Getting Started: How what do you NEED to homebrew?

I’m going to go through what exactly you’ll need to set yourself up to homebrew. There are many ways to homebrew, but here is a nice primer to get yourself started. Better/bigger equipment can make your job easier/make your beer better, but I’ll discuss a fairly standard 5 gallon setup.

1. Brew Pot
This should be at least 3 gallons, and the bigger the better. Ideally, you are putting 100% of the liquid you are using in your beer in your boil, but if need be, you can get away with adding additional water later. You may have a 3 gallon pot already, if not, a 5 gallon pot will cost about $30-$40.
Sidenote: when boiling this much water, a top for your brew pot is essentially a requirement, you don’t want to be sitting around for 5 hours waiting for your water to boil.

2. Fermenting Vessel
This can be a carboy, or just a plastic pail or jug. The important thing is that it is airtight and can be affixed with an airlock (see below). In general it’s nice to have this all in one container, but in a pinch, you could setup several milk jugs with airlocks and save yourself a bit of coin, but a 6.5 gallon pale with an airtight top and a purpose built hole for an airlock can be purchased for $15-$20. A similar sized carboy will go for about $40-$50.
Sidenote: For about $5 more, the 6.5 gallon pale can have a spigot, which VERY handling during bottling. Unless you’re a master syphoner, you should seriously consider going with the spigoted pale.

3. Airlock
Yeast doesn’t produce alcohol in the presence of oxygen. It has to consume all of the oxygen in the fermentation vessel before it can start making little -OH groups attached our friend, the ethyl group. It also needs to be able to release the CO2 that’s produced. Otherwise, your beer will begin to carbonate before you want it to. These cost very little, about $2-$3. When making a particularly large batch or one that is likely to ferment a great deal, people occasionally use a blowoff instead of an airlock. They simply affix a plastic hose to the top of the fermentation vessel, and put the other end of the hose in a bowl of sanitizer.

4. Bottles
After you’ve fermented your beer, you need someplace to put it. Some people have kegging kits, but those cost more than $100. The easiest way to do it is with used bottles of beer. The easy, but expensive way to do this is with bottles with Grolsh style tops. These are a breeze. All you need to do is put the beer in the bottle, snap it shut, and wait. If you don’t have a ton of money to spend $4 for a bottle, the more economical method is the traditional bottles. Supposedly, you can use twist-off topped bottles with out issue, but I recommend sticking with standard topped bottles. You’ll need a bottle capper. Basic ones will cost about $15, and nicer ones go up to about $35. Collecting bottles is something you should be doing on a regular basis. Offer to give your friends a couple of beers if they supply you with their bottles. Also: CLEAN YOU BOTTLES IMMEDIATELY. As soon as you’re done, rinse your bottles out. It’s a pain (and really gross) to try to clean out mold in the bottom of bottles. They don’t need to be sanitized yet, but as soon as you get them, rinse them.
Not-So-Pro Tip: Only use brown bottles. Beer in bottles of other colors will be ruined in less than 30 seconds when exposed to sunlight, and can be just as skunked from everyday indoor lighting if exposed to it for too long.

5. Syphon: Depending on your setup, it’s possible to do this without a syphon, but I wouldn’t recommend it. When you’re done with primary fermentation, and you’re getting ready to bottle, you’ll want to remove the beer from your fermentation vessel, add priming sugar, and then add your beer to the bottles. Taking it out of the primary fermentation vessel first will eliminate a lot of the sediments you won’t want in your beer (trub). Technically you don’t NEED this, but it costs so little, you might as well. Pouring the beer won’t keep this stuff out, so a syphon is the way to go. This can be had for a couple bucks tops. We have an auto-syphon which is a huge boon. It includes a pump that basically requires you to have no skill at syphoning (something that has been evident after several failures at syphoning the ‘real’ way. Auto-syphons will cost about $10.

6. Sanitizer
Staying sanitary is huge. If you get the wrong kind of bacteria in your beer you can die. Now that’s a worst case scenario, but at the very least, it’ll add bad flavors to your beer. It also isn’t really measurable, it’s not really practical to test your beer for contamination before it’s done, so it’s important for the sake of your beer that you stay as sanitary as possible, using sanitizer on anything that’s going to come in contact with the beer/wort. You can get away without sanitizing something if it’s going to be in contact with something yet to be boiled, but in general, sanitize everything. One-step sanitizer works the best, as you don’t have to rinse it out afterwards, works fast, etc., but bleach can do in a pinch, and is very very cheap.

Now, there are many homebrew stores that will offer many of these items in a kit. However, the kit we purchased as around $100, and did not include a brew pot or a pale for bottling (it did include a 6.5 gallon carboy). If you know what you’re looking for, and are willing to shop around, especially online, you can achieve a better setup than what we started with for less.

There are a few other, less necessary items that you might find useful, in order from least to most expensive:

  • Bottle Brush – to clean your carboy (if you’re using one), without it, cleaning a carboy is a very difficult process
  • Food thermometer – to know when it is safe to add your yeast, also necessary for mashing
  • Hydrometer – to measure original and final gravity (to know when fermentation is finished, and the ABV of your beer)
  • Second fermentation vessel (clear) – for secondary fermentation
  • Mash tun – for mashing ┬ámalted grains, greatly decreasing your per batch costs
  • Kegging kit – for storing your beer and hastening your carbonation times

If you’re going with a carboy, buy the bottling brush as well. It’ll be uniquely shaped to help you scrub the insides of the glass, allowing your next batch to be assuredly clean.

I didn’t include any ‘ingredients’ in this post as we plan on having separate articles on each of those. However, with the above setup, you should be able to purchase a ‘kit’ from a brewing store that will have all of your ingredients you’ll need, generally: malted extract, hops, yeast, and priming sugar, as well as instructions as to how to brew the particular beer that your kit is for.

So here’s the setup I recommend for a starting homebrewer:

  • 5 gallon brewpot – $35
  • 2 fermentation pales (1 spigoted) – $35
  • auto-syphon – $10
  • airlock – $2
  • sanitizer – $5
  • bottle capper/caps – $15

Total price: ~ $105

All you’ll need then is to get some bottles from friends, and your should be set for making 5 gallon batches.

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