I have been home brewing for along time now, but have never kegged my beer. I hear a lot of people saying how much easier and better it is, but my main concern is the cost and equipment needed. What are the basics required (i.e. what would you consider a MUST) and what is just store owners trying to sell me gadgets?
When I finally took the plunge I felt the same way.
Here is what I have found are the essentials:
1 gas quick connect
1 beer quick connect
1 cobra tap
Food grade quality beer line (for beer and gas line)
1 CO2 regulator
Everything else seems to be extra and icing on the cake. Get the basic set up and you can add parts as you go from there. You will not regret the upgrade. Also if you buy your CO2 tank and regulator from a gas or welding supply place rather than your local homebrew shop you can save a bunch of money as the markup at the homebrew shops are substantial in my experience. I don’t like giving advice to not support your local shop but the savings is worth it.
Just got a kegging system for Xmas after bottling for years, so I'm still new to it, but I am LOVING it!!! I got so sick of bottling that it was starting to ruin the fun of brewing for me. Scrubbing dirty bottles for 3 hours and more at a time is not my idea of a fun hobby.
I'm drinking some perfectly conditioned IPA this very moment that went into the keg last Friday (5 days ago). No more waiting 3-4 weeks! I've actually been drinking it since Saturday, but I think it didn't condition completely until today.
I read somewhere in my explorations of how-to-keg that "no homebrewer has ever regretted moving from bottling on to kegging", and I now understand why. It's so much easier! And you know how many people will say that beer at bars tastes better on tap? Same seems to apply to homebrews.
I agree with J Times, go with the re-conditioned kegs. They work fine from everything I've heard and you'll save a ton of money.
As for stuff you don't need, I read that the carbonation stones many places sell are unnecessary, and just ends up being another item to clean. From my limited, one-batch experience, I'd agree that using one is unnecessary.
You can find "complete kegging systems" from many sites that give you everything you need except for the CO2--most will send you an empty tank with the system that you can get filled or swapped out at your local keg distributor, or other places like gas supply shops for welders, etc.
The best deal we found was at Rebel Brewer: http://www.rebelbrewer.com/shoppingcart/products/Complete-Homebrew-Kegging-Kit.html . I've seen other shops selling them for $100 more and up (and yes, that's with the re-conditioned keg).
Before you go and purchase an entire setup that includes a tank consider this. Around me most places I go to won't fill a CO2 tank. They only do swap programs. A swap program is where you go to a gas supply retail store and they take your empty tank and give you a full tank in return. You normally pay some sort of fee for the initial tank, then its a small fee for the swap.
So when I got started I paid like $50 plus bucks for a new shiney tank, then I couldn't find anyone to fill it. Eventually, I had to just give up the new tank into the swap program. At the time it was only $20-25 to get started in the swap. But that $25 counts for 5-6 fills of CO2.
And don't worry about the new tank issue. Some brewers think having a nice shiney tank is important. You really don't spend anytime looking at the tank. I have never been to a homebrewers house and cared how clean their CO2 tank looked, if I even noticed it at all. The other good thing about the swap program is you never need to worry about the tank going out of certification. After a certain period of time law requires that tanks be taken out of service and recycled due to safety issues. If you are in a swap program, that is never a concern because the gas supplier assumes that wear-out cost. Its just a one time fee for you. If you had a new tank, 5 plus years of heavy use down the line they might have to decommision your tank, then you're buying a new tank again.
Lesson being, the single most important thing is to research where you are going to get your CO2 before you get into kegging. You can save yourself some serious heartache and some good cash by avoiding my history.
This is the best advice I have found for new keggers.
After the tank issue, then its just a regulator, lines, beverage in and gas out connectors and a tap or faucet of some sort. Oh and the keg!