about 50 lbs.

      Like

      • Deborah · April 6, 2017

        Thanks for the reply!

        Like

  6. Alex · June 20, 2017

    Hey, how re you? i’m looking to put some Margarita and Mal Tai twists on tap using acids and wondered what you thought about the best gasses to use are? Would any forced carbonation be a good idea? I don’t want to imbalance the drink but I want it to have a shaken texture and ‘sparkle’.

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  7. Sass · 7 Days Ago

    I totally need a video lol. There is not one on YouTube for non-carbonated cocktails (such as margaritas). I just purchased my ball lock corny keg and the new hook ups and want to play around but am a little terrified of the gasses etc. I def don’t want an explosion.

    Like

    • Genius · 3 Days Ago

      I do need to make videos. You shouldn’t have to worry about explosions though. Your regulator, manifold, and keg all have pressure relief valves. (It’s the little thing that looks like a keyring that you pull usually.) Your gas tank itself should get hydrostatic tests every couple years. (If you’re getting gas from a reputable source where they swap the tanks, they’re supposed to already be doing this and probably are, but you can ask and/or check the dates stamped on the tanks.)

      It’s all the same equipment that powers every draft beer and bar and restaurant and gas station soda system so there must be millions of them out there and I’ve never even heard of an explosion!

      The worst you’ll do is screw up a keg of product most likely. You can grab a little 1 gallon corny keg for practicing. I get the ManCan ones off woot for cheap when they pop up, but there are lots of brands.

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