Your First Brew Part 1:
Okay, so you’re fired up. You’re ready to embark on the journey to turn your humble abode into a fully functioning brewery. You’ve got a six pack in the fridge and dreams swirling in your noggin.
So how exactly does one begin?
Well, first, you need all the ‘Stuff.
A basic beginner kit is available at most homebrew stores and is fairly inexpensive. It’s also possible to locate pieces and parts from folks who have upgraded their system or scaled back. At very least, here’s what you will need.
BEHOLD THE BREW POT!! Which is to say you need a large metal container you can boil some water in. If you are just starting out, a five gallon stainless steel pot is sufficient but, if you have the inclination that you will want to move beyond the comparatively easy realm of extract brewing and into all-grain quickly, you will want a ten gallon pot. Eight gallon pots are also available but if, at some point, you’ll want to brew a slightly higher octane all-grain brew, (and who doesn’t?) get the ten gallon.
One additional note, it is generally accepted homebrew lore that stainless steel is far superior to aluminum for a brew pot. The reasons for this are complex and often of dubious origin but the assumption is there. Plenty has been written on the subject and I intend to discuss it on this blog someday. But not today. Err on the side of caution and get stainless.
This is the vessel where your overly sweet, bitter unfermented wort changes into the nectar of the gods. There are any number of objects that can be used for this purpose.
Most basic home-brew kits come with at least one of these. This is the cheapest, most basic and easiest-to-use fermentor available. They make cleaning simple and can be neatly stacked wherever one has a bit of space. They do, however, have a couple downsides. First, they are made of plastic which makes them prone to scratches. Also some people have reservations about plastic (although ‘plasticy’ flavors in beer is usually a product of poor temperature control as opposed to the container). Also, their design makes them less than ideal for extended aging. But for 90% percent of your ales, they are an effective fermentation option.
Nothing says ‘homebrewer’ more than a series of five to six gallon glass containers happy bubbling in one’s closet, office, basement, or car after one’s spouse has kicked them out of the house. (Pro Tip: You’ll want to apologize to your spouse ASAP, the beer is not going to turn out without temperature control.)
The upsides of these are numerous. First, they are glass which makes them more durable and, somehow makes them intrinsically better. I don’t know why, it just does. People like glass. Second, they tend to be clear so you can stare at the mesmerizing swirl of yeast hard at work. (Remember when you stare into the fermentation, the fermentation stares back at you…oooo) And third, their design helps minimize the amount of oxygen that can touch your infant beer. This is a good thing. They are also fairly cheap. Especially if you find a home brewer who is downsizing or getting out of the hobby. They are out there, check Craigslist or your local home brew club.
The downsides; the small spout makes them a bitch to clean. They are heavy and glass does shatter which can create a spectacularly sticky mess. Which is why you and the rest of your carboys are going to be kicked to the curb unless you apologize to your spouse like right now.
There are some newer products on the market that mimic the type of fomenters that professional breweries use. They are often made of plastic, (although there are some stainless steel ones for you big spenders out there), they have a few extra bells and whistles, but their biggest advantage is their ability to make it easy and sanitary to collect and reuse yeast. That being said, they tend to be expensive. My experience with them has been good but, for the beginner, I don’t feel there’s enough benefit to outweigh the cost. But, for those knee-deep in the hobby, they do provide a more professional experience.
Hydrometer and Test Jar:
Yup, we are going to Science the Shit out of the beer. These handy dandy devices will help you measure the amount of sugar going into your fermenter and, thus, how much alcohol is coming out the other end. That way you’ll know exactly why it’s hard to stand up after the third pint of your IPA.
This can come in the form of a floating thermometer or one of those sticky ones you put on the side of your carboy. The key here is to have some idea of where your beer is sitting heat-wise. The sticky ones are cheap but not terribly accurate. The floating one’s are a touch more expensive but you know exactly where your bubbling brew is sitting.
This lets CO2 out without letting oxygen in. This keeps you from having to mop your ceiling. Note: Any home brewer worth their carboys has had to mop their ceiling. Make peace with this.
Bung (For Carboys):
This is a bung. It goes in your bung hole. Which is the technical term for the hole on top of your carboy. Stop giggling, weirdo.
This handy object helps you move your beer from one happy little container to the other happy little container without having to pour it directly into said happy container. Because pouring creates splashes. With adds oxygen. Which makes containers sad. Because, as noted above, oxygen is bad. For beer. Please keep breathing.
Bottling Bucket and Spigot:
I can already hear you groaning, “Another bucket?!?” Yup, I say, another one. This one will help you get five gallons of beer into those little 12 ounce beer bottles. It’s handy that way.
Crimps the caps on your bottles. These can either be the double-lever hand-held style or the larger bench capper. Both work.
You’ll need a short one for cleaning bottles. You’ll probably need a longer one bent toward the end for carboys. And maybe a couple of others for getting into all the nooks and crannies. They come in all shape and sizes. You’ll need this to clean gunk. And there will be gunk. So much gunk. Hop gunk, yeast gunk, gunk from the fruit you added, gunk from the spices you threw in, gunk from COMPLETELY UNKNOWN ORIGINS. This is a messy hobby, children, not for the feint of heart.
Speaking of gunk, you’ll be wanting an alkaline or oxygen-based cleaner like PBW or One Step to shred the sludge. Most brew kits come with a chlorine-based cleaner / sanitizer which works as well, but you want to be sure to rinse it thoroughly, lest your beer taste like you made it out of pool water. Also don’t make your beer out of pool water because… eww.
Once your fermenter is all nice and shiny, it’s time to kill any remaining yeast or bacteria that might be hanging on looking for a free meal. Time to break out the sanitizer! Like I said before, most home-brew kits come with a chlorine-based cleaner/ sanitizer which, as the slash suggests, does both. But not terribly well. There are other options including no-rinse sanitizers like Star San that make the process a little easier.
Lastly, you will need a place to put your beer in once it is done. For most people starting out, this is a good old-fashioned beer bottle. You can clean and reuse fallen soldiers or you can buy new ones at your local home brew store.
It is also possible to keg your beer to have on draft. Kegging beer is probably worthy of its own freaking blog so, for now, just know that it is possible; it is a thing you can do.
Some addition pieces that aren’t always included with most beginning home-brew kits but are recommended.
Usually big ol’ spoon used for some deep stirrin’. Can also be a paddle or even an actual stick, I guess. Something that moves hot liquid is what you need here.
Essential for getting beer into the small mouth of a carboy. Can also be used to get beer into the mouth of a frat boy. But use a different funnel for that. And, to be honest, different beer.
Can be a small insert inside the funnel or a mesh screen with a handle. If you’re pouring from your kettle into your fermenter, it will help minimize some of the hop gunk that gets into your carboy.
Most extract batches can easily be done on a stove. That being said there is something about lighting a fire under your burner in your garage or driveway that is just… awesome. But you can use a stove. Unless you are brewing an all-grain batch in which case you might want something that can boil five gallons of water in less than eight hours.
Another piece of equipment that is sorta handy for the extract brewer but absolutely essential for all-grain brews. When doing a beer with extracts, you will only be boiling two or three gallons of liquid which can be quickly cooled with an ice bath and cold water. This gets trickier when it comes time to chill five or more gallons of liquid. Again, if you are the type to want to get to all-grain batches as fast as possible, this is a piece of equipment you will want.
And that’s it: All the basic equipment that one needs to brew and ferment beer. So go out and get it all together. Next week, we will actually brew some beer.