I recently started brewing beer, again. When I moved to Anchorage this past fall, I brought all my brewing stuff with me. After a few months of not being able to brew easily, I decided to put together a system that was easy to use, yet had all the parts and pieces I needed to make great beer. This time, rather than cutting corners, buying used gear, or doing everything DIY, I decided just to put together what I thought would be the easiest for me to use without going overboard (no RIMs or HERMs, no pumps, etc.)
While I still have the big system I use for filling barrels, I decided 5 gallons would be appropriate for our current lifestyle. Gone are the days of huge parties, thanks to both a small apartment and our son! We simply aren’t going through the amount of beer we used to – so I didn’t see a reason to stick with 10 gallon (or more) batches on a regular basis. I have been seeking more variety lately (wait for my post on Vienna Lager next week/month), but still wanted to be able to use the few 5 gallon kegs I had without buying a bunch of 2.5 or 3 gallon ones. And bottling was out.
I’ve had a lot of people I know get started in brewing the last year or two, and have asked what I recommend for getting going. Here’s what I put together, and what I’d recommend to anyone getting into the hobby. Some of these you need, some you need to have access to. This could also serve as my “Gift Guide for 2016.” I’m not going to argue the “why” of these to the end of the earth, feel free to ask questions if you need clarity.
A few quick notes:
This is not “everything” you’ll need to get brewing, however its most of the equipment. You’ll also need ingredients, adjuncts, water adjusting minerals, and a bit of knowledge. If this post does well I’ll do another on how I use all this stuff.
This is not meant to be a “cost savings” list. This is what I consider to be some of the best products for a sustainable hobby. I also link wherever is easiest when it comes to some products. Order wherever you want, these links are posted for simplicity. You’ll never see an ad on brouwerij-chugach. Also, I bought all of this stuff – nothing has been promoted/gifted/etc.
This is what has worked for me. It may or may not be the system you envision as simple. I like this because it stores easily in my brew closet, is quick to setup/tear down, and I can knock out a full brew in less than 4 hours. Its also easy to split it up when I’m hanging out with my son.
Grain Mill – you’ll need to either have a grain mill at home, a friend who has one, or a homebrew store you can rely on. If you do choose to buy your own, the “Barley Crusher” is a great affordable start. I believe there are several other similar options through Norther Brewer, etc. My personal recommendation is to start by getting grains crushed at your local homebrew store.
Mash/Boil Kettle – Gone are my days of 3 tier setups. I mash and boil in the same kettle. For a 5 gallon batch, I’d recommend a 10 gallon Kettle. I prefer a flat bottomed kettle, as I can use it on my kitchen stove. You can find these just about anywhere. A ball valve is a great addition if you want it, but a siphon still works fine here as well. I’d stay away from thermowells and sight gauges. You can etch you kettle yourself, which is much easier to clean than a sight gauge.
Source of Heat – My personal favorite propane burner is the KA-B6 (or B4, which has a smaller base) from Bayou. It doesn’t have a windscreen, and the paint stinks as it burns the first time you use it, but it delivers a TON of heat and never breaks down. Sorry Blichmann, yours is pretty though. I personally use my kitchen stove because I brew indoors to suit my new “Professional Father” lifestyle.
Brew Bag – I brew in a bag now for all 5 gallon batches. This is the easiest method I’ve ever tried. No stuck mashes, and the “mash tun” is cleaned in a minute or less. You can get them custom ordered to your brew pot size. I also recommend getting a carabiner and putting an eye-bolt in your ceiling for hoisting. So incredibly easy, I wish I would have done it sooner. There’s only one place I know of to get a great one of these.
Thermometer – Thermoworks Thermapen is the best available in my opinon. If you don’t feel like spending $90 on a thermometer, you can get a cheaper version they offer for $15-20. It reads in 6 seconds instead of 2-3, which is probably fine for most of us. It also is great to have on hand for cooking as well.
pH Meter* – I put a star beside this because it isn’t required but being able to measure the pH of your mash is important and useful. Its also great to have for checking how your sour mash is going.
A Big Whisk – For stirring. And large batches of Hollandaise.
Hop Spider/Hop bag – I enjoy transferring as little trub to the fermenter as possible, simply for harvesting yeast and ease of racking. Purely personal preference.
Scale – For measuring grain, hops, and water additions. I have a small scale accurate to 0.01 grams and one accurate to 1 gram, that goes up to 10 lb.
Wort Chiller – There are so many options for chillers. Plate chillers, immersion chillers, ice bath, etc. I’ve chosen to go with an Immersion chiller because its easy to use, easy to clean, and chills wort fast. I made my own, putting two 25′ lengths of copper in parallel with each other, similar to how Jaded is making theirs. Mine is much more crude, but also 1/3 or less the price and works great.
Hydrometer – Just buy two. I’ve broken several over the years. They’re fragile but worth it. I find they are the most accurate and easy to use. There are more sophisticated tools available, but for me simple is the best way to go. You’ll also want something to put it in for measuring.
Gloves – Gloves are a bare minimum when it comes to brewing safety gear. I’ll often put on safety glasses when dealing with larger batches or when I’m cleaning with chemicals, but gloves are a must. I buy the thick PVC ones so I don’t worry about burning myself or getting the slime of PBW on me. They also are great for squeezing out your Brew Bag.
Siphon – My go-to is the auto-siphon, however I’ll let you know I’m on my 3rd one. Regular siphons work fine as well if you can find a way to get them started without infection. If you’re only using carboys, there are other options available for pressurizing your fermenter to rack beer.
Cleaners/Sanitizers – My go to products are PBW or Oxiclean for cleaning and Star San for sanitizing. I think they’re the easiest to use and keep around. [Quick tip, if you don’t want to be mixing 2.5 or 5 gallons of Sanitizer every time you use it, 1.2 tsp makes one gallon. Or a little over 1/4 tsp for a quart sized spray bottle.]
Fermenting Vessel – Carboys are the best in my opinion. Easy to clean, inert, and cheap. You can generally find them on craigslist pretty cheap (If I haven’t been there already!). Keep in mind – they’re made of glass, so you need to treat them like it! No dropping, hitting other glass, or dumping hot liquid inside. I’ve only ever broken one in the 12 years I’ve been brewing, and its because I poured hot wort in it like a dummy. Better bottles are also ones I’ve used and been happy with – but the price point of carboys is great.
Bungs and air locks – Simple stuff. Get a stopper with a hole in it, and put an airlock in it. Don’t forget to fill with some sanitized liquid.
Temperature Control – Interpret this how you want. You need to be able to control the temperature of your fermenting beer. Whether its a special fridge or freezer, a known location in your house or basement that maintains a certain temperature, or an ice-laden bathtub, you need to be able to control the temperature.
Kegs – I prefer kegging because I find it to be easier than bottling, and takes up less space. I enjoy being able to drink beers quick if I want to, or move them around easily into storage if I don’t. I can also adjust carbonation and blend final products easier. Kegging equipment is everywhere (and much less personalized) so I’m not going to provide a list of “what to buy” here.
Bottling – Bottling can make it easy to share beer, and has a lower cost point than kegging. You can get started in bottling with a bottling bucket, filler, and capper for the price of one keg. Keep in mind oxygen is the enemy and sanitation is key.
That’s about it. If you have any questions or comments, let me know. I’m always looking for ways to improve this setup. If you’re looking for a few other opinions, check out: