Thursday, 27 September 2012

Beginner Tips: Start-up Homebrew Equipment

Brewing your own beer at home has a lot of perks. You get to attempt styles that aren't available in your area; you're involved in the entire process from start to finish, and will therefore appreciate the final product more; and, with some experience and hard work, you can make beer that is every bit as good, or better, than what's available commercially. Another advantage is that it is usually cheaper than paying for beer at the liquor store.

However, while your final cost per bottle may seem cheaper compared to that microbrew you normally buy, homebrewing, like any hobby, has a bit of a high cost in terms of start-up equipment. And, knowing exactly what you need to start brewing beer at a beginner's level is kind of overwhelming at first. It was for me, anyway, especially after reading different opinions in books and from online forums.

So, we're going to go over the equipment an outright beginner would require to brew their first batch of beer, and hopefully brew it well. I'm not going to get into actual recipe ingredients here, because this equipment is what you would need whether you bought a ready-made brew kit, or wanted to purchase your malt extract, hops, yeast, etc. separately and build your own recipe. I'm sure there's some things here I've missed; feel free to let me know in the comments section. I'll try to publish another post later that would get into what you need for when you make the next step, into all-grain brewing. I know some people start at all-grain, but I think the majority of us do at least a few batches with malt extract. It's certainly an easier and less-daunting place to begin!

Electronic scale
I guess you don't really NEED a scale, especially if you're brewing from a kit, where everything will be previously weighed out for you. But even here, you're still going to need to measure out your sugar for bottling. If you want to be exact in any ingredients you need - whether it be malt extract, hops, sugar, spices - weight is much more accurate than volume. And these little kitchen scales really aren't that expensive, and often go on sale. The more decimal points they go to, the better. Look for one that goes to at least three points (e.g. will read as 1.675 kg).

Boil kettle
With a few exceptions, all wort has to be boiled. When you're making 5-gallon batches, which is usually the case, you're going to need at least a 5-gallon kettle/pot. Most beginner homebrewers use a partial boil - this is where you boil about 3 gallons of water, along with the malt extract and hops, down to 2.5 gallons or so. This is then chilled in the kettle, poured into the fermenter, and an additional 2.5-3 gallons of water is added to make up the difference in volume.

If you want to make the best beer you possibly can, it's better to do a full boil, where you're boiling all 6-7 gallons of water with the beer ingredients, but I'll save the details of this for another post. However, if you're anxious to start brewing, and, like me, have a stove that couldn't handle bringing and maintaining 6-7 gallons of water to a boil, you can buy a 5-gallon kettle for fairly cheap. When you make the transition to all-grain brewing, the 5-gallon kettle will still come in handy, trust me. Either way, you want a kettle that is a good 2 gallons larger than the amount of wort you plan to boil.

In terms of stainless steel vs. aluminum, you'll find about three thousand arguments online. Stainless steel is more expensive, but aluminum has some people worried about increasing the risk of Alzheimer's disease. Keep this in mind: there has not been any documented proof of these worries. I could start quoting about how there's more aluminum in a tablet of Rolaids then in boiling water in an aluminum pot, but I won't. If aluminum is available and is cheaper, go for it. I personally have a 5-gallon stainless steel pot (because it was dirt-cheap when I found it), and a 10-gallon aluminum kettle.

Large spoon
This seems pretty obvious, but I DO want to try to be thorough! Brewing involves a lot of stirring, especially during the boiling stage, and with a minimum of 3 gallons of hot wort, you need a nice big spoon to help you out. I wouldn't go with a metal one, because it's more likely to scrape the bottom of your kettle when stirring. Find a food-grade plastic one instead.

While you're not measuring temperatures in extract brewing near as much as all-grain, you'll still need this from time to time, mainly in making yeast starters, and when cooling your recently-boiled wort, to see when you're in yeast-pitching territory. I'd recommend spending the extra bit of cash and getting a digital model - much more accurate and easier to use. Also, make sure you calibrate it after you buy it (and periodically thereafter) - test it in ice water to make sure it reads 32 F (0 C), and in boiling water for 212 F (100 C).

Not sure if this qualifies as equipment or not, but it's extremely important to sanitize ANYTHING that will come in contact with your wort/beer after it's been boiled. There's a lot of them out there, and they all have their fans and otherwise, but I really can't see the problem anyone would have with Star San. It's a no-rinse sanitizer that you simply mix with water, keep in contact with whatever you're sanitizing for 30 seconds, and then you're done. Simple. Mixing it with distilled water (6 mL in 4 L of water) greatly increases its shelf life, and keeping a small amount of the mixture in a spray bottle is fantastic for sanitizing small items such as spoons, funnels, thermometers, etc. Two 100 mL bottles of Star San have lasted me for 45 brew and bottling sessions, and I still have some left.

You need somewhere to put your wort and let the yeast turn it into beer, right? Now, you have some choices here. The three most-common ones are buckets, glass carboys, and plastic carboys (e.g. Better Bottles). Make sure that whichever you decide to go with is large enough for all of your wort, and roughly about 1-1.5 gallons more.

Buckets are great because they're cheap, very easy to clean, and easy to get your wort, dry-hops, and other ingredients into. The biggest con is that oxygen permeates a plastic bucket much more than the other vessels, which you don't want. Also, you can't see what's going on inside unless you open the lid. They can also be scratched easily, which gives an area for microbes to hide.

Glass carboys let you see what's going on inside, are fairly easy to clean since they can be brushed and can't scratch, and they keep oxygen out better than all the other options (if you're using an airlock, of course). But, these buggers can be heavy (especially with 5 gallons of beer in them), slippery when wet... see where I'm going here? They can be dangerous. Laugh all you want, but I've heard enough horror stories of people having tendons in their arm cut when they bumped a glass carboy, or even just when cleaning one out and having the bottom shatter! Also, if you have a clogged airlock (which happens when you have an overly-active fermentation), an explosion can occur. Their openings are usually narrow as well, which makes adding ingredients during fermentation more difficult.

Better Bottles share pros and cons of both glass and buckets. Like glass, you can see fermentation activity, and oxygen permeability is very low. Like buckets, they're very light and safe to use. The opening is larger than a glass carboy, and therefore a bit easier to add ingredients. The main downsides are that they can be a bit more expensive, and can sometimes be a real pain in the arse to clean, since they have a narrower opening than buckets, and can be scratched. A good cleaner, combined with a cloth stuffed into the bottle and swished around, usually takes care of the problem.

Pretty obvious what this does, keeps oxygen out of your fermenting beer. There are a couple of different types; as far as I know, either one is fine. Some people choose to use a blow-off tube, especially during early, active fermentation; depends on how much room you leave yourself in your fermenter, and just how active your fermentation is. Just make sure to keep your airlock filled with sanitizer (some use vodka), to prevent oxygen from getting in. You'll also need a stopper of some sort if you're using a carboy.

You'll need one for pouring your cooled wort into your fermenter, if you're using a carboy or Better Bottle. You COULD also rack the wort via tubing, but having a funnel for adding other liquid ingredients is nice as well. Just don't skimp - buy a larger funnel. Trying to pour 5 gallons of wort from a heavy kettle into a little funnel can be messy. Trust me.

I've actually talked to people who have lots of brewing equipment, but don't own a hydrometer or refractometer for measuring starting and finishing gravity. I highly recommend spending the little bit of extra money for a hydrometer. If you really want details about your beers (which can help lead to improving them), you need to know the OG and FG.

Bottling Equipment
More time-consuming than kegging, but a smaller start-up investment. Basically this involves purchasing a bottling bucket (really just a bucket with a hole drilled near the bottom for a spout), racking cane and tubing (to bring the beer from the fermenter to the bottling bucket), bottling wand (to fill the bottles with very minimal spillage), empty bottles (you can re-use bottles of beers you've drank, as long as you clean and sanitize them), and a bottle capper and caps.

It should be noted that a lot of this equipment can be purchased as a homebrew start-up kit. When I first started homebrewing, I bought a kit that had a 6.5-gallon carboy, 6-gallon bottling bucket, spoon, tubing, racking cane, bottling wand, capper, airlock, and hydrometer. But if you have access to everything separately, it will likely be cheaper to buy them this way.

Again, this is by no means an exhaustive list. If you ended up buying a 10-gallon kettle, you'd likely need an outdoor propane burner to get a boil going. Then, you'd probably want to buy a chiller so that you can get the temperature down quickly after boiling... this is how it goes with homebrewing! There's always something else you can buy to make better beer. If you ARE just starting, and doing an extract batch or from a kit, everything listed above should get you to your first completed batch. You can then start adding what you feel is necessary to improve your beer - mashtun, water carbon-filter, temperature-controlled fermentation chamber, etc.


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  2. Nice brewing equipment!. . Finding the beer brewing kits is adventure even more fun for Mr. Beer like me because its in our family tradition that we used to make Home brewing recipes at every Christmas Holidays. We actually have a brewing competition within our family every year.