In the previous two parts of this series we’ve covered the basics and the ingredients needed to start making your own beer at home. And as you already know, it doesn’t take much to make a tasty brew - just make sure to source the main ingredients and you’re all set, right? Well, let’s not forget about another very important aspect of homebrewers that many beginners find quite intimidating - equipment.
Equipment plays a rather important role in the process of making beer. But at the same time, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll have to invest thousands of dollars into hardware in order to be able to brew good beers. With just a simple brewing pot, plastic fermenter, and several tools for bottling the beer you will be able to make your own beer without having to source sophisticated hardware or build a system from scratch. Not that a good and sophisticated system won’t help you get better results.
It’s best to use an analogy with musical instruments: a good guitar player can make even the cheapest guitar sing like an angel, whereas a newbie won’t be able to put out a decent sound even with the most expensive custom shop axe. The same goes for brewing: once you accumulate skill, knowledge, and experience, you will be able to use your ingredients in many creative ways with the equipment you know how to work with. Still, there are some basic elements to any homebrew setup that should always be present to get the job done. Let’s take a look at each of them, and cover additional pieces of hardware your brewing system may employ.
This is a piece of equipment that is simply a must, since you won’t be able to make beer without boiling it first. A boiling kettle is simply a pot that is able to hold enough of the liquid for a single batch with some extra space. For example, when doing standard 5 gallon homebrew batches, the overall volume of the kettle should be at least 6 gallons in order to prevent boil-overs. Having a lid is optional, though strongly recommended as it will help you get any liquid inside the kettle to a boil much faster.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s an old grandma’s stock pot she used for making soup or a brand new stainless steel kettle with Tri-clad bottom, ball valves and temperature gauge, as long as the pot is able to hold the liquid without leaks and take some heat either from natural gas, electric burner, induction stove, or any other source of energy you’re using in your kitchen, you’re good to go. This element of the brewhouse is needed regardless whether you’re using extract, partial mash, all-grain, or brew-in-a-bag methods, since it allows you to boil the wort and add the hops while doing it.
This is where your wort will turn into actual beer with the help of yeast, and that’s another piece of hardware you won’t be able to go without. There’s a huge variety of materials, designs, shapes, and prices respectively when it comes to fermenters, but the core essence is the same - it’s an airtight vessel that is able to hold the beer during longer periods of fermentation without letting air inside (which is usually achieved through the use of an airlock).
Commercial breweries use stainless steel conical tanks with insulation jackets that allow precise temperature control, ease of cleaning, and yeast harvesting, and you may find similar designs available for homebrewers as well at rather hefty prices. Having such a piece of equipment sure is nice, but if you’re just starting out and don’t want to spend a fortune, just go with a simple plastic bucket or glass carboy that will be placed into the basement or closet. Even with such simple hardware you will be able to make amazing beers.
These two elements are essential for making beer, even if you’re starting with the most basic recipe kits and extracts. There’s just no way you’ll be able to make a batch of beer without a boiling kettle and a fermenter. Now, with the following items making beer will be much easier, but they aren’t as essential as the two mentioned above:
A bottling bucket allows you to bottle your beer, obviously. This task could also be performed straight from the fermenter, however the yeast sediment will make it much more complicated and tricky. A bottling bucket allows you to rack the beer off the yeast and usually has a small valve at the bottom designed for filling bottles. Very convenient and simple, and it usually doesn’t cost that much to get.
Another piece of hardware that has a self-explanatory name. In theory, having a wort chiller is a must, since you always need to cool down the wort from boiling to room temperature before pitching yeast, otherwise the organisms will simply die and there will be no beer. However, in practice there are many ways for replacing the chiller, such as using an ice or cold water bath, filling your kitchen sink with ice and placing the pot there, or taking the pot covered with lid outside if you’re brewing during the winter and it’s a proper Canadian winter. A proper wort chiller will help you cool down the wort much faster, but there are ways of performing this task without it.
Mash / Lauter Tun and Hot Liquor Tank
These two pieces of equipment are essential when making all-grain beer, yet even with that you can use the Brew-In-A-Bag method to get a proper mash. A mash tun is simply a pot with a false bottom that allows you to filter the wort from the spent grains. A hot liquor tank is just a fancy name for a stock pot that is used to heat the water that goes to the mash tun for mashing and sparging. There are many designs for these two vessels and you will find various ways they are integrated into brew systems. But for your first homebrew trials you definitely don’t need any of the two, especially when using extract or recipe kits.
An essential tool for all-grain homebrewers, a mill allows you to crush the grains into a form suitable for mashing (mixing with hot water) that ultimately converts starch into sugar for the yeast to process. Even a simple manual grain mill can prove to be a considerable investment from the financial point of view, so for beginners it’s recommended to either stick with malt extracts or use pre-crushed grains available at most homebrew shops, before you actually feel the need to crush your own grains.
There are other pieces of hardware used in homebrewing besides the ones mentioned above, each having precise application and the ability to make the process easier for the brewer. But if your main intent is to see what homebrewing is all about, and you don’t want to spend a lot of money in order to find out if it’s right for you, these recommendation will certainly prove to be helpful. Now all you gotta do is simply start brewing and see what your personal brewing needs are.