Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Brewing Beer Equipment Basics

Lately, I've been getting a lot of inquiries via email with homebrewing questions. I've also seen it mentioned a lot on other blogs. As far as I'm concerned this is one of the best hobbies that a preparedness minded individual can get into. Benjamin Franklin said it best; "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy". Before you do anything else go read How to Brew. This is easily the most comprehensive free resource that I'm aware of. If you want to drop a few bucks then I highly recommend The Complete Joy of Homebrewing. Between these two books you'll learn just about everything that you need to know.

So, anyway, once you decide that getting into brewing isn't such a bad idea you need to start thinking about the equipment you'll need. You could always just go the lazy route and pick up a mr beer kit
. Just follow the directions and you'll end up with decent beer. But if you want to keep using it you'll have to keep buying their kits. Once you move on to real home brewing you'll probably end up replacing everything. Mr Beer is cheap and easy but you don't learn much about the brewing process or how the ingredients work together. If all you want is drinkable beer then find the kit or kits that you like and stock up when you see them on sale.

There are better kits out there. They range from "kits in a can" that aren't much different than mr beer kits to more advanced kits that use liquid or dry malt extract and hops or hop pellets. Some of them also use a partial grain mash. That's how I usually brew. It takes a lot less time and work than all grain and you get almost as much control. If the world ends then it won't be long before all grain is your only option, though. If you're going to get into brewing then you might as well be able to make it from scratch. The yeast is reusable, grain is cheap and hops grow like weeds in most places.

To start you'll need a big pot and a place to cook it on. You can just do it in the kitchen but things get crowded fast if your kitchen isn't huge. If you're doing extract brewing then you need to be able to boil at least 3 gallons of wort at a time. Your wort should take up less than half of the space in the pot because it will begin boiling violently and will probably boil over and make a mess. If you're doing all grain then it's best to have a capacity of at least 15 gallons in your kettle so that you can eventually move up to 10 gallon batches. For now I use a turkey fryer. Around Thanksgiving these things are everywhere and they're cheap. You can find a deal online anytime, though. Turkey fryer kits come with at least a 5 gallon pot, a thermometer and a propane burner with a stand. When you do move up to a bigger kettle you can still use the turkey fryer to hold your sparge water. The propane burner will also continue to come in handy. Make sure that you have a metal or wooden spoon that's big enough to stir with. You'll also want a grain bag (a big, mesh bag that can hold a few pounds of grain) if you want to do a partial mash. When you get into all grain you'll need a mash tun.

You'll also want a fermenter. This can be a 5-6.5 gallon carboy with an airlock or it can be a bucket with a grommet and air lock in the lid. Glass is the easiest option to keep clean but glass breaks and it's a lot heavier. You shouldn't have to move your fementers around much but if you do a bucket is a lot easier and a plastic carboy won't be as dangerous if it does break. You need a big funnel with a filter to strain your wort when you transfer it to the fermenter if you're brewing with hops. Before you pour your wort into your fermenter you'll also want to let it cool. If you're doing extract then you can just pour cold water into your fermenter and then pour your wort in. If you're doing all grain then you'll need a wort chiller to cool your wort. Once you have your wort in your fermenter and it's cooled to room temperature then you just pitch your yeast and attach an airlock. This can be a blowoff tube, a baloon with pinholes in it or an airlock designed for homebrewing. Let it sit for a couple of weeks.

You know the primary fermentation is finished when it only bubbles once a minute or so. That could take a few days or a few weeks depending on the recipe and other factors. At that point you can either transfer it to a secondary fermenter, a keg or a bottling bucket. To transfer the beer you'll need some way to siphon it off. Don't pour it. First of all you'll disturb the sediment at the bottom of the fermenter. Secondly, oxygen can produce off flavors. A racking cane is the easiest way to transfer. You can use any type of siphon, though. You can even just use a vinyl tube and suck it to start the transfer. That's a great way to introduce bacteria to ruin your beer, though. If you transferred to a secondary fermenter then attach an airlock and let it sit again.

If you want to bottle it then you'll transfer it to your ale pail. Boil a cup of water and 3/4-1 cup of corn sugar and add that to your beer before bottling. That will carbonate it. The easiest way to bottle is to use a length of tubing and a bottle filler
. You'll need bottle caps and bottles as well. You can use screw top bottles, grolsh bottles or regular beer bottles with bottle caps. You just fill your bottle and cap it. If you're using bottles and bottle caps you'll need a bottle capper, some bottle caps and some non twist off bottles. Let the bottles sit for a couple of weeks so that they can carbonate. Even if you start kegging it's still nice to have the means to bottle.

Kegging is much more convenient than bottling. Just get a cornelius keg, a CO2 tank, a CO2 regulator, a tap, gas hose, dispensing hose and your quick release connections. Here's a great article on kegging.

There are a few other things that you'll need. First of all you need to sanitize everything properly. If it touches your beer it needs to be sanitized. Otherwise, bacteria and other nasties can get into your beer and create off flavors or completely ruin your batch. For plastics and glass I just use bleach. Some people decry bleach. I've never had a problem with it. Don't use bleach when sanitizing steel, though. Bleach reacts to steel. Don't worry about sanitizing anything that you boil with. Most hardcore brewers use starsan. You also want to get a hydrometer
. It will help you keep track of the progress of your beer. You can also use it to calculate alcohol content. So, basically, this is what you're going to need:

A big pot and something to cook on - I recommend a turkey fryer
A big funnel with a filter
A grain bag
A big spoon that won't melt in your boiling wort - Plastics are cheapest but even if they don't melt they get flimsy in the boil.
A fermenter - A 5 gallon bucket with a grommeted lid or a carboy (a big glass or plastic jug)
An airlock
A racking cane or some type of siphon
Lengths of food grade tubing that will fit on your siphon and that you can use as a blowoff tube
A hydrometer
Some type of sanitizer

If you want to bottle:

An ale pail
A bottle filler
Non twist off glass Bottles w/ caps and a bottle capper, grolsh bottles or plastic bottles with screw on caps

If you want to keg:

Cornelius keg
CO2 tank
CO2 regulator
Gas hose
Dispenser Hose
Appropriate quick release connections


Wyn Boniface said...

Thanks for posting this!

Cygnus MacLlyr said...

Been contemplating this hobby for a while now... glad to see some real-time info out there!!!

Thanks, and Slainte, buddy!!!