Hard Cider Tip #16: Kegging Systems

Are you just starting on your homemade hard cider journey? Maybe you have been making hard cider for a bit and are thinking about upgrading your kit. When I started making hard cider, I wondered what equipment I would need. I read a lot of books and most focused on using glass carboys or buckets for fermenting and aging cider. I did read about someone who advocated for kegs but that seemed like a big investment and space consumption. Little did I realize where my hard cider passion would take me.

I’m going to be up front, this article is all about why you should take the plunge and make your hard cider in kegs. Not mini-kegs (I tried those) or even the large beer kegs with the Sankey taps that you might remember from your college days. The kegs I’m advocating are 1.5 to 10 gallon (5-38 liter) ball lock kegs. These are the type of kegs used for dispensing soda or pop at restaurants. They have quick disconnect fittings for CO2 and liquid lines along with a nice wide-mouth opening that makes cleaning and adding adjuncts for secondary fermentation easy. I use Torpedo brand kegs but there are a number of great options. I stick with this brand and style because I can stack them to save space. This is known as the Pepsi ball lock. There is another style, which was used by Coca-cola with pins.

I use the 1.5 and 2.5 gallon (5 – 10 liter) models, which I find to be great for a home craft cider maker. I pair them with 1 gallon and 3 gallon Fermonsters that I use for my primary fermentation before racking off into the kegs. In the US, you can produce 100 gallons (378 litres) per person per year or 200 gallons (757 liters) per household for personal consumption. You can serve it and give it to friends but you can’t sell it. Also, the volume limit is for all fermented alcoholic beverages but excludes distillation, which is strictly prohibited. My personal passion falls more in making than drinking so I am personally content making lots of smaller batches with many different methods and ingredients. The 1.5 and 2.5 gallon kegs are perfect for this.

You may be wondering why I’m spending time talking about government regulations, but for me, it influenced my batch size and amount of the hard cider I make. I process about 850-900 pounds (400kg) of apples a year and make about 55 gallons (210 liters). If you are going to make less than 10 gallons (38 liters) a year, I‘d tell you to stick to 1 gallon (3.8 liter) glass carboys and do bottle conditioning when you want carbonation. That would be making and drinking about a 9 beer bottles (12 oz) every month (little over 3 liters). If you enjoy making cider and think you will make more than this in a month, I encourage you to invest in a keg system. What is in a keg system? Let’s review the details on what is in a keg system.

Keg System Equipment

Keg:

Stainless steel ball lock or Cornelius (corny) style keg; ideally stackable; wide mouth center opening

Ball Lock Keg: Liquid out line and CO2 in-line attached.
Ball Lock Keg: Liquid out line and CO2 in-line attached.

CO2 Tank:

5-20 pound tank; swapped at home brew stores for full tanks; larger tank might be refillable at gas supply stores

CO2 Tank: Hard  Cider Keg System
CO2 Tank: Hard Cider Keg System

CO2 Regulator:

Measures tank pressure and regulates output pressure

CO2 Regulator: Hard  Cider Keg System
CO2 Regulator: Hard Cider Keg System

CO2 Feed Tubing and Fittings:

Normally grey in color; fits on the “In” ball lock location; the “In” ball lock has notches on wrench flats; Pepsi style fittings shown

Liquid Feed Tubing and Fittings:

Normally black in color; fits on the “Out” ball lock location; the “out” ball lock has smooth wrench flats; Pepsi style fittings shown

A keg system gives you the foundation to use a lot of different methods for making hard cider. It also doesn’t preclude any methods. If you want to bottle condition, you can. In fact, you could even keg condition if you really wanted. Here is a list of the methods and processes that a keg system enables. Note, many of these require additional equipment, but they all require a keg system. They are also methods that are used by many commercial hard cider, beer, and wine makers. The keg system just allows you to do it on much smaller scale.

  • Oxygen Free Aging/Storage
  • Oxygen Minimized Handling
  • Filtering
  • Force Carbonation
  • Counter-Pressure Bottling

Oxygen Free Aging/Storage

I don’t use added sulfites or sorbates as preservatives. This means minimizing the exposure of my hard ciders to oxygen while they age and are in storage is important. Most spoilage bacteria and yeast fermentation, including acetic fermentation, are aerobic. This means they require oxygen. This is why you want to aerate your hard cider in preparation of the primary fermentation process. However, after primary you don’t usually want oxygen exposure. Some changes including malolactic fermentation (MLF) are anaerobic, meaning they don’t need oxygen to occur. These are generally viewed positively for hard cider and will not be discourage by storage in a keg without oxygen.

Overall, kegs solved my problem of always having too much or too little hard cider to fill my carboys for aging. I no longer had to search for a smaller or larger bottle, try to top off ciders, or worry about my airlocks running dry. I simply rack my hard cider directly into a keg and add a protective layer CO2. Do you need a keg to make great cider? No, but it makes safely aging and storing my hard ciders a lot easier.

Oxygen Minimized Handling

Besides creating an oxygen free storage environment, kegs also minimize the exposure to oxygen while processing your hard cider. Once you rack it into a keg, you can move it between kegs and into packaging (like bottles) with little exposure to oxygen. The liquid “out” port feeds from near the bottom of the keg. Racking hard cider from one keg to another is normally be done through both “out” ports. This means you push hard cider from the bottom of the source keg into the bottom of other keg, which minimizes your exposure to oxygen. Kegs also naturally leave about 1/2 inch (1.25 cm) of lees at the bottom of the keg. This is perfect for a secondary process that can leave a shallower layer of lees as it ages. You can always pre-charge your keg with CO2 to further reduce oxygen exposure.

Filtering

Normally, you might think that you need some big commercial setup to be able to filter your hard cider but a keg system allows you to easily do this as well. Several filter systems are available for home hard cider makers and you can get filters that will go from removing sediment to making your hard cider sterile, which means you remove any yeast or bacteria that might restart fermentation. I have both a pad filter system and an in-line system. The pad system offer course, fine, and sterile pads that are 5, 1, and 0.46 micron ratings. These are nominal but I’ve found the sterile 0.46 micron pad will remove yeast and prevent fermentation from starting. I use this to filter my berry hard ciders, like Rockin’ Raspberry, which I back sweeten with a little raspberry juice and immediately filter to sterile. Otherwise, I filter most of my ciders to 1 micron to remove sediment before force carbonating and bottling.

Force-Carbonation

Force carbonating is one of the main benefits of a keg system. I enjoy some carbonation in most of my hard ciders but I also like a clean and clear look. Aging and filtering my hard ciders make them sparkle. The last thing I want to do is cloud it back up by bottle conditioning it. Force carbonating is an effective way to add carbonation while keeping a clean look. A big refrigerator in the garage is also a big help as the colder you can make your cider, the more carbonation you can force into it. Force carbonation doesn’t require any additional equipment once you have the base system.

Counter-Pressure Bottling

You can serve directly from your carbonated keg, which would be great for pool side parties or places you shouldn’t take glass. However, I seem to lose more CO2 then I retain when I serve from the keg. Also, I don’t have infinite kegs or space to store them so I rely on bottling as an effective aging method, and means to free up my kegs. Bottles also help when distributing to friends. The best way to bottle hard cider that has been force carbonated is using a counter-pressure bottle filler. I have details of that process in the tips section here. However, this process helps keep more CO2 suspended in your hard cider. It does this by pressurizing the bottle before filling it. You create a minor pressure differential by creating a small leak. This allows the hard cider to flow into the bottle while minimizing the loss of CO2.

If all this wasn’t enough to make you want a kegging system, the other benefit is that they are easy to clean and sanitize with their wide mouths. You can also take the kegs completely apart, which further aids in cleaning and sanitizing. The 1.5 and 2.5 gallon kegs also fit in my kitchen sink, making them easy to clean. I mix a batch of cleanser and sanitizer in the sink and process all my equipment, including my kegs. Lastly, because they have a wide mouth, they make adding adjuncts like wood spirals and cubes easy.

If you see yourself enjoying home hard cider making for years to come, I strongly encourage you to consider a kegging system before you invest in too many other containers or pieces of equipment. You won’t be disappointed.

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