Homebrew Recipe Calculator, Blog, How To, & Recipes

Feb
5
2012

What Equipment Is Needed to Make Beer at Home

When I decided to start home brewing, one of the main obstacles for me was the home brew equipment.  I didn't know what home brew equipment I needed and there was quite a variety of different home brew kits and home brew equipment available.  I talked to some other home brewers and looked at home brew tutorials, but because I hadn't yet brewed a batch of beer or watched anyone else brew a batch of beer, everything was unclear.

In this blog post, I’ve outlined the different pieces of home brew equipment that are required to make beer, using the full extract process (all grain brewing requires some additional equipment).  I'll also talk a bit about some optional home brew equipment and give suggestions to help the new home brewer get started brewing beer at home easily.

Here's a checklist of what is needed:

Brew Journal

You’ll want to document your home brew process and recipe so that you can re-produce the great beer you make.  How awful would it be if you brewed the beer of all beers but failed to record your process and ingredients?  Most brewers use a simple bound notepad and that is more than sufficient.  The more information you log the better as it will help you to understand why brews turn out differently and ultimately make you a better brewer. 

Brew Kettle

One thing people often don't realize is that making beer involves boiling the beer ingredients in water for a fairly long time (cooking the wort).  Most batches are 5 gallons, so you're going to need a fairly large kettle or pot to cook your wort in.  When I started home brewing, I had hoped to use one of my kitchen cooking pots and quickly realized they were not big enough.  My largest pot is just over 1 gallon.  To get good results, you should be using a brew kettle or brew pot that can hold no less than 3 1/2 (3.5) gallons while still having some room at the top.  The wort is going to be very hot and you don't want to be lugging around a pot filled to the brim with boiling hot liquid.  Ideally you want a stainless steel pot, but a porcelain enamel pot will work just fine too.  In my case, my wife already had a porcelain enamel pot she was using for canning, and I started with that.  The porcelain enamel pots are definitely cheaper than the stainless steel pots, so if you're on a budget, you can save some money there.

Sanitizing Solution

You’ll need some sanitizing solution to disinfect the home brew equipment used in the brewing process.  There are lots of different sanitizers on the market, and some home brewers just use bleach.  I’ve used the iodine based sanitizer (IO Star) and the Star San acid sanitizer.  Personally, I prefer the iodine sanitizer as the contact time is only 1 minute, it’s not acid based, and it doesn’t foam very much.  The foam in Star San supposedly helps penetrate small spaces, but it also makes it hard to see what your sanitizing.  I typically fill the sink with sanitizer and pull stuff out as I need it.  Using the iodine sanitizer allows me to look into the sanitizing solution and grab what I need.  I wasn’t able to do that with Star San.  Also, I would not recommend using the Iodine sanitizer in a plastic bathtub or sink.  I did this once and it left an unpleasant yellow stain in my tub.

Hydrometer and Turkey Baster (or thief)

A hydrometer is used in the home brew process to measure the specific gravity of the home brew.  Technically, you don’t need one to brew your own beer, but any serious brewer needs one to measure the alcohol content of their beer.  There is definitely a wide variety of them on the market.  I use a triple scale hydrometer and measuring tube, which are the cheapest ones you can get, and they work great.  Be careful not to push it off the counter like I did, because it’s made out of glass and it will break. 

I also recommend a turkey baster for extracting beer from the fermenter for tastings or hydrometer readings.  You can also buy what’s called The Thief for the same purpose, but chances are you already have a turkey baster in your home and you can save yourself a few bucks.

Hydrometer

Thermometer

You'll need a thermometer to measure the temperature of liquid a few times during the brewing process.  If you're steeping specialty grains in your home brew (which you should), you'll need to verify the temperature of the steeping water one or more times.  When you're cooling your wort, after the boil, you'll need to verify the temperature before pitching the yeast (adding the yeast to your wort).  For these two temperature readings, a floating thermometer is sufficient and you should be able to pick one up for less than $10. Of course, if you have a brew pot with a built in temperature gauge, you might not need a thermometer.

Grain Bags and Hop Socks (optional)

If you’re steeping with speciality grains, you’ll need grain bags to hold the steeping grains.  This is essentially a flexible cloth mesh bag that you can fill with grains and tie off.  I use the disposable ones as you can just toss the bag in the trash when you’re done, but there are also reusable grain bags made of nylon and other materials.

If you’re using leaf hops, you may want to use a hop sock, which is essentially the same as the grain bag and allows you to contain and dispose of the hops easily.  I’ve used these a few times and what I like best about them is that you can wrap them around your nose and breathe in their delightful aroma.

Steeping Grain Bag

Carboy

Once you have finished cooking and cooling your wort, you need to transfer it to your primary fermenter where it will live for the next few weeks or longer depending on the type of beer you're making.  A home brew fermenter can be pretty much anything that is food grade plastic or glass, prevents oxygen absorption, can release pressure from carbon dioxide production and can hold at least 5 gallons of wort.  Most online advice will suggest that you use a glass carboy, however, I recommend using the plastic Better Bottles.  

When I was getting started in brewing I read many horror stories about glass carboys breaking, causing not only awful messes but also serious injuries.  This led me to start with the plastic Better Bottle and I wouldn't recommend anything else.  They are very light, easy to transport, and if you drop them they won't break.  Because they are so durable, you can actually pick them up and shake them to aerate your wort before pitching the yeast.  They are also very easy to clean.  Some hot water and soap with a few shakes usually cleans mine quite well. If you have the choice and the budget, I suggest going with a 6 gallon better bottle over the 5 gallon as it will allow you some extra space for krausen on high gravity brews.

A lot of brewers will also recommend two stage fermentation.  This involves transfering your brew from your primary fermenter to a secondary fermenter after initial fermentation has occurred.   There is a lot of debate as to whether or not secondary fermentation adds enough value to make it worth it.  I suggest starting with a single fermenter and if you decide to start using secondary fermentation you can pick up a second fermenter.

Better Bottle Carboy

Funnel and Filter (optional)

When the wort is ready to go into the carboy, you may wish to use a funnel and filter to get it into the fermenter.  This approach can definitely yield less trub (fragments of grain and hops) in your fermenter, but it can be cumbersome and time consuming as the filter easily becomes clogged and you have to hold the brew kettle to pour the wort through the funnel.  If you have a brew kettle with a spout, this option would work very well.  Otherwise, you can use a siphon and save the funnel/filter option if you want every last drop of your wort. 

Carboy Bung, Blowoff Tubing and Airlock

When your home brew is fermenting in the carboy, you need to protect it from contamination.  This is typically done by sealing the carboy with a carboy bung, which is essentially a rubber stopper with a lip to prevent it from falling inside.  It also has a small hole bored through the middle so that you can insert an airlock or blow off tubing.

Blow of tubing can be used for the first few days to prevent the krausen from backing up into the airlock. Some brew shops sell blow off tubing assemblies for Better Bottles, but you’ll save money if you use your existing bung, and pick up some vinyl food grade tubing from your local hardware store.  

The drilled hole sizes may vary based on the bung.  I took my bung in with me and found tubing that was nice and snug.  Get at least 6 feet...it’s cheap and you don’t want it too short.  After blowoff, you’ll need to seal your carboy with an airlock.  I’ve only used the three piece airlocks, which work great, and you can pick them up for around a buck. 

Blowoff Assembly

Auto Siphon (Racking Cane)

Depending on your home brew process, you may use a siphon one or more times.  I use a siphon to transfer my wort from the brew kettle to the fermenter on brew day and to transfer the fermented beer from the fermenter to the bottling bucket on bottle day.  You’ll need some more tubing to use with your siphon, and again, the tubing size depends on the siphon you get.  I’ve had a few different siphons and they all work the same way.  I wouldn’t recommend going with anything fancy here as the cheap ones work just fine. 

Auto Siphon / Racking Cane

Bottling Bucket, Spigot and Lid

On bottle day, you’ll need to transfer your home brew to a bottling bucket.  For the most part, these all work the same and come with a spigot and lid.  The lid keeps contaminates out while you bottle and the spigot is used to disperse the beer from the bucket to the bottles.  You can also add a spring tip bottle filler which allows you to push it against the inside bottom of the bottle and disperse the beer from the bottom of the bottle.  There are many other bottling options including bottling guns, but these will cost you more.

Bucket

Bottles, Bottle Capper and Bottle Caps

Most home brewers start off by putting their beer in bottles.  I have yet to make the step up to a keg system, and I’m not sure I will anytime soon.  I enjoy having the beer in bottles for storage, portability and the fact that I don’t have 5 gallons of beer on tap, continually tempting me to drink it.  If you’re going the bottle route, you’ll need bottles.  You can buy them or you can use empty bottles from beer you’ve already enjoyed.  See Jason’s great post on home brew bottle sanitation.  

Depending on your exact home brew batch size, you should be able to get between 45 and 50 12oz bottles of beer from a 5 gallon batch. You’ll also need bottle caps and a capper to seal the bottles.  I use a capper (the Red Barron) that came with the kit I purchased and it which works well.  There are fancier ones out there, but I’d rather spend my extra money on ingredients.

Bottle Caps  

Cooling Bath (optional)

When the wort is done cooking, you need to cool it quickly.  Many home brewers use wort chillers, spirals of copper tubing used to transfer heat, but they can be quite expensive and you can easily get by without them.  You’ll need something that can hold water, ice and your brew kettle.  I use one of those large plastic storage bins you can buy at Target after Christmas.  I can cool my 3 ½ (3.5) gallon kettle to 65 degrees within 25 minutes.  I add water and a large bag of ice and place the kettle with lid inside.  I then place the storage bin lid on top and wait.  I check it about every 5 minutes to circulate the water which moves the warmer water away from the kettle walls.  I’ve also tried using the sink and bathtub with no success.

Cooling Bath

Miscellaneous Items

Most everything else you will need to home brew including scissors, can opener, stirring spoon and other items should be readily available in your home. 

That’s it!  Just a few items and you should be well on your way to becoming a home brew master.  Should you buy a home brew kit or just get what you need?   The short answer is, it depends.  Mainly, it depends on what type of home brew equipment you want, and whether there is a kit that has most or all of the stuff you want at a price you want to pay.

In my case, I could have saved around $40 if I had bought the individual items as opposed to a kit.  If you do go the kit route, keep in mind that most kits do not include the kettle.  

Good luck and I hope you find home brewing as enjoyable as I do.

Feb
3
2012

Home Brew Bottle Sanitization

One of the least glamours jobs in home brewing is bottle sanitizing. Cleaning old beer bottles is not only time consuming but extremely boring. There is no smell of malted barley, no fresh hops, no taste tests, just scrubbing beer bottles and waiting. Hopefully these pointers will make the process of sanitizing bottles a little less painful for the home brewer.

First you need beer bottles. You can buy new bottles from your local home brew shop. The nice thing about this is they are clean, don’t have labels, and are all the same shape and size. You can buy beer bottles full of beer. The plus here is they come with free beer, you can’t beat that. You don’t need to remove the labels but I definitely prefer to remove them. Another great way to store your completed home brew is in a keg system but we will save that for another discussion.

If you don’t have labels on your home brew beer bottles or just don’t care you can skip this paragraph. To remove the labels you will need to soak the bottles. I have heard that OxiClean works very well, not just for bottles but many other home brew tasks, i.e. carboys, kegs, kettles, hoses, siphons, etc.. I have only used bleach. Fill your bathtub, plastic tote, or bucket with the cleaner of your choice and put in the bottles. I use a tote outside and fill each bottle with the hose, then when the water lever starts to rise the bottles don’t float, requiring me to submerge the bottle until the air is released. The longer the bottles soak the easier it will be to remove the labels. Some labels will literally just fall off, others will need a little more work. I peel or scrape the label off as soon as I can so the sticky-glue-white-junk can soak as long as possible. I first use a small piece of plastic to scrape the label off and then use a scouring pad to finish the cleanup.

Once the labels are removed you should rinse the bottles with clean water. Much of the glue and label gunk is floating in the water and can remain stuck to your bottles. You also want to make sure to rinse off the OxiClean or bleach. You can do this in another bucket of water, under the faucet, or with a faucet jet bottle washer.

After the labels are removed and rinsed you need to sanitize your home brew bottles. There are numerous ways to do this. You can purchase a bottle pump called a Vinator Sulfiter with Star San. The Vinator Sulfiter will squirt the sanitizing solution into a home brew bottle and then collect the solution for reuse. Just squirt the bottle 3 to 4 times and drain. This is a very simple method and saves lots of sanitizing solution.

Another option is to just fill a bucket with a sanitizing solution like Star San and dunk your bottles in for a few minutes, pull out and drain. This obviously uses much more sanitizing solution. Remember with Star San you should leave the bottle wet. The moment the Star San drys it is not as effective of a sanitizing solution. Leftover Star San in your bottle will not effect your home brew.

You could also put your bottles in the dishwasher and run with a sanitizer or no soap at all. I am not sure that the jets would clean the inside of the bottles so you may want to save this method for outside bottle washing only.

I recently tried the oven and that seemed to work well. I took small pieces of tin foil and covered the top of each bottle. I set the bottle on their side in the oven and slowly brought the heat up to 350 degrees. I did 200 degrees for 10 minutes, brought to 275 degrees for 10 minutes and then 350. I cooked the bottles for 1 hour and then let them cool. Because the tin foil is on the top of the home brew bottle I am able to let these sit for a while before I bottle. I wouldn’t recommend letting them sit too long as the tin foil is not air tight. I am not sure what repeated heated and cooling would do to the glass bottles.

A few other tips, rinse out your beer bottles immediately after pouring out the home brew. I rinse the bottle with hot water and then stick upside down in a dish dryer. That way they are ready to go next time, just need to be sanitized. A bottle dryer is a very convenient tool to have. You can purchase one or make one out of a bread tray, drilling holes in a piece of plywood, or dishwasher tray.

Hopefully these tips will make sanitizing bottles a little less painful. After all the work you put into your brew you would hate to have it fail on the final stretch. Remember to keep it clean and happy brewing!