Whether you’ve bought a keg for a party or brew your own beer at home, if you want to serve draught beer on tap you’ll need to find a way to keep the keg cold.
Most homebrewers store their kegs in a kegerator which is basically a refrigerator that has been specially designed to dispense beer.
While kegerators are a great way to cool and serve beer at home, they’re neither cheap nor easy to transport. Because of this, unless you plan to hold a party in your kitchen, you’ll want to know how to keep a keg cold without a kegerator.
The easiest way to keep a keg cold is by placing it in a garbage can full of ice. Other popular solutions include insulated keg jackets and jockey boxes made from repurposed picnic coolers.
How to keep a keg cold without a kegerator
Garbage cans or plastic tubs
The cheapest way to keep a keg cold is by placing it in a suitable container and covering it with ice.
Place the keg in the tub, surround it with ice and then top up with cold water. You can then either connect a pressure regulator and beer lines or fit a picnic tap directly to the keg. Some people recommend adding ice to the water to lower the temperature.
The advantage of this type of setup is that suitable garbage cans and tubs can be purchased cheaply at hardware or DIY stores, Home Depot, etc. and can be used of other purposes when not cooling beer.
The size of container needed depends on the size of your keg. A nineteen-gallon bucket will be large enough for a standard half-barrel keg. You can check the dimensions of popular US and European keg sizes here.
Keg jackets or sleeves
A keg sleeve is an insulated jacket designed to insulate the keg and help keep your beer cold. Commonly made of neoprene, the better ones have pockets inside that can be filled with ice to provide extra cooling.
The advantage of a keg sleeve when compared to a tub is that you can use it to keep the keg cool during transport. It will also help protect your car’s interior from unwanted knocks when loading and unloading the keg.
Unlike the plastic tubs and jackets mentioned above, a jockey box doesn’t actually cool down the keg itself. Instead, it cools the beer on its way from the keg to your glass.
A jockey box is basically a cooler filled with ice water with beer faucets fitted to it. Inside the cooler, the beer passes through coiled copper pipes where it is cooled down before it reaches the faucet.
The length of the coil varies from about fifty feet to a hundred and fifty feet. The longer the coil, the more efficiently it will cool the beer down. This is especially important when you will be serving several people in quick succession.
Purpose-built jockey boxes like this one from Coldbreak brewing equipment are available online. If you have time and fancy a project, several videos on YouTube show how you can build one yourself using a cooler, stainless steel beer taps and fittings and some copper tubing.
Depending on your location, to help prevent foam, on hot days, you may need to combine a jockey box with one of the other keg cooling methods mentioned above.
DIY coolers, jockey boxes and portable bars
While researching this article, I came across several interesting solutions that people have built at home.
DIY Jockey box
There are several videos on YouTube showing how to build a jockey box. This video by Larry from Beer and Barbecue shows you how to make a 2 tap jockey box from a Coleman cooler. If you are only taking one keg to the party, there’s another video which shows his smaller single line setup.
For smaller kegs, check out the video below from the Wild Touring channel. In the video, he’s converting a 12V icebox into a portable kegerator, but you could do the same thing with a regular cooler.
In addition to being an excellent tutorial for building your own beer cooler, the white sand beaches and blue skies at the start and end of the video will inspire you to make it happen.
Lastly, take a look at this ingenious portable bar that YouTuber Tom calls a party pub. Basically, it’s a smartened up version of the classic trash can kegerator made from two plastic tubs glued together inside a box with a beer tap installed on top of it.
Tips to help keep your keg cool
Whichever solution you decide to go with, you should try to keep the keg as cool as possible from the moment that it leaves the brewery right up until you’re ready to serve the beer at your party, barbecue, wedding football match or whatever.
Try and keep the keg in the shade and avoid leaving it in a hot car. Not only will it be almost impossible to cool a hot keg back down again, but it may also harm the taste of your beer. Speaking of taste, don’t be tempted to roll the keg as this can also affect the flavour. When carrying the keg from your car, use the handles, get a friend to help you or use a trolley.
If you’ll be storing the keg before the party, you can keep it cold in the refrigerator overnight. You may need to remove the shelves and replace the glass panel which covers the salad draw with a piece of wood for the keg to stand on.
Don’t be tempted to put the keg into a regular chest freezer; it’s too cold. Some homebrewers do convert old chest freezers into keezers but they add an extra temperature controller like this one to keep their kegs at the correct temperature.
You may want to lower the temperature of your ice water by adding salt. The jury’s out as to whether this step is really necessary but, when cooling a keg in a trash can or tub, lots of people recommend adding salt to the ice water to lower the temperature. When salt is dissolved in water, the freezing point drops by several degrees. This causes more of the ice to melt and cools the water down further. You can find out more about the science behind this here.
I’m not convinced that this is really necessary. The main cooling effect of ice is due to the heat which it absorbs as it melts, not from the actual temperature of the ice. This is why pouring drinks into frozen glasses doesn’t cool them as efficiently as adding a couple of ice cubes.
When using a jockey box, make sure you run some beer through the lines before filling the cooler with ice. This is to prevent any residual water left in the coils from freezing and possibly blocking the lines. The freezing point of beer is around -2ºC (28 Fahrenheit), so it shouldn’t freeze in the lines. Bags of ice sold at grocery stores are normally stored at 0ºC whereas ice taken directly from your freezer will be at -18ºC (zero degrees Fahrenheit).
How to transport a keg and CO2 bottle safely
A standard sized half-barrel keg weighs around 170 pounds when full (77 kilos) and you don’t want to have that rolling around loose inside your car. Be sure to tie it down securely so that it won’t injure you or other passengers if you have to brake hard or are involved in an accident. If possible, it’s best to transport the keg in the upright position.
The carbon dioxide cylinder may not weigh as much as the keg but is highly pressurized and should also be secured with bungee cords or straps so that it can’t roll around inside your car. You should also close the main valve and remove the pressure regulator assembly before transporting the cylinder. If the regulator or one of the gauges gets knocked and broken, high-pressure gas may rush forcefully out of the cylinder.
Carbon dioxide is heavier than air, and although it isn’t toxic if the cylinder leaks, it will displace oxygen. Make sure that the main valve is closed and disconnect the tap and lines from the keg before loading it into your car. You can use soapy water to check for gas leaks. During the journey, if you start to get a headache or feel out of breath, pull over and open the doors to ventilate the vehicle thoroughly and double-check the CO2 cylinder.
Before transporting a keg, or kegs, you should check whether there are any legal restrictions or requirements. For example, under US law, it may be illegal to transport beer and other alcoholic beverages across state lines. In California, it’s illegal to transport alcohol in a vehicle if you’re under twenty-one years old.