Human beings have been brewing beer for at least the last 5,000 years. Over this time the equipment we’ve used to brew that beautiful beverage has changed somewhat.
Today, we are lucky enough to have access to some of the most up-to-date brewing equipment around, but do you really need to part with your hard-earned cash? What do you really need and what equipment is really worth the investment?
So, not being Mr. moneybags, I’ve asked around to get a better understanding of what other brewers in the community have to say about the equipment they have bought over the years.
I have combined that with my own (in some cases lesser) experience to give you the best guide to how to get the best bang for your buck.
If you are new to brewing, make sure that you read this article before you rush off and invest in anything. For you veteran beer brewers reading this, you might just pick some pearls of wisdom too, so read on!
Introduction to basic equipment for beginners
There are four major stages in brewing beer, with several other processes involved along the way. These are Mashing (when following an all-grain recipe), boiling, fermentation, and maturation (bottle or keg).
The fact of the matter is that brewing beer is, at its heart, fairly basic. However, in order to consistently produce high-quality beer the brewer has to be master of a number of variables and have absolute control over every aspect of each stage in the process. Nevertheless, there are only a few essential pieces of kit that you need to brew beer and everyone should get started with this equipment as a minimum.
The basic equipment every new brewer needs:
- Brew kettle
- bottle capper
- sanitizing solution
In addition to the ingredients, every good starter kit for home brewing should contain each of the above pieces of equipment. Sometimes you need to provide your own brew kettle, but it’s always best to buy a basic kit with EVERYTHING you need to get started. Not sure what’s the best one to go for? Check out a full article I wrote on which kit to choose based on your location.
For most starter kits, the brew kettle, or just kettle, is used to mix the provided ingredients (malt extract and hops) at high temperatures. This is done to release the full flavor of those ingredients. Often the basic kettles provided are too small and can results in undesirable over spills, but for basic equipment, they still do the job! (shop for your brewing ingredients & equipment online at homebrewing.org).
The fermenter is a container, often a plastic bucket and sometimes a glass carboy, which the wort is poured into once cooled after the boiling process. Here it is ‘pitched’ with yeast so that the fermentation process of turning sugars in the wort into alcohol and CO2 can begin. Most good kits will come with an airlock included which allows this gas to escape without oxygen entering your container.
The biggest issue for most first time brewers is that their fermenter is not transparent and so they are tempted to keep opening the lid in order to see what is happening. This can often lead to a bacterial infection in their fermenting wort (check out my article on what to do if your beer tastes funny after brewing it).
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When you have successfully brewed your beer you need to transfer it from your fermenter into another vessel. Sometimes starter kits will come with a bottling or racking bucket as an extra, often you have to transfer the beer from the fermenter directly into the bottles you are using.
A siphon is a long plastic tube which enables you to transfer the beer from one place to another. However, the basic version of this is just a tube and can be awkward to use and many new brewers see much of their first attempt drip onto the floor.
Unfortunately, most starter brewing kits don’t include bottles and when they do they are normally the plastic screw top kind. This is OK for a light lager, but it’s not going to cut the mustard for other beers which require more carbonation.
So, a new brewer will have to buy their bottles or recycle them from commercial beers they already drink. (buy beer from local breweries) Always remember to use bottles intended for beer otherwise you may have beer bottles exploding all over your house. If this has happened to you, then check out my full article on how to fix exploding bottles.
When using flip top bottle caps you need to be able to securely fasten them onto your bottles, this is where a bottle capper comes in. However, you need to use a good one so that you can ensure a tight fit (reduces bacterial infections in the beer) and that you don’t break bottles because of an awkward to use tool.
Perhaps the most overlooked item by most first time brewers but by far the most essential is your sanitizing solution. Although a brand new kit is going to be fairly clean when you start to use it more than once you really do risk infecting your beer with something a little bit nasty. regular and thorough cleaning of all your equipment will ensure that you reduce any off-flavors and bacteria which will do your beer in!
General advice before you buy any brewing equipment
I don’t want you to feel like you have to spend money you don’t have on equipment that is supposed to magically make the best beer in the world. This isn’t the intention of this article. Instead, I have been doing a lot of research into the most important equipment which will make your job as a brewer easier while still focusing on key areas of your brew.
So, the major priorities in brewing as I see them are sanitation (including cleaning) and your yeast. Without an extremely clean set up you are going to inevitably run issues with the quality of your beer. Also, if you don’t play nicely with your yeast then you simply won’t get the results you want. So, these two things should be at the top of your list when thinking about brewing.
Another piece of advice I can give you before we continue is to start small. Add to your brewing equipment over time and don’t just binge on things that you may not actually need (which hopefully after reading this article you won’t do any way). As you brew time and again, you’ll start to see what issues you run into, then buy the right piece of equipment to make that task easier or improve that imperfection. Once everything seems to be working consistently well, you don’t need to buy anything else.
What the experts (brewers like you) recommend you buy:
Brewing equipment: Cleaning & Sanitizing
Cleaning an sanitizing are two different procedures that can be easily confused. Cleaning is removing any dirt or organic buildup on your brewing equipment whereas sanitizing is actively killing the millions of germs/bacteria that are present on your brewing equipment. We do both these things in order to reduce the contamination of our latest brew.
You can save money by using any conventional cleaning product that you have around the house and just giving your equipment the benefit of some real elbow grease. As a rule of thumb, always avoid any cleaning products with any sort of perfume or smell to them. This will stop that odour from being transferred into your next batch of beer. A good option here is called ‘Oxiclean’.
What the professionals use:
There is a specially designed cleaner called ‘Powder Brewery Wash’ or PBW which is specially designed for use in home and commercial brewing. It has absolutely no odor and is very good at removing the types of residue left over in brewing with malts and hops. Check out the availability and current prices on Amazon.
Tips for cleaning:
- Use a soft cloth on kettles and fermented to avoid scratching metal or damaging plastics.
- Use a long brush on bottles to avoid breaking them and injuring yourself.
- Make sure that you rinse your equipment thoroughly after using any cleaning product and leave to air dry before you sanitize
This is the process that can really make or break a beer. No matter how good you are of a brewer in terms of controlling your brew temperatures and quantity of ingredients, unsanitized equipment can trip you up. Not to get all OCD on you, but bacteria are absolutely everywhere. Of course, not all of it is bad, but as a brewer, you really need to declare war on all and every type of bacteria.
Everything, and I do mean everything, which comes in contact with your wort or beer needs to be 100% sanitized. If you happen to put something down while you answer your phone or take a quick pee break needs to be re-sanitized. I cannot emphasize enough how anal you need to be about this!
Again, you can find sanitizers in the home cleaning section of your local supermarket or you can raid the storage area under your kitchen sink. All you really need is normal household bleach, yep that’s right!
Mix about 2 fl oz of normal bleach with 5 gallons of water and you have the perfect amount to soak all our equipment and kill off those pesky germs. The only real drawback of using bleach is that you have to submerge your equipment in it for quite a long time, at least 15 minutes, for it to work properly. Also, you really need to rinse your equipment well to get rid of the chlorine in the bleach which would really play havoc with your beer’s flavor
What the professionals use:
Although bleach is cheap and readily available it takes time to work and you need to be able to fully submerge your equipment for an entire 15 minutes for it to work.
Luckily there are some other sanitizers specially designed for the brewing community which only need to be in contact with the same equipment for 30 seconds. What’s more, they are non-rinse. This means that they won’t add any off-flavors to your beer and you don’t have to worry about rinsing your equipment before using it after sanitizing it. The two most recommended non-rinse sanitizers are IO Star Sanitizer (Idophor) and Star San both from Five Star (check Amazon for current prices)
Tips for Sanitizing:
- If using bleach make sure that you wear gloves and don’t touch your mouth or eyes when handling the solution
- If using a commercial home brewing sanitizer, keep a container handy so that you can quickly dip any equipment which has become contaminated during brewing, then you can use it again more quickly.
Brewing equipment: Mashing
If you are delving into the world of all-grain recipes then you will have to learn how to successfully mash. This isn’t necessary for you if you are following a recipe with an extract base, either dry or liquid.
To crush or not to crush your grains?
Depending on where you source your grains from they will arrive crushed or uncrushed. In order to successfully brew with them, you need to crush your grains so that you break down the kernels without totally damaging the harder husks. The aim is to aid water flow through your grains without the risk of them retainer water and limiting your total wort yield after mashing.
If you have decided to go full ‘house on the prairie’ and do everything yourself (which is possible by using ordinary animal feed) you will need your own grain mill. This is essential if you aren’t going to crush each individual grain by hand.
All good brew shops will have a wide variety of grain mills, but if your log cabin comes with a Prime subscription then why not check out Northern Brewers’s Hullwrecker on Amazon. It’s got a 7-pound capacity and will fit perfectly on most 5 -6.5-gallon buckets.
Using a Mash Tun
Basically, a mash tun is just a container where you place your crushed grains and raise them to the required temperature where the starches contained in them can be converted into sugars, thus making wort.
In theory you could just use a large pot that you have knocking around at home, however, this could just make your life harder later in the brewing process. This is because once the mashing is finished you want to extract as much of the sugary wort from the mashing container as you can without getting lumbered with useless spent grain in your wort. The easiest way to do this is to filter out the wort and leave the spent grain behind. Enter the Mash tun with a false bottom!
A ‘false bottom’ is basically a filter that sits at the bottom of your mash tun. It’s usually made of high-quality metal and is either dome-shaped or has legs that allow it to sit one or two inches off the bottom of the container. The holes drilled through it allows only the liquid wort to pass through.
This is needed as during the sparging process when you are basically rinsing your grain to extract as much sugar as you can, it will settle at the bottom of the mash tun (grain bed). If you didn’t have some sort of filter then all this spent grain would pour into your next container, but with the false bottom only useful wort is transferred and you only lose a small amount of it at the very bottom of the mash tun.
Another thing to consider when looking for a mash tun is whether or not it can maintain the correct temperature for the entire mashing period. Some basic pots and containers will lose heat over time and the mashing will be less efficient, so ideally you need a mash tun which is insulated. A converted cooler is ideal for this purpose as it retains heat (or cold).
It’s fairly easy to build one of these types of mash tuns at home but there are some drawbacks to DIY brewing equipment in the form of leaks and low-grade non-food standard materials. So, if in doubt I recommend you invest in a good quality mash tun from your local brew shop or from Amazon. The brewers I spoke to all agreed that 5-gallon Igloo Cooler Mash Tun is a good affordable choice as is the 12-gallon Northern brewer Insulated Cooler All Grain Starter Kit if you are brewing larger batches. You could also go down the stainless steel route and Northern brewer also has an excellent all grain system for this called the MegaPot 1.2 for 8 to 30-gallon brews, but honestly, in most cases, it just isn’t called for.
Pro Tip: Get a water report
Your local government authority will be able to give you access to the latest analysis of your local areas water supply. In the report it will give you details about the quality of the water and most importantly its PH level. This can really help you improve the quality of your beer but it’s not something that new brewers should be too concerned with at the beginning of their brewing career.
Brewing equipment: Boiling
Once you have mashed and sparged your wort for an all-grain recipe you are ready to start boiling up your wort and your hops and other adjuncts. If you are using a malt extract, this is where your brewing begins.
The main purpose of boiling up your wort is to release the flavor from the hops as well as to sterilize it and stop enzymes from continuing to work as we wanted them to do during mashing. It’s also a way to concentrate your wort and remove protein as well as getting rid of some unpleasant aroma from the mashing phase.
An average boil is going to take around 6 minutes, and when you are trying to keep around 5 gallons of liquid that hot for that long, you are going to use a hell of a lot of energy to do it. Even just getting the wort to simmer will take a lot of gas. So, if you are planning to boil your wort on top of a conventional gas stove, be prepared to wait around for quite a while before you can start your stopwatch.
A tip that most veteran brewers will give any newbie who is getting onto their third or fourth batch is to invest in a propane burner. They don’t mean the sort of thing that you would cook pasta on while camping with friends or family, they mean a specially designed burner for homebrewing.
A really good option if you don’t want to work with the infamous turkey cooker option is to look at the Dark Star Propane Burner from Northern Brewers. Make sure that you only use this outside as it would be highly dangerous to use this inside!
Most starter kits when they do include a boil kettle often only give you a vessel a little larger than the 5 gallons you are aiming to boil. In fact, for a 5-gallon yield, you are going to need to boil more liquid as it will evaporate off over the course of an hour-long boil.
The major issue with not having a lot of room to play with in terms of the capacity of your boil kettle is that boil overs will be common. This isn’t great! When your wort begins to boil it may start to foam up, this is called the hot break. Some brewers mistakenly try to scrape this off or even allow their wort to boil over. This is bad because we actually want that foam to reduce back down into our wort later.
The best piece of advice here is to get yourself a boil kettle which is vastly bigger than the quantity you are brewing. As a rule of thumb for most homebrewers, an 8 to 10-gallon boil kettle will enable you to boil your wort (lid off of course) and not worry about it boiling over or losing that precious hot break foamy goodness.
Again, check out your local brew shop first to see if they have any good deals and also check out eBay for a second-hand one. You might get lucky. Failing that, after much debate with other homebrewers around the world, I can say that the consensus is that you can’t go far wrong with the Edelmetall Bru Kettle which comes with a valve bulkhead, whirlpool port and also a thermometer. It also comes in a range of capacities, but you don’t need to go beyond a 10-gallon version really.
Brewing equipment: Fermenting
The fermentation of your wort into beer is the MOST important phase of brewing regardless of whether it’s your first ever brew or you have been doing it for years. If you are going to invest any money, invest it first into the equipment used for fermenting.
One of the biggest errors that many first time or new brewers make is to pitch their wort with yeast before it has cooled down enough. This effectively kills the living yeast and means that fermentation is either limited or non-existent. Of course, you can allow your wort to cool naturally as brewers did for thousands of years. However, this is going to put it at risk from a bacterial invasion, which is bad news.
In order to minimize the exposure of your wort as it cool and before you transfer it to the relative safety of your fermenter, you need to cool it down as quickly and efficiently as you can. Enter the wort chiller!
Although you can place your kettle into a bath of ice, the best and more controllable method is to use a high-quality wort chiller. This is basically a coiled copper pipe attached to an input and output hose. You pass cool water through the immersion wort chiller and the heat of the wort is transferred through the copper into the water which is then flushed out of the hose to be replaced by cool water coming in. It’s very efficient and much quicker than waiting for the wort to cool naturally.
Northern Brewer has a good range of wort chillers through their website or on Amazon. Check out the Copperhead as a good place to start.
If you are a member of an online forum or Facebook group the most common question is “does this look infected” upon the most common answer is “close that lid!”.
Most new brewers, and quite rightly, begin with a basic beer kit. You can get one for about $50. However, these very basic kits give you a plastic fermenting bucket that you can’t see through. Half the fun of your first brew is to watch as the wort changes and things begin to happen. The problem here is that by continually opening the bucket up you are risking the introduction of bacteria into it. So, what’s the solution?
Get a see-through plastic or glass fermenter or carboy. This way you can see exactly what is going on without having to drink funky tasting beer later. A really good and affordable option on Amazon is a Big Mouth Bubbler carboy which has a built-in spigot and a 5-gallon capacity. Alternatively, you can go to your local brew shop and check what they have in stock.
Although there is nothing wrong with getting a plastic fermenter, PET is still porous and this can allow oxygen to enter a fermenter over time. The absolute best quality carboy you can buy would be a glass one. They are also easier to clean and generally don’t transfer flavors over as much as plastic does. If you are buying a kit for the first time then maybe splurge on the Northern Brewers starter kit which comes with glass carboys as standard, they are totally reusable!
For the first few batches that you brew worrying about the exact temperature of your fermentation just isn’t worth the stress. However, as you get more into the hobby and start using more temperamental yeast strains, for Belgian ales, for example, temperature control will shoot to the top of your list of concerns.
The major issue here is that even if you are the master of the ambient temperature in your brewing space, your fermenting wort will actually heat up due to the process, so you could be out of your fermenting range by as much as 5 degrees.
So, you need to be able to heat up your fermenting wort when need and cool it down as required. But, using the more rudimentary techniques of ice baths and wet towels for cooling and heaters for raising the temperature requires a lot of observation on your part. Is there another way? Yep!
By investing in a conventional refrigerator which will hold your carboy/fermenter as well as a heating unit you will have the two pieces of kit you need. The secret sauce is using a temperature control unit to switch on your cooling and heating equipment as necessary. The most widely recommended one when I asked my fellow brewers was the
Inkbird Dual Stage Digital Temperature Controller
The Inkbird unit works with the conventional refrigerator by turning it on when the temperature climbs above a certain amount and with a heating unit, I recommend Northern Brewers’ FermoTemp Electric Fermentation Heater, which you tape directly onto the carboy itself.
By taking more control over the temperature you ferment your wort at you can see a huge change in the efficiency of your yeast and the overall quality of your beer. If you really only had enough money to spend it on this part of your brewing inventory, then it would be money well spent and really enough to be getting on with for the foreseeable future.
Brewing equipment: Racking
Racking is the brewer’s term for transferring wort or beer from one vessel to another. In most recipes today this is only called for between mashing and boiling, boiling and fermenting and then fermenting and bottling or kegging your nearly finished beer.
In most cases and for most brewers you don’t need any more advanced equipment that an auto-siphon. This is a simple and inexpensive device which enables liquid to flow unaided from one vessel into another.
It works by pumping the device a few times to start the suction effect, then you just watch as your wort or beer quickly transfers into your next container ready for the next stage of your brewing process.
I highly recommend the Fermtech Mini Deluxe as it is not only fairly compact but it also comes with a bottling wand which avoids spillages when bottling. It can also be used to transfer liquid from any vessel into another.
Brewing equipment: Storing your beer
Storing your beer is also an important stage in the brewing process especially during the initial bottle conditioning process or forced carbonation in a keg. After that, it’s worth considering how you can store your beer at the optimum temperature to prolong its shelf life.
If you have opted to bottle your beer and go through the bottle conditioning process, make sure that you are using the right types of bottles. Some beers, especially Belgian varieties, are under extreme pressure due to the level of carbonation present in the bottle. If you don’t choose the correct strength bottle then you may not like the results.
A really cheap option is to recycle beer bottles of the same commercial beer you are trying to brew at home. Just clean them and sanitize them before use.
Alternatively, I would recommend getting yourself some flip-top beer bottles from your local brew shop or from Amazon. They are easier to use as you don’t have to fiddle around with a capper. The flip-top gives a very good seal and it will work for most beer varieties.
Kegging your beer
There is a lot of debate in the homebrewing community over whether or not a new brewer should keg their beer or bottle it. For my part, I would say don’t worry about this until you’ve brewed at least five or six times. By this point, you’ll know whether it’s something you want to invest more time and effort into.
When you do want to try kegging, you need to buy three main things:
- A keg (Ball lock, Pin lock or Sankey)
- A CO2 gas canister with regulator
- A cooling unit (an old fridge is just fine.
Kegging has some advantages over bottling your beer, namely the fact that it’s less hands-on (no capping, etc) and it also takes a lot less time, you simply fill the keg and then start carbonating it with the CO2.
For more details why not head over to my article about exactly what you need for a fully functioning kegging system at home. I researched the best options over the course of a couple of weeks and compiled all the information I found into one essential guide. Check it out here.
Brewing equipment: Enjoying your beer
If you have gone down the kegging route, then there is nothing better than going the full hog and either making or buying a kegerator. This is a system that keeps your beet cool why allowing you to pour yourself a beer directly from the unit itself. If nothing else, they look really cool when you bring your buddies around for a home-brewed beer.
As I said, there are plenty of guides around to help you convert an old refrigerator into your own homemade kegerator, but it can be fiddly and takes time and effort to complete. Alternatively, you can just buy one online. Although it may cost a pretty penny, they are built to last and can really make a home bar awesome. Check out the Kegco HBK309B-2K Kegerator on Amazon
Brewing equipment: Additional tools/accessories
Some additional equipment which you might find useful on your brew day and racking day are: