Home brewing is a great hobby for many reasons. I guess it would be fair to say that the main reason for starting to brew at home is the ability to brew great tasting beer and to be able to say, with a certain amount of pride, I made that. Believe me once you have made your own you will, forever more, look differently at commercially brewed beers. However, if you also throw in the fact that home brewing allows you to brew great tasting beers at a fraction of the cost of buying beer in a supermarket or pub you can certainly see the attractions. Don’t get carried away with the cost, in reality I would have to say that this is a secondary consideration but it certainly is a sweetener.
However, if you are just starting out home brewing there is an initial up-front cost involved in equipping yourself with all you need to brew. This article looks at what you need to get started but assumes that you are starting off brewing from home brew kits and liquid malt extract rather than full grain mashing.
As with the majority of hobbies the home brew market is awash with lots of great looking equipment that you could buy. If you take a walk around your local home brew shop you will find that you could be quite easily be separated from a princely sum buying pH meters, digital temperature probes, thermostatically controlled fermenters, refractometers the list goes on. In reality to get started with your first batch the home brew equipment that you need is fairly minimal. You can get caught up buying all manner of home brew paraphernalia so to help you decide what you need this is my critical list of the essential bits of home brew equipment. In essence the things that you need to get started.
First up is the fermenter. Sounds exotic doesn’t it but in brutal terms a bucket with a lid will more than suffice if you are starting up on a tight budget. If you are brewing from a home brew kit then the fermenter is where all the magic occurs when the yeast converts sugar into alcohol to give you your beer. Therefore all you need is something to hold the liquid whilst the yeast does what it was put on this Earth to do. You can use a bucket with no lid, remember many commercial breweries still use open fermenters, however for good hygiene a lidded bucket is desirable. You can pick-up very simple fermentation buckets or bins for under £10. However, at this point I have to admit my own personal preference by stating that I would always pay a little bit more to get a good quality fermenter. I also have to say that I am not a big fan of plain lidded buckets. I like to have a more secure fermenter with plenty of head room above the surface of the brew to prevent foaming over. I also want the ability to seal the fermenter with a sterile airlock. My personal preference is for a wide neck fermenter with a screw lid in which there is a hole for a fermentation lock. Whilst I am expressing an opinion I might as well add that I am also not keen on fermentation buckets that come fitted with a tap. I have used them and found that often these are quite cheaply manufactured and can leak around the tap if not fitted correctly. There is also the possible risk of microbiological infection as the taps can prove quite difficult to keep clean.
Fermentation locks are neat little devices that allow you to seal your fermenter so that it remains sterile once you have pitched your yeast. Why is this important? During fermentation yeast produces a lot of CO2 gas. If you are using an open fermenter the CO2 will simply dissipate into the atmosphere. But remember using open fermenters can leave you wide open to the risk of contamination from airborne microbes. However, if you use a lidded bucket you must be careful not to seal the lid tightly otherwise, once fermentation starts, the lid will pop off as the CO2 pressure increases in the bucket. If you use a fermentation lock you can seal the lid of the fermenter tightly as the fermentation lock will allow the CO2 to vent to atmosphere without the risk of airborne microbes getting into your fermenter. The other reason why I like to use a fermentation lock is because as the CO2 gas vents through the water in the lock you get a re-assuring bubbling sound which lets you know that fermentation is under way. It also indicates when fermentation has slowed or stopped so you don’t have to keep breaking into the fermenter to take a sample for measuring the specific gravity. Fermentation locks are relatively cheap and, in my opinion, an invaluable piece of home brewing equipment so I strongly advise investing in a couple.
Temperature is quite a critical consideration when you are home brewing. Yeast is a fussy beast and functions a bit like the children’s book character Goldilocks in Goldilocks and the Three Bears. If you don’t know what I mean then it is perhaps worth explaining that Goldilocks was an infamous house breaker and porridge thief. However, she was exceedingly particular about the temperature of her porridge. In her encounter with the bears she had two failed attempts at satisfying her craving for the porridge before she finally found that the temperature of baby Bear’s porridge was just right! In home brewing yeast is the equivalent of the notorious Goldilocks in that to obtain the best results the temperature has to be just right! If the temperature is too hot you may find that your beer will develop off flavours. At worse if you pitch your yeast into wort which is at too high a temperature you can actually kill it. However, you would have to be pitching your yeast at a very high wort temperature to do this. Conversely if the temperature of the wort is too cold the yeast will be sluggish and fermentation will be slow to start or if the wort is extremely cold your yeast just won’t bother to start fermenting. To measure the temperature of your wort, you could just dip your finger in and if it is warm then it will be ok to pitch yeast into. However, that is not overly precise so I would recommend the use of a thermometer. It doesn’t have to be fancy and doesn’t have to cost that much, a straight forward glass spirit thermometer will suffice. I also tend to have a room thermometer so that I know the temperature of the room is not too low or too high.
With any hobby there are always bits of equipment that you possess that, when you have to use them, make you think that you are doing something really technical and if anyone is watching makes you look quite professional. The hydrometer, in my eyes, is one of those pieces of home brew equipment. For example I once had the misfortune of being filmed for a programme on home brew and the TV crew shot me on numerous occasions using a hydrometer because they thought it gave the piece extra “gravitas”!
The hydrometer is used to measure how strong your wort is by measuring the specific gravity of the wort. In simple terms the specific gravity is a measure of the density of a substance compared to a reference substance. In this case the reference substance is water which has a gravity of 1.000. When we measure the specific gravity of wort we are therefore measuring the density of wort relative to water. This gives us an idea of what has been solubilised during mashing and in particular how much “sugar” is available for fermentation. If the wort gravity is high compared to water then there should be more fermentable sugar available for the yeast to ferment which will give us a higher alcohol beer. Brewers will design their brewing recipes around achieving a certain original or starting gravity in the wort. As we are brewing from liquid extract the amount that we dilute the liquid extract will determine the wort original gravity. The typical original gravity range for home brewers wort derived from home brew kits can be anywhere between 1.040 – 1.055. If you are using a home brew kit the instructions will usually tell you to dilute your extract with a certain volume of water. I prefer to dilute my wort to achieve a particular original gravity. To be able to do this I need to be able to measure the original gravity and so I need a hydrometer. I would highly recommend you do the same thing and invest in a hydrometer. Why do I recommend you do this? If you look on your home brew kit at the Brix value of your extract it can vary from anywhere between 79.5 brix to 82 brix. Brix is used in the sugar industry as a measure of dissolved sucrose in an aqueous solution at 20ºC. But it can be converted into original gravity therefore 79.5 brix is an OG of 1.4214 and 82 brix equals an OG of 1.4397. Therefore if you add the same volume of water to a 79.5 brix or 82 brix liquid extract your original starting gravity will be quite different and this can give you a beer with a quite different character. There is a final reason for investing in a hydrometer and that is that most home brew kits will tell you to bottle your beer after the specific gravity has dropped below a particular value. If you are going to be able to achieve this then once again you will need to invest in a hydrometer.
I really don’t know why this next bit of home brew equipment is called a trial jar. I guess my secondary school chemistry teacher would be extremely proud of me because if there is nothing else that I learnt from his lessons I did learn that this piece of equipment has been and always will be a measuring cylinder. Right that is my rant over lets discuss the measuring cylinder…
…sorry, I mean trial jar. If you are going to measure the original gravity of your wort and beer then, as well as a hydrometer, you will need a container to hold the liquid in whilst you measure the gravity. That is where the trial jar comes in. Simply fill the trial jar with your brew, carefully drop the hydrometer into the trial jar and measure the specific gravity. However, if there is one bit of advice I would give when buying a trial jar is to pay a little bit more money and get a glass trial jar rather than a plastic one. I have used both glass and plastic and absolutely hate plastic trial jars as I find that the hydrometer drags against the plastic surface. I don’t know whether there is some kind of electrostatic attraction but the hydrometer never seems to float freely in a plastic trial jar and this can give an inaccurate reading of the specific gravity.
You may have noticed that I have not included bottles as an essential piece of home brew equipment. They are, of course, essential if you are going to bottle your beer but you don’t have to buy them. You can either save the bottles yourself from the beer that you buy or you can ask a pub or restaurant whether they would be willing for you to take some of their empties. Many pubs will be willing to off-load a few bottles to you free of charge. If you are very thorough in cleaning them once you have acquired them they can be re-used for your home brew saving yourself a lot of money. However, that said you can buy bottles if you would prefer to do so.
Bottling equipment sounds rather technical but again doesn’t have to be complicated. You can of course get all manner of expensive contraptions to do the job which I am sure work perfectly well. I am not one to pour scorn on innovative new ways of doing things but when a simple plastic tube works just as well and is a fraction of the cost I am not going to be convinced that I need to change. Therefore a couple of metres of food grade plastic tubing is an essential piece of home brew equipment. It is also worth looking at purchasing a bottling tube that has been fitted with a sediment trap. You can attach the bottling tube directly to your siphon tube. The purpose of the bottling tube is to enable you to siphon as much beer out of the fermenter without disturbing the yeast that has sedimented out at the bottom of the fermenter.
If you are going to be bottling your beer you will also need a crown capper. Crown caps are great for creating an airtight seal on your bottle and if you have a good capper are easy to fit. A good quality crown capper is an essential piece of home brew equipment.
Cleaning and sterilising agent
They say that cleanliness is next to Godliness and if that is the case your home brewing equipment should be a shrine to cleaning. There are a number of cleaning and sterilising agents that you can buy for home brewing that work in slightly different ways. We cover cleaning in more detail in the article Home Brewers Guide to Cleaning and Sanitising. Therefore I won’t add anything else other than to say always have some sort of cleaning and sterilising agent to make sure that all of your home brewing equipment is absolutely clean. Believe me there is nothing worse than having gone to all the effort of making a great beer only to find that all that toil has been rendered worthless because the beer has been spoiled by microbiological contamination. If you are home brewing from a kit I would say that at least 80% of your time should be focused on making sure that your equipment is clean.
So there you have it that is my critical list of home brew equipment that everyone who is new to home brew should look at buying. Of course there are other little bits and pieces that you could buy but generally you can get by quite easily with what is on the list above.
If you are looking to buy a home brew equipment starter pack then read our article 3 Great Home Brew Equipment Starter Kits.