So you want to try this home brewing thing. Good for you. It’s a fun hobby. And, after all, how many hobbies result in something as doggone useful as beer? Not many.
You’ll need to understand the basics of the process, so I’ve written a Beginner’s Guide to Home Brewing Beer.
But you may be wondering what you’re in for. What equipment do you need. How much do you have to invest to get started? That’s what this article is about.
A note to consider. In writing this page I’m only mentioning what you absolutely definitely have to have. There are lots of other things you should have that you don’t really, really have to have.
The Fermentation Vessel
The absolute, bottom-line, most essential piece of home brew equipment is a fermentation vessel. There are ways to get around many of the other things, but you really need this.
Home brewer’s usually make five gallon batches. I suppose you could make one-gallon batches in an old milk jug, but let’s not be silly. That would be more trouble than it’s worth. Let’s just stick with the five-gallon standard. You’ll be glad you did.
To do a five-gallon batch you’ll need an air-tight, food grade, sanitized container that will hold at least five gallons.
One option is a glass carboy, like this.
This one happens to be full of my son’s porter, which I’ll tell you about after I get a chance to drink it.
You’ll notice it has a stopper in the top with a funny-shaped plastic thing. That plastic thing is an airlock. It has a little bit of water in the bottom loop, which allows the CO2 produced by fermentation to escape without letting harmful bacteria or wild yeast in to spoil your beer.
As your beer ferments, the air lock will make a pleasant gurgling sound as the CO2 escapes. I find the sound quite relaxing — especially since it means my yeast is doing its job and I’ll soon have more beer to drink.
But a carboy might not be your best bet for your primary fermentation vessel because once the yeast gets going it creates a big pile of foamy mess at the top of your fermenting beer. That foamy mess will either blow the stopper right out of your carboy or send piles of crud out the top of your air lock, down the sides of your carboy and onto the floor, and then your wife or roommate will not be pleased with you.
There is a technique for avoiding this. You can use a blow-off tube instead of an air lock. At least for the first few days.
Here’s what you do. Put a piece of food-grade flexible tubing into the hole in the rubber stopper on the top of your carboy and bend it down into a bucket. You can put some water in the bucket and put the free end of the tube under water if you like. That eliminates the possibility of contamination, and all the crud gets blown out of your fermenter and collects in the bucket.
This works just fine if you want to stick with a carboy, but you end up losing a little bit of beer in the process.
The better plan is to avoid the carboy for primary fermentation and get a large, food grade, plastic bucket. Like this.
These buckets are usually 6.5 gallons or so, so they have room to spare in the top for the froth and bubbles and such.
By the way, if you’re confused by my reference to “primary fermentation,” go read A Beginner’s Guide. Or … I can just tell you now. In some cases it’s worth while to break up the fermentation into a primary and a secondary phase — in two different fermentation vessels.
Once your beer is done fermenting you’ll have to put it somewhere. Unless, that is, you’re having a lot of Vikings over and simply want to scoop the beer out of the vat with your drinking horn.
That probably sounds better than it really is. In fact, as a man who’s tasted plenty of beer out of the fermenter, I can guarantee it.
You can keg your beer, but that’s getting ahead of ourselves. That’s a big investment that you can consider later on. For now, let’s stick with bottles.
So you’ll need bottles. Lots of them. And caps, and a capper.
Returnable bottles are best, but they’re harder to find these days. If you can find a liquor store that sells beer in returnable bottles, they’ll be happy to sell you a few cases. (Start with at least three cases of 12 ounce bottles or two cases of 16 oz.)
If you can’t find returnable bottles, you can use non-returnables. You’ll just have to be a little more careful. The returnable bottles are a little thicker.
In any event, always use brown bottles and never use bottles with twist-off tops. Grolsch-style flip-top bottles also work well. (If you can find that style of bottle in brown, that’s good. Don’t use green or clear bottles. They can lead to off flavors.)
The bottles need to be cleaned and sanitized. There are some cool devices to help you with that — like bottle brushes and little squirty things you attach to your sink — but I’m aiming for the cheapest entry point here, so let’s assume you’re just going to fill them with a couple ounces of water and shake them like mad to clear out the cigarette butts and other junk.
Rinse them well, but rinsing is not good enough. You’ll need to sanitize, and the simplest solution for that is good old household bleach. 1 ounce of bleach per gallon of water is fine. I like to let the bottles soak in a bleach solution for a few hours and then rinse them really well.
You’ll also need caps and a capper. Homebrew supply stores sell those. There might be other places you can get them, but I can’t advise you on that.
When you get a capper, look at the various models, make sure you understand how they’re used, and pick the one that seems the most comfortable to you.
I use a two-handed thing that requires you to put the bottle on the floor or a table top and put a decent amount of pressure on the top while you work the handles. You sometimes get the feeling the bottle is going to squirt out and go catapulting across the floor right into the cat. If that model doesn’t appeal to you, there are bench cappers and other options.
The other thing you’ll need is a way to get the beer out of the fermentation vessel and into the bottles. The standard method is a siphon, which means you need a way to stop the flow as you move from one bottle to the next. To do that you just get a siphon clamp. Once again, the homebrew supply store is your best bet there. You might be able to improvise something, but since you’re going anyway to get the capper, just pick up the siphon clamp and be done with it.
You can also get an ale pale (fermentation vessel) that has a spigot at the bottom. I’m not a big fan of that method because you end up with a lot of the trub in your bottles.
(“Trub” — rhymes with lube — is the spent yeast and other sediment that settles to the bottom of your fermentation vessel.)
Ideally you want to transfer your beer from your fermentation vessel to another (sanitized, food-grade) container. If you’re willing to have two buckets, I recommend one 6.5 gallon fermenter and one 5 (or more) gallon bucket with a spigot on the bottom.
You might be able to get a 5-gallon bucket from friendly restaurant or grocer, but be sure it didn’t have something stinky in it — like pickles. I have a bucket from a McDonald’s that’s completely useless for brewing.
Anyway, when the beer is done fermenting, you siphon it into the “bottling bucket,” then load up and cap each of the bottles.
So our equipment list so far is …
+ 6.5 gallon fermentation vessel (with lid and air lock)
+ 5 (or more) gallon bottling bucket with spigot (optional)
+ 3 cases of 12 ounce or 2 cases of 16 ounce bottles.
+ caps for bottles
+ siphon tube
+ siphon clamp (or spigot on your bottling bucket)
Here are some other things you’ll need that you may already have.
+ stew pot (at least three gallons, preferably five)
+ large spoon
+ household bleach
That is about the bare minimum. You can get started with that much equipment. But I warn you. If this hobby appeals to you, you’ll end up buying a hydrometer (some people might think that’s essential, BTW), your own special brew spoon or paddle, a wort chiller, a bottle tree, and maybe even a kegerator.
But … hey. What are birthdays for, anyway? Now your friends and family will know what to get you.