Your equipment list for homebrewing

This is excerpted (with some slight modifications) from Beginner’s Guide to Homebrewing

Assuming you’re going to boil your wort and make a five-gallon batch, here’s what you’ll need to start brewing. It might not all make sense as you read through it, but it will make more sense as you read on in the book.

A BREW KETTLE For beginning brewers, a five-gallon stew pot works very well, although a smaller pot can do. Brewers who hope to move on to more advanced brewing might want to invest in a 10-gallon (or even larger) pot, but that’s getting ahead of things. More on that below.

A PRIMARY FERMENTER. You’ll need a food-grade plastic bucket of about 7 gallon capacity. Most home brew stores sell 6.5 gallon buckets, which work quite well. Home brewers can also ferment their beer in 5-gallon glass carboys (the kind that you used to find upside down at the office water cooler), but there are a few disadvantages to using glass as the primary fermentation vessel — the main one being that if you’re not careful they can shatter and leave beer all over your floor. Also, since you don’t have head space for all the froth created by the fermentation process, you’ll need a blow-off tube to catch that stuff. I’ll explain that shortly.

It is possible to get larger carboys and avoid using a blow-off tube. Check with your home brew supply store.
In any event, the bucket or carboy has to be fitted with an air-tight lid and either a blow-off tube or a “fermentation lock,” which is usually a twisty piece of plastic filled with water that allows carbon dioxide to leave the fermenter without allowing outside air in. This is necessary because the air we breathe contains lots of things — wild yeasts, bacteria and other gunk that you don’t want in your fermenting beer.

A blow-off tube is simply a tube that goes out of the top of the fermenter. The pressure from the CO2 inside the fermenter blows off the foam as it develops on top of your beer. Hop residue and other gunk from your beer often rise to the top, collect in your foam, and then get blown away — which is a good thing, because you don’t want that stuff in your beer. The other end of the blow-off tube goes into a bowl or something to collect all the mess.

A BOTTLING BUCKET. After your beer has finished fermenting you’re going to need to add a little extra sugar to it (for the secondary fermentation that creates the carbonation) and transfer it into bottles. You can bottle straight from your fermentation vessel if you absolutely have to, but it’s much easier if you have a second food-grade plastic bucket with a spigot attached to the bottom.

A SIPHONING TUBE. Once the beer is finished fermenting you’ll need to be able to transfer it from the primary fermenter into the bottling bucket. Air is a friend of beer at the beginning of the fermentation process because the yeast needs the oxygen, but later on you don’t want to expose your beer to air. A siphoning tube is handy for this.

Note: If you’re on a tight budget you can forget the bottling bucket and the siphoning tube and buy a primary fermenter that has a spigot installed near the bottom. I say “near” the bottom because the process of fermentation will leave a pile of crud (called “trub” but pronounced “troob”) at the bottom of your fermenter. Positioning the spigot “near” the bottom allows the beer to run off while leaving most of the trub behind.

A disadvantage of bottling from your fermenter is that you have to add your priming sugar straight to the bottles, and it’s hard to get that exactly right. If you have a bottling bucket you can dissolve the priming sugar in some boiling water, pour that into the bottling bucket, then siphon your beer from the fermenter into your bottling bucket. Presto, it’s all mixed together. But you can’t add the sugar to your fermenter and then stir things up because you’ll rouse the trub, and then the beer in your bottles will have way too much sediment.

The bottom line is just go ahead and get a bottling bucket.

BOTTLES AND CAPS, OR A KEG. Bottles are the cheapest way to store your beer, but they also involve the most work. You need to clean and sanitize them, and then fill and cap each one individually. Bottles are a bit of a nuisance, but they’re not too bad, especially if you do it with a friend and enjoy a beer while you’re at it.

When my kids were young I made bottling a family event and we’d bottle the beer in the laundry room. The kids enjoyed it, and now they brag to their friends that they were bottling beer before they could ride a bike.

Always use brown bottles for your homebrew because sunlight is another enemy of beer, and the brown glass helps keep it out. Don’t use bottles that had twist-off caps, and it’s usually a good idea to stick to the same size and shape of bottle. You’ll also need to get a bottle capper. Check with your local home brew store.

Kegging is much simpler, but it’s expensive and has its own drawbacks. More about that below.

That was a very quick introduction to the absolute basics of home brewing, with a brief review of the equipment. Obviously there’s more to say, but at this point you know enough to read a step-by-step explanation of how to brew your first batch.

Read on in Beginner’s Guide to Homebrewing

How many substyles of IPA are there?

At Homebrewcon in Baltimore I heard an interesting discussion of the differences between west coast, east coast and midwest versions of India Pale Ale. In short, the west coast version is pale (no crystal malt) and is basically a hop delivery device. It’s really all about the hops. The east coast version includes crystal and, while hoppy, also emphasizes maltiness. The midwest version is kinda in the middle of those two.

They also briefly touched on a New England style, that is somewhat cloudy and … almost chewy. If I’m remembering this correctly, Lost Rino’s Face Plant IPA came to mind when they were discussing that style.

While visiting Waredaca brewery in Maryland, I talked with the bartender about this, and between us we came up with 12 substyles of IPA.

  • English
  • American
  • West coast
  • Midwest
  • East coast
  • New England
  • Imperial (or double)
  • Black
  • Indian Brown Ale
  • Session IPA
  • Rye, and
  • Belgian

That’s a big list, but we didn’t list some of the 10 mentioned on this page, which also includes …

  • Fruit
  • Wet hopped
  • Wood-aged
  • Coffee, and
  • Eclectic

Then this page adds …

  • White
  • Brettanomyces/ Wild IPA
  • Red, and
  • Spiced

Where does it end?

I hope it doesn’t end. That’s the fantastic thing about homebrewing. Constant innovation brings new tastes and expands our beer horizons!

Review of Homebrew con — deciding how much technology you want in your brew system

I’m just back from three days of Homebrew con in Baltimore, and it was a heck of a time. The exhibit hall was full of displays from various homebrew vendors, and most of the booths were serving beer. You could say that the beer flowed pretty much non-stop the whole time, and by the evening of the second day a glass of rootbeer was a welcome change. And I don’t usually drink soda.

The talks were very interesting (and yes, they served beer during the talks), and I got to have a brief word with Charlie Papazian.

My main takeaway from the conference was that every homebrewer has to settle on how deeply he’s going to go into the hobby — not only in the old extract vs. all-grain decision, but in how complicated he wants to make his own brewing setup.

Mine is fairly simple. I do all grain, but I don’t use any pumps or filters, and I don’t have my equipment on a stand. I used an immersion chiller, and I basically pour things from here to there. I’m comfortable with it, I make good beer, and I don’t feel any need to make some Ruby Street sort of set up. Maybe I will one day, but for now I like my method.

When I started homebrewing in 1986, the ingredients and the equipment were very primitive. I would go to restaurants to get used food-grade buckets and I’d rob their trash cans for bottles. The yeasts were awful, the selection of grains and extracts was poor, and beers were often disappointing.

Nowadays, if you follow some simple guidelines, it’s hard not to make a good beer.

But the equipment keeps getting better and better, and you can enter the hobby at lots of different points. There are systems like the grainfather that turns making beer into something about as easy as brewing a big pot of coffee. Then there’s Picobrew, which makes it into a kitchen counter thing, and even Vessi, which is a homebrewing appliance that installs in your kitchen like a dishwasher.

These are extraordinarily cool things, but … I like having my hands in it a little more. I want to craft the beer myself, not just pick a recipe and push some buttons. I like the simpler is better attitude.

More than that, I like learning the craft from the bottom up. I want to try growing my own barley and malting it myself. I’ll let you know how that works out.

In any event, homebrewing is a very different thing these days than when I started, but it’s still a lot of fun.

The two-batch mash

I had let myself become perilously low on homebrew, so I had to replenish the stores. I planned a 3-batch day: one extract (a 5-gallon version of my Kambucha sour) and two all-grain beers. To economize on time I tried to do as much as possible at once — working off both the stove and my propane burner. So I mashed while the extract batch was on the stove, and the mash was enough for both of the other beers.

To 16 pounds American 2 row I added 5.3 gallons of strike water at 164F and let it sit for a little over an hour. That yielded 1st runnings of 3.25 Gallons @ 22.4 brix.

The two beers I wanted to make from this mash were my California Common and my American Brown Ale. The Common is a little stronger than the Brown Ale, so I accounted for that by using different portions of the first and second runnings in each batch. Of the 3.25 gallons in the first runnings, 2 gallons went to the Common and 1.25 to the Brown.

As soon as I had the first runnings separated I started soaking my specialty grains: 1 pound of Crystal 80 in the Common and 1/2 pound each of brown and chocolate malt in the Brown Ale.

If you’re wondering how I separated the wort into the two kettles, the runnings went into my bottling bucket first and from there into the two kettles so I could keep track of the volumes. (My kettles aren’t marked for volume.)

After sparging with 5 gallons, the 2nd runnings yielded 4.75 gallons @ 10 brix. At this point I evened up the volume by putting 2.75 gallons in the Brown and 2 in the Common. The third runnings (5 Gallons @ 6 brix) went equally in both batches.

There’s no point in boiling grains, so I removed the specialty grains when the wort got to 170F in each of the kettles. The hop schedules were as follows.

Common: 1 oz. Northern Brewer (60 min), 1 oz. Northern Brewer (30 min.), 1 oz. Cascade (10 min.)

Brown: 1 oz. Willamette (60 min), 1 oz. Willamette (20 min.)

After an hour boil and cooling them down to 75, my initial gravities were 15.8 brix for the Common and 12.8 for the Brown. Both were a little higher than I expected, but that’s okay.

The failed two barrel experiment

Most of the all-grain brewing systems you hear about have three barrels: a mash tun, a hot liquor tun and a kettle. See What I learned about brew systems a “Big Brew” for more details on how these systems are usually configured.

A little while ago I heard about a two-barrel system, and I wondered how something like that could work. The only thing that made sense to me was that you’d have a kettle and a mash tun. You’d heat up your strike water in your kettle, then add it to the mash tun. Then you’d add all your sparge water to the kettle, and you’d recirculate water between the kettle and the mash tun until you reached the gravity you wanted.

There’s one clear disadvantage to this method. You end up washing your grains with wort that already has dissolved sugars in it, and there’s no way that would be as efficient at extracting sugars from the grains with clear water.

But I decided to give it a try. Since this was just a test, I didn’t go whole hog on the equipment. I set up a very simple, low-tech method for trying out a two-barrel solution.

Since the wort was going to be recirculating through the grains, I figured this was a job for fly sparging, so I pulled out my (very simple) fly sparging setup. The fly sparging arm sits inside the top of my picnic-cooler mash tun, and I pour the sparge water into the funnel on the top.

I’ve used this before, and it works like a charm. You pour the sparge water into the funnel, the fly sparging arm dribbles the water onto the grains, and the wort is slowly extracted from the mash tun.

That brings up one of the problems my two-barrel experiment. When you’re sparging with clear water, the system works great. When you’re recirculating wort, little bits of gunk clog up the the fly sparging arm. I should have filtered the wort before I poured it back through the sparging apparatus.

This happened several times. I had to stop, disassemble the fly sparging arm, clean it out, then put it all back together.

The recirculating process sorta resembles a decoction mash, because you need to keep heat on the brew pot to keep your wort / sparge water at the right temperature.

My goal was to recirculate the same volume I would typically use in a batch sparge, but when I got to that point the gravity wasn’t where I expected it to be, so I kept recirculating / sparging.

I never got close to my target gravity, so this system — at least this time around — was very inefficient. About 80% as efficient as my normal batch-sparging method.

However … the beer turned out great. I was aiming for the higher end of an alt, and I ended up with a pretty mid-range alt. It’s very malty and very good.

I’m going to try this method again sometime and I’ll report on the results.