I’m interested in homebrewing and would like to try brewing my first beer. What are my options? What kind of equipment do I need?
Written by Chris “Pasteur” Rafalik
I remember in the beginning, I knew that I wanted to brew so I went to a few brewing websites. I was quickly confused by the terminology that gets thrown around. Partial mash, all-grain, extract… I wish that someone had been there to sit me down and give me a quick explanation of what it was all about. So here you go:
There are three basic options for brewing beer.
You can make an extract only brew. Think of this as making pancakes with a “Just Add Water” mix. The pancakes are good. And they are very easy to make. You add water and don’t have to worry about too much. Extract-only batches have everything included in a powdered form. You just need to add water, heat it a bit, cool it, and add the yeast.
You can make a partial mash. Think of this as making pancakes using a mix that requires eggs, milk, and oil. A bit more to do but the basics are already there. In a partial mash, the majority of the carbohydrates that the yeast will eat are provided as an extract, but you will have a small amount of grains that you “make a tea” out of. These add color, some additional flavors to the extract and make your house smell great.
All grain. This is the equivalent of mixing different amounts of flour, baking powder, eggs, etc and hoping you get pancakes. It has more challenges (a bit more equipment needed, takes longer, more variables) but you gain more control over your beer. Plus as in any good hobby, once you get good at something – we have an instinctive drive to make it more complicated.
You can make excellent award winning beers using any of the methods above. I started with partial mashes. There are a number of members that use this method exclusively.
What equipment is needed
Boiling Kettle – 5 gallons is a good starter size but I brewed for years with a 3 gallon (and made an unholy mess when it boiled over). For a lot of bio-chemical reasons you should not use a kettle made of a reactive metal like aluminium or iron as a boiling kettle. You do not want the boiling liquid exposed directly to those types of metals. The simplest starting brew kettle is an inexpensive stainless steel stockpot of 12 to 16 quart capacity. Make sure it has handles on it. If you have an enameled pot, like one used for boiling shrimp, it can also be used as long as it is clean and not chipped to expose the metal to the boiling liquid. In either case a close fitting lid for the pot is a very helpful addition. It allows you to cover the wort in the pot as it cools. The lid forms a barrier between the wild stuff in the air and the cooling wort.
Fermenter – Usually these are plastic or glass. Plastic ones are cheaper but you can’t see what is going on inside. Also, you must be careful cleaning them. Glass can shatter. Again, if just starting, I would go with plastic. You can always purchase a glass fermenter later if you decide you want to.
Spoon – A large long handled spoon is needed to mix the exctract and water or skim any residue that forms on the top of the wort during the boil. Again stainless steel or food grade plastic is the material of choice.
Air locks and stoppers – This gives the excess CO2 a way out of your fermenter while keeping the bad bugs in the air from getting to the good stuff in the fermenter.
Sanitizer – A sanitizer is needed to kill any potential bacteria that might infect the beer. There are several. You can use household bleach. But there are better. I use an iodine based sanitizer called Iodophor. Of course, a sanitizer can only be successfully used after the equipment has been cleaned well with some elbow grease. If the equipment is extemely dirty, there are some brewing safe cleaners that may be used. That is why, if just starting out, I almost always recommend the new brewer buy new equipment. Detergent or soap should be used very, very carefully if at all due to issues with residue. Cleaners such as PBW (Powdered Brewery Wash) or B-brite do an excellent job and have few issues of safety or residue. Be careful cleaning plastic containers. You do not want to scratch the surface of your fermenter. Those scratches create all kinds of hiding spaces for infections you will not be able to remove no matter how hard you try.
Thermometer – Floating thermometer so you can know how hot the wort (soon to be beer) is
Hydrometer – Used to take the specific gravity of the wort. Lets you know how much alcohol your beer can have. Also useful for making sure you followed the recipe correctly. Not necessary to make good beer, but many new brewers find it reassuring to check their beer to know that they are “doing it right”.
Racking cane with hose – This is used to get the beer out of the fermenter and into the bottles. I recommend getting one that has an autosiphon – basically an easier way to get a siphon started so that you can move the beer over.
Bottle filler – A plastic tube with a check valve at the bottom. Used to stop the beer flow when filling a bottle and preventing a huge mess… ok…. reducing the huge mess
Bottles – A 5 gallon batch makes 40 pints or 53 12 oz bottles. That is about 4 cases. They should be pop top (not screw top) and amber. No need to buy these when Sam Adams makes some highly drinkable beer!
Bottle caps – Self-explanatory
Capper – Used to put the caps on the bottles
Finally, is there a basic reference book?
The beginning book for the majority of homebrewers is The Complete Joy of Homebrewing by Charlie Papazian. It is pretty much considered the starting book for homebrewing. You should be able to get it at any homebrew supply shop. It is guaranteed to be available online at any bookseller’s web site.
Good luck and enjoy. If you have questions, post a message on the Mashtronaut Facebook page or bring it up at a meeting. There are always Mashtronauts standing by to help you out. We all remember our first brew and are happy to help others out.