Brewing beer can be done extremely inexpensively. That being said, ultimately, brewing your own beer shouldn’t be about getting cheap beer, it should be about brewing a good beer, and having fun doing it.
When I started brewing, I was out of work. I had been interested in brewing beer for a while, but hadn’t made the leap to actually doing it. As much fun as it is to search for job openings, send out resumes, call prospective employers, I needed something else to help occupy some of my time. Unfortunately, being out of work, I was on a bit of a tighter budget, so a lot of hobbies were out of the question. Brewing, on the other hand, was inexpensive, and can be as little or as much time-consuming as you really want it to be.
I made my first batch of beer for roughly $35, and that included equipment that would be reusable through a number of brews. Admittedly, I did luck out a bit. My grandfather had been a homebrewer, so I got a carboy (a big, glass bottle) as well as some other equipment from him, and my dad had an old turkey fryer he had sworn off using, but had kept immaculately clean on the inside (the outside of the pot was a different story, but that’s far less important.) That left me with buying a cheap ingredient kit for $20 and another $15 worth of equipment to buy.
What do you need?
When it comes down to it, there are really only two pieces of equipment you need in order to brew your first batch of beer (one, if you really want to dumb down the process.)
The first thing you need is a pot to boil the wort (unfermented beer, pronounced wûrt.) Ideally, you want to be able to do a full boil, boiling all of the water for the beer, which, for a 5 gallon (20qt.) batch, you’d likely want at least a 7 gallon pot. Most people don’t have a 7 gallon pot on hand, and even if they do, boiling 5+ gallons of water on your stove can be extremely difficult, so you can do what is called a partial boil, boiling a smaller volume of wort and then topping off with additional water when you transfer it to the fermenter (see below). To do a partial boil, you should make at least 2 gallons of wort, so you’ll want roughly a 3 gallon pot.
Possibly the best route to go for a brew pot is to get one of these: Brinkmann 815-4001-S Turkey Fryer. The pot is big enough to do a full boil, and it comes with a propane burner, so you don’t have to try to boil 5+ gallons of liquid on your stove. You can also find turkey fryers on craigslist fairly frequently, especially after Thanksgiving in the US, but make sure the inside of the pot is spotless if it’s used. You don’t want any old, cooked on grease in the pot as it’ll ruin the beer.
Now, I did mention being able to skip one piece of equipment if you’re really trying to do this in a minimalistic fashion. There does exist no-boil beer kits like this one: Coopers Brewmaster Selection India Pale Ale No Boil Home Brew Beer Kit. If you use one of these, you wouldn’t need to have a pot to boil the wort in. That being said, I’ve never tried one of these myself, and I’ve never heard of anyone being terribly impressed with the end result.
The second thing you’ll need is something to actually ferment the beer in. You have a couple of choices here. I personally use a glass carboy, like this one: 6.5 Gallon glass carboy. You can also use a plastic bucket like this one: 6.5 Gallon plastic fermenter with lid. They also make a plastic bottle similar to the glass carboy: 6 Gallon Better Bottle. There are some pros and cons to any of those choices, and I might go into those pros and cons in another post, but for the most part, they work the same. You put your wort into the fermenter, add yeast, wait a few days and the yeast will have converted the sugar into alcohol and you’ll have beer. I do suggest that no matter what you use for a fermenter, it should be at least 6 to 6.5 gallons in size for a 5 gallon batch. While the wort is fermenting, you’ll likely get a lot of foam on top (for ales anyway), and if the fermenter is too small, it will spray out the top of the fermenter.
So, those are the two things you absolutely need. Lets go over a few things that you really should have for your first batch of beer, but aren't absolutely necessary.
You’ll need an airlock like this one: 3 Piece Plastic Airlock (Sold in sets of 3). If you get a carboy or a better bottle, you’ll also need an appropriately sized rubber stopper with a hole drilled through it, like this: Drilled Rubber Stopper (Carboy Bung Sets of 3). If you’re using something like the bucket listed above, it should already have a hole drilled in the lid with a rubber grommet for the airlock to go into. The airlock allows the gasses created by the fermenting beer to get out, while stopping air and other things from getting in.
You’ll want a sanitizer. While regular soap can clean your equipment well, sanitizer kills all bacteria, mold and fungus that might compete with your yeast for the tasty sugars in the unfermented wort. Even if you don’t see anything on your equipment, there are still microscopic organisms that will feast on the sugar, and even the alcohol the yeast converts the sugars into. The sanitizer will kill all of unwanted organisms, so the yeast can do its job without any interference.
You can use a mild bleach solution for this, but you would then want to rinse out the bleach with sterilized water as the bleach will create off-flavors in the beer, and bleach isn’t terribly good for you to ingest. I personally like to use Star San, but I also use Iodophor. Both Star San and iodophor are no-rinse sanitizers. You rinse your equipment in the sanitizer, pour it our and then you can immediately introduce the equipment to the wort or beer without rinsing off the equipment.
Iodophor is basically iodine, and can stain your equipment, your counter tops, your hands (if used improperly) but Star San is extremely slipperly, and foams up a lot. Some people don’t like how much Star San foam remains in their fermenter after pouring out the sanitizer. They fear it will somehow create off flavors in the beer. I’ve never had any issues with Star San, and as Star San advocates like to say, “don’t fear the foam”. The leftover star san will actually break down into nutrients for the yeast.
You’ll want some way to get the beer into bottles. A bottling bucket is a great way to do that: Bottling Bucket with Spigot. Some people do use a fermenter with a spigot and bottle directly from the fermenter. If you’re using a glass carboy or a fermenter without a spigot, you’ll want a bottling bucket.
Along with the bottling bucket, the bottling wand (Spring Loaded Beer Bottle Filler) is a great way to get the beer into bottles that minimizes spillage and keeps you from introducing too much oxygen into the beer. You’ll also want a short piece of vinyl hose to connect the bottling wand to the spigot on the bottling bucket.
If your fermenter isn’t also your bottling bucket, you’ll need a way to transfer the beer from the fermenter to the bottling bucket. Typically, this is done with a racking cane (Racking Cane - 3/8 inch x 24 inches long). You’ll also need a few feet of vinyl hose (5 feet should be plenty). Make sure you get a nice tight fit between the racking cane and the vinyl hose or you’ll end up leaking beer or introducing oxygen to the beer.
Even better than a plain racking can is an autosiphon (Auto-Siphon - 3/8"). The autosiphon starts transferring the wort to the bottling bucket without you needing to manually sucking or blowing the beer through the hose. When I first started brewing, the autosiphon was significantly more than a racking cane, but the price has come down a lot.
The hydrometer (Hydrometer - Triple Scale) is one of the most important, yet most overlooked pieces of equipment for homebrewing beer. The hydrometer allows you to measure how much dissolved sugar there is in your wort before it’s fermented into beer, and more importantly, will tell you when your beer is finished fermenting. A lot of beginners overlook the hydrometer because they figure they don’t need to know how much dissolved sugar is in the wort or they don’t care about calculating how much alcohol is in the beer, but the really important part is being able to tell when the beer is done fermenting. Bottling your beer before it’s done fermenting can lead to exploding bottles.
Far less important than the hydrometer, but still good to have is a thermometer (Dial Thermometer). Go for one that will show you at least 30ºf at the low end and 220ºf at the high end. Digital thermometers are great as long as they’re accurate.
When your beer is done fermenting, you’ll want some way to store the beer. Traditionally, this is done with bottles (24 12oz Amber long neck bottles). The bottles can really be any size, and can even be plastic, but you want to stay away from clear or green bottles. Amber/brown bottles, or even black are your best bet as they keep out UV light, which causes beer to go skunky. You know the odd, skunky flavor that imported beer in green bottles has, that’s not caused by the brewing process, it’s caused by UV light reacting with the beer and turning it skunky.
If you’re going with 12-oz bottles like the ones in the link, you’ll want around 50. Don’t get the screw-top glass bottles, the type of capper you’re likely to get won’t apply the cap properly, so the cap will either leak, or the bottle will break.
If you’re getting glass bottles like the ones linked above, you’ll need bottle caps (Gold Crown Bottle Caps (1 gross, 144 caps)). They also make oxygen absorbing bottle caps if you really want to keep the O2 out of your beer.
And finally, if you’re using glass bottles, you’ll need a special tool to apply the caps. Red Baron Bottle Capper. The linked bottle capper is known as a wing capper. You can also get a bench capper (Super Agata Bench Bottle Capper), which is easier to operate, but tends to be a lot more expensive.
Buying a kit
If you’ve got the money to do so, buying a kit like this: Home Brewing Equipment Kit with Carboy & Instructional Beer Making DVD, will get you a lot of the way toward having everything you need. You may periodically find deals on group deal sites like Groupon for homebrew kits, and you can check out craigslist for people selling their old homebrew equipment. If you do buy used equipment from craigslist, be careful with any plastic/rubber equipment that it comes with as it’s possible for the plastic to become “infected” with bad bacteria either through neglect, or intentionally done (I don’t mean people are maliciously selling homebrew equipment that they’ve intentially infected with bad bacteria. There are some types of beer that call for using various wild yeasts like brettanomyces, but then that equipment should only be used for beer you intentionally want infected). It won’t likely hurt you, but it can cause your beer to turn out bad.
If you do buy a whole kit, go back through the list of things I’m recommending you buy to figure out if there are any gaps you’ll need to fill in.
Next week’s post will be far shorter. I’ll be talking about how to pick your first recipe.