Buying Beer in Kegs - dummies

By Marty Nachel, Steve Ettlinger

You night not need to invest in an entire keg of beer very often, but if you enjoy beer, you’ll probably find yourself shopping for one from time to time for weddings, birthday parties, or other celebrations. And buying it by the keg is the only way to have fresh, unpasteurized draught beer.

Buying a keg is easy; transporting it is the hard part. The big ones are really, really heavy — like 150 pounds. Don’t lift one yourself! Have someone big and strong pick it up, or have it delivered straight to your party.

Keg sizes

You need to figure out how many people are attending the festivity and their level of participation in order to determine what size keg to order. Keep in mind that in beer parlance, a barrel — 31 gallons — doesn’t really exist except for accounting and brewery-capacity purposes.

U.S. Kegged-Beer Serving Table
Size of Keg Number of 12-Ounce Servings Number of 8-Ounce Servings
Sixth barrel “mini” keg (5.16 gallons) 55 82
Quarter barrel/Pony keg (7.75 gallons) 82 124
Half barrel (15.5 gallons) 165 248

In the United States, beer from other countries usually comes in 50-liter (13.2-gallon) and 30-liter (7.9-gallon) kegs. To further complicate matters, vendors sometimes use different names for these items, confusing brand names with sizes and nicknames. Solution: Always focus on the liquid volume figure.

The parts of a keg

Pictured is an example of a popular keg, called the Sankey beer keg. The parts of this particular keg include the tap pump and the tap head. The tap pump is what increases the pressure inside the keg to force the beer out. The tap head (or spigot) is where the beer is dispensed.


Guidelines for using a keg

Although you may think that buying a keg, making it easily accessible, and letting your guests do the rest is enough, follow these tips to make your keg party even better:

  • Make sure to get the right tap for your keg when you pick up the keg or accept the delivery. You’re charged a refundable deposit for the tap equipment, so treat it with care.

  • Understand the keg system you’re using. The two most common keg systems in the market are the straight-sided, easy-to-use Sankey kegs — used by Anheuser-Busch, Miller, and most microbreweries — and the outdated Hoff-Stevens kegs, with their bulging sides and obvious bung hole (the corked opening where the keg is filled).

    The Hoff-Stevens system must be screwed carefully onto the keg (watch out for spray!). Make sure the taps are clean and properly seated on the openings, or else the keg won’t pressurize properly. If the keg doesn’t pressurize, you don’t drink!

  • Keep the beer as cold as possible. If you don’t have a huge refrigerator, place ice on top and around the base of the keg while it stands in a large bucket or plastic garbage can.

  • Expect the first gallon or so to be a little foamier than usual. After all, it’s probably been jostled a bit during delivery, but the beer eventually comes out normal.

  • Be prepared for leftovers. Some people may say that you can never have too much beer, and no good host wants to run out. That means possible leftover beer. If you don’t want to return that precious nectar along with the keg after the party, plan ahead: Thoroughly clean some plastic milk jugs — or growlers, if you have them — and empty the contents of the keg into them. Refrigerate immediately and drink within a day or two.