Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Get Started Homebrewing!

I'm starting a small series on beginning homebrewing that will cover basic equipment, ingredients, procedures, and resources for getting started. The goal is to provide simple, cost-effective methods for starting the hobby.

In this post, I'll cover basic equipment needed for extract brewing and all-grain brewing using the batch sparge method. This post contains affiliate links and I may be paid a commission for clicking on these links.

1. Reference Guide - I highly recommend starting out with "The Joy of Homebrewing" by Charles Papazian. It's an easy read and will help you become comfortable with the brewing process. Read the Beginning and Intermediate sections to get a good understanding of what you'll be doing while brewing.
2. Home Brew Kit - I recommend purchasing a homebrew kit to get yourself set up. This will include most of the equipment you'll need and usually are pretty reasonably priced. You can purchase each item separately, but in my opinion, it's worth simply purchasing a kit with everything in it, then growing your equipment supply from there.
The best value I've found so far is the Gold Complete Beer Equipment Kit (K6) with 6 Gallon Glass Carboy. It's about $85. Whatever kit you buy make sure it includes the following:
  • 6 Gallon Glass Carboy (for primary or secondary fermenting)
  • Bottling Bucket (has a spigot on it that you'll attach a hose to - can also be used as a fermenter)
  • Clear vinyl tubing with a clamp (to attach to bottling bucket spigot; the clamp is to control the flow of the beer into the bottles)
  • Racking cane/clear vinyl tubing (racking is simply transferring wort or beer from one vessel to another, a racking cane is cane shaped rigid tube that you dip into the wort/beer, attach the long vinyl tubing to and siphon out the liquid into another vessel)
  • Bottle capper
  • Stick-on thermomenter (recommend having 2 of these - apply it to the glass carboy and bottling bucket to monitor fermentation temperatures
  • Hydrometer
  • Drilled rubber stopper and air lock
  • Bottle brushes (a straight one for cleaning bottles, and a cane shaped one for cleaning inside the glass carboy)
  • Misc equipment not included in a brew kit: Large funnel and fine wire mesh strainer (for straining the hops/trub out of the wort when transferring from the kettle to the fermenter (if not using hoses).
3. Sanitizer - Additionally, you'll need to pick up a sanitizing solution. Proper sanitization is one of the most important aspects of brewing. I highly recommend Star-San, which is a non-rinse solution. You simply mix a small amount of Star-San with water to make the solution. I use a 32oz spray bottle and keep it on hand at all times. Makes it real easy to sanitize anything. This is available at Northern Brewer by clicking here or your local home brew store. There are other options out there, but this is the simplest, easiest to use and it works amazing! Same stuff used in bars/restaurants to sanitize dishes quickly. I haven't spoiled a single batch due to bacteria and causes no off-flavors in the beer unlike other solutions out there. The foam of the Star-San is actually a yeast nutrient, so leave some in there when you rack your wort into the fermenter and it'll help your fermentations out.

4. Mash Tun - Note: Only need if doing an all-grain brew. If extract brewing, skip this section.
A mash tun is simply what you steep or mash your grains in to extract the sugars from the grain and create the wort that you'll boil. To make one, I recommend following the instructions by Denny Conn Cheap 'n' Easy Batch Sparge Brewing. Essentially, you'll be converting a cooler into a mash tun. Coolers only lose about 1 degree per hour and are a great way to maintain your mash temperatures. Follow these instructions and you'll have a great mash tun for batch sparging.

5. Burner/Kettle - You'll need a propane burner and a kettle large enough to hold all the wort.
First the burner: A lot of people brew in their stoves, which sort of works for extract brewing, since only a small quantity of wort is actually boiled at a time. However, the risk of a boil over is very high and you don't want that mess all over stove and kitchen floor. Also, a kitchen stove will take a very long time to heat water and bring the wort up to a boil. If you use a propane burner outdoors, you don't really have to worry about the mess, and it heats liquids very fast compared to a stove top burner.

Second, the Kettle: You'll also need a large enough kettle to heat water and boil the wort. For extracts, you'll only boil a couple gallons of wort (partial boil), so a smaller kettle is OK, but for full boils (i.e. all-grain), you'll need a larger kettle to contain the full amount of liquid (likely 7 1/2 to 8 gallons). You'll also need enough head space to keep the wort in as it's boiling away. For a partial boil, you'll need at least a 3 to 4 gallon pot. For full boils you'll want a 9 gallon pot to fit everything in it. I have a 7 1/2 gallon pot, so I actually will add in additional wort as it boils off, so I don't actually need a 9 gallon pot.

There are numerous kettles available online. Aluminum is much less expensive than stainless steel and adds no off-flavor to the beer, and from what I've read, there are no negative health effects. But if you have to use stainless, go for it, just be prepared to pay a lot more money for stainless.

Here are my recommendations for a burner/kettle combo at great prices:
Brinkmann Burner with 30 qt Kettle - Just $60 at Amazon (also available at Home Depot)
- This is my current /original set up, although I wish I had the 42 qt kettle listed below. The BTU output is 45,000, which I've found to be fine for my 5 gallon system.
Brinkmann Burner with 42 qt Kettle - Just $85 at Amazon (NOT available at Home Depot) The BTU output on this is 170,000!
If you don't like the idea of using an aluminum stock pot for your kettle, then I recommend a Bayou Classic and purchasing the kettle seperatly. This one reaches 185,000 BTU's.

 6. Chilling -  You'll need a way to chill your wort. The quicker the better to avoid flavor loss and possible contamination. Related post to the various types of chilling methods I describe below can be found here.
Ice Bath: For extract (partial-boil), chilling can be very simple. Since you'll only have 1 1/2 to 2 gallons of wort that is boiling hot, this can be cooled in about 20-25 minutes by simply immersing the kettle in an ice bath. Use a plastic or metal tub and fill that with ice. I'll get into cooling it in a later post. You probably have a tub or bin on hand, so the only real costs here is purchasing 20 to 40 lbs of ice.
Immersion Chiller: A quicker method, that involves a bit more cost is to either purchase or make an immersion chiller (IC) such as this one here. An IC is a copper coil (usually 3/8" ID) that you hook up tap water (garden hose or kitchen faucet). The cool water runs through the copper coil, which cools the wort relatively quickly. A 2 gallon batch could probably be cooled down in 10-15 minutes, but a 5 to 6 gallon batch would still probably take about 45 minutes to an hour. The water could be run through another copper coil immersed in ice to "pre-chill" the tap water before it enters the main immersion to speed cooling.
Plate Chiller: This is the most efficient method and the most expensive method. A plate chiller set up with a pre-chiller copper coil can cool a 5 or 6 gallon batch in 5-10 minutes. The description of how the plate chiller works can be found here. I wouldn't recommend this if your just starting out, start with the ice bath or immersion chiller - you can always convert your immersion chiller into a pre-chiller for your plate chiller.

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