The good folks over at Serious Eats have a great rundown of the equipment you’ll need to get started. I don’t use much optional equipment – just two carboys that I use for secondary fermenters (I’ll talk about that in a moment). I do crave a kettle and wort chiller like nobody’s business.
To a novice, the list of essential equipment can seem long and intimidating. I’ll explain what everything does to get you ready to brew your first batch of beer. I’ve included thumbnail photos or links to each item I discuss.
The Brew Kettle
You need something here that is large enough to contain between 2 and 5 gallons of boil over-prone liquid. I use a Granite Ware enameled steel canning pot that I got at Target, and it works great. More advanced users will want (and I desperately crave) the big stainless steel pots with neat ball valves and integrated thermometers and the like, but these can run in the low three figures, price-wise. Granite Ware is not hugely expensive, and if you get a canning pot, you could also do some home preservation on the side.
You’ll also need a good-quality thermometer that is accurate in the 130-190°F range. I use one with a stainless steel probe and a silicone-coated cable, mainly because that’s what I had on hand. If you really want to go whole-hog, you can get a big coil of copper pipe called a wort chiller (wort is what your beer is before you add yeast). You want to cool the wort down as fast as possible; I put my pot in the sink with the contents of my ice tray, but one can use a wort chiller as well. If I get one, I’ll tell you how it works in comparison.
The Fermenting Vessel
Most home brewers start out with a basic 6-gallon food-grade bucket and airlock stopper (allowing air out but not in) as their fermenting vessel. Don’t be tempted to just steal a bucket from the back of a restaurant, though – food-grade buckets are made of a plastic that is somewhat porous and moderately soft. This means they scratch easily (making a home for bad bacteria) and they absorb odors. Unless you really want a pickle-and-lactobacillus-flavored beer, your best bet is to get an unused bucket from a home brewing store. Your beer will sit in this guy for six or seven days, and then either bottled or moved to the secondary fermenter. From what I’ve seen, home brewers who use the food-grade buckets for their primary fermenter replace it every 10 to 30 batches just in case there are incidental scratches or unpleasant odors.
The next step up from this is a carboy, a large jug similar to what sits on the water bubbler at your office. These are made from glass or a harder plastic (PET is your best bet here). Some home brewers use this as their primary fermenter, but almost all use a carboy for their secondary tank. There are trade-offs between glass and plastic, of course. Glass is heavy and breakable, but it is hard to scratch and it’s as near to nonporous as you can get. Nonporous is good because it reduces the chance of unpalatable flavors getting into to your beer. The other option here is plastic; I use a Better Bottle, which the manufacturer claims is “BPA and phthalate/plasticizer free” and nonporous. The top tier of carboys is a stainless steel model – that’s super expensive, and I won’t talk about it here except to say that I crave one like you wouldn’t believe.
For bottling, a basic starter kit usually has another 6-gallon bucket, this time with a spigot plugged into the lower part of the side. The kit will also generally come with a racking cane – a pipe with a crook in it that assists in siphoning the beer around, and appropriately sized vinyl plastic tubing. If your kit does not come with a bottling wand (another length of hard plastic tubing with a little jiggle stopper in one end), get one. It makes bottling much easier. I almost never use the spigot on the side of the bottling bucket, mainly because I like the added control that the wand gives me. Don’t worry, I’ll talk more about bottling techniques in a future article. The final piece of bottling equipment is a bottle cap applicator. I prefer the double-lever model, but play with a few in the home brew store and see what feels best to you.
A basic kit will usually come with a simple float hydrometer for measuring the specific gravity of your liquid. You’ll use this to determine the amount of fermentable sugars in your wort, and to figure out when fermentation is done – and also to estimate the percentage of alcohol in your final product. I have gotten lazy and rarely use the hydrometer, but once you advance to all-grain recipes, it will be your friend.
The other piece of equipment that you’ll have to collect yourself is the final home of your beer – bottles. Before you start your first homemade beer, ask your friends to start saving brown glass bottles for you. You’ll need about 55 longneck bottles, not twist-offs. Brown glass is best because it blocks the wavelengths of light that can spoil beer (and if you’re drinking out of clear glass, you’re not drinking good beer). If you can get the boxes too, then you’ve got a perfect storage system. One of the wonderful things about home brewing is that you reuse bottles over and over again. It’s even more efficient than recycling them.
If you don’t have a good place to rest your fermentation tank at temperature (between 65 and 75 degrees F), go to a gardening store and pick up a seedling heating pad (I’ve got this one). It provides continuous gentle heat at around 70 degrees, which washes out to a nice 65 or so under 5 gallons of liquid, and is designed to be dampened on occasion, unlike your run-of-the-mill electric blankets.
This is a contentious subject among brewers, and it ultimately comes down to personal preference. The main ways to sanitize your bottles are with iodine, acid, steam and heat. NEVER EVER use high heat on bottles as it can induce thermal stress, and you’ll get exploding bottles. My personal preference for general sanitization is Star-San acid, as I can taste the iodine (plus iodine stains are incredibly difficult to remove from any surface). I sanitize my brewing equipment with the acid wash, and I run my bottles through a (detergent-free) cycle in my dishwasher which, handily, has a steam option.
Next time, your first brew day! We’ll be making an oatmeal stout. Feel free to post any questions you have, and I’ll try to answer them.