Homebrewing 102 – “How Do I Get Started?”
Homebrewing, like many hobbies, can be made nearly as simple or as complicated as you want it to be. Being a “manufacturing” hobby, it can come off a bit overwhelming when one is first learning about it; but it does not have to be. In my first article, Homebrewing 101, we looked at the basics of ingredients and processes a brewer uses. Here we will exam the equipment needed, what is done with it, and some batch size options for homebrewing.
Brew Kettle: The kettle/pot that a brewery makes wort in (unfermented beer) is one of the more essential tools used on brew day. Stainless steel is the ideal material, but copper was used a long time ago and would still be okay. Some use Aluminum, but there are mixed opinions on that material. The size of the pot needed is very much up to you, what size batches you plan to make, and if you desire to boil all the wort (known as a full volume boil.) Going smaller, and doing a “partial boil,” where you add the remaining water after the boiling process, is an acceptable technique. Typically, if you plan to brew in your kitchen, a partial boil will be required, as most household stoves will not boil 6-7 gallons very efficiently. As soon as a brewer goes to a full volume boil, it is most common to move up to a propane burner heat source. Like the ones used when frying turkeys. So that usually takes the brew day outdoors or to the garage!
Fermenter (sometimes spelled Fermentor): Another primary piece of equipment is the vessel you use to ferment the wort into beer. As you may recall, the yeast does this magic work, but they need a clean, protected place to their work. A fermenter must have a sealable lid, but also a small opening in the lid for an airlock or blowoff tube, to allow of CO2 to escape during fermentation, while keeping oxygen out, Fermenter comes in several materials – glass, stainless, plastics. Which material is often a personal choice, with each having pros and cons. For most beer making, there is nothing at all wrong with food-grade plastic buckets or other such vessels. They do allow trace amount of oxygen in though, so storage much beyond a month or so is not the best in plastic. Glass is naturally very clean and impermeable, but fragile. Stainless may be the overall best but has a significantly higher price tag. Again, the size of the vessel would depend on the size of batches you are making. A general rule is the fermenter should be around 1/4 – 1/3 larger than the final batch of beer/wine you are looking to make. For this reason, many manufactured fermenters are 6-7 gallons in capacity, as 5-gallon batches are a typical size for homebrewing.
Hydrometer: This glass device is an inexpensive way to read specific gravity in liquids. Without diving into SG and what all it means in brewing – this device has two primary uses.
1) By getting an SG reading before (original gravity) and after (final gravity) fermentation, we can calculate the ABV (alcohol by volume) of our beer.
2) The final gravity reading also lets us know how well our wort fermented (attenuated) and if it is done doing so. This device works by simply floating it in a sample of liquid and taking a reading. The running joke with brewers is that hydrometers do one other thing, beyond reading SG. They break! Luckily, they are a pretty cheap item at $5-$8.
Transfer siphon and tubing: When the boil process is complete, and cooled, it is time to move the wort to the fermenter. Many use a siphon and tubing setup to do this. Though pouring out of the kettle is fine, IF it is small enough to do so. The use of tubing does help minimize pick up of contaminants from the air though. When fermentation is done, and we do NOT want our beer getting much oxygen exposure, the use of tubing for transferring is critical. A reminder – anything that touches your cooled wort, or beer after fermentation, must be clean AND sanitized to avoid infection in your batch.
Thermometers: There are various times when checking the temperature of your wort/beer will be needed. For this, a liquids thermometer is excellent on brew day. Monitoring during fermentation can be as simple as a stick-on thermometer on your fermenter. Like the kind, you see on fish tanks. Then, as always, there are more advanced options from there if a homebrewer desires.
Bottling: most all homebrewers start with bottling their beer, as opposed to kegging it. Many never get into kegging, as this does take added investment and space for a keg fridge of some sort. For bottling your beer, you will ideally have a bottling bucket with spigot, tubing, a bottle filling wand, a capper, bottles, and caps. Having a dishwasher rack or bottling tree, to dry your sanitized bottles, is handy too. Some techniques can cut out the bottling bucket, and be bottled directly from the fermenter, but they do have their drawbacks
A few other items that you will need or want: a large spoon, whisk, airlock or blow-off tubing for the fermenter, racking cane or auto-siphon for moving liquids, a wort chiller IF doing larger boils.
This process might start to sound like a lot to figure out, and it can be. But, all the above is often available in kits you can buy! These same kits usually have use instructions as well as starter recipes you can try. These kits are most often designed to make around 5 gallons per batch (2 cases), but you can also find smaller setups or put your own together. Brewing setups can range in size as small as ½ gallon up to as big as your desire, money, and time can take you. One thing to consider, that though the time investment increases with volume some, of course, there is a set amount of time and waiting to get your homebrew. This can make little batches, like 1 gallon, begin to seem too small if you have success early. The investment for equipment to start brewing can range a good bit, based on size batches you want to make. Around $40-$150 is what I tell people. Then, like many hobbies, you can expand on that $150 a good bit if you get the bug!
Beer ingredients, which I reviewed in my first article Homebrewing 101, are also readily available in kits. Homebrewing kits are often set up to do 5 gallons. You can, however, find 1-gallon pre-packaged kits as well. Putting together ingredients for your recipe, or one you see somewhere, is simple to do at your local homebrew shop or through an online store. Local shops often offer grains, and sometimes extracts, by the ounce; making it possible to buy only the ingredients you need for that beer.
With todays online world, finding recipes or ideas is very easy. There are a multitude of sources for kits and/or recipes for homebrewers getting started. Do not feel the need to design your own beer right off. Using established recipes (kits) will hedge your bets to make good homebrew. Brewing and fermenting a beer, from a recipe you acquire, is still your beer.