For many, the joy of brewing is in the labor—the ritual and routine that stretch from visualizing a recipe to planning and executing it, while dialing in gear to optimize the output. Drinking the actual beer is great, but few homebrewers I know can actually drink as much beer as they enjoy brewing. It’s part of the equation: Brewing five-, 10-, or 20-gallon batches means giving beer to friends and family if you want to brew as often as you’d like.
For others, the technology and ritual are just means to an end—brewing exactly what you want to drink and doing it from scratch rather than buying someone else’s handiwork. The pride in making something is often tied to the challenge in the process, but the beauty of the finished product—regardless of the effort expended—can also be enough to justify the effort to make, rather than buy, beer.
With this in mind, we’ve enthusiastically tested every iteration of brewing appliance that has come our way. We’re gearheads at heart—we’re curious about how contemporary equipment manufacturers are attacking various problems around the process of homebrewing, from time to quality and ease of use. No, these appliances are not for every brewer; some enjoy themselves more if they do it the hard way. But for other brewers, these simplified devices help retain the joy of making by reducing the time and attention needed.
Enter the BeerMkr, from the team behind BrewJacket (the solid-state fermentation cooling device). It’s a full-fledged brewing appliance, about the size of a large microwave oven, that allows for set-it-and-forget-it brewing of batches a bit bigger than a gallon. You load up the recipe (in pre-measured kits or create your own), then fire up the mobile app and let the machine do the work.
We tested it on a batch of their pre-packaged “Chubby Stout,” and setup was relatively simple and straightforward. It paired easily with the mobile app, moved from its own network to the office wifi, and a detailed explainer video walked through every step of the setup—from screwing valves to the brewing bag to building the grain bed in the plastic malt tray. In less than 15 minutes, we’d set up the machine, loaded it with grain and water, and set it to start brewing. No muss, no fuss.
The idea is clever—brew into a two-stage bag with a lower “waste” bag that detaches, allowing for serving from the main bag. The valves and mash tray are reusable and dishwasher safe for simple cleanup. Sanitizing is done through alcohol wipes on any surfaces that touch beer after the hot-side routine is complete.
The finish quality is good—much of the appliance’s body is plastic, for weight and cost concerns, but it doesn’t feel flimsy or cheap. Doors move with an assured heft and close with a satisfying click. Valves seal correctly and screw on tight. The fit and finish is excellent for a machine under $600.
The kits themselves are well-packaged and thoughtfully designed as well as clearly labeled and easy to understand. The app gives you access to all of the how-to videos to answer questions as you go.
Once the beer is fermented, you move that brew bag over to the included BeerTap. A molded shell holds the bag like a one-way key keg, while the included CO2 cartridge carbonates it. Throw it in the fridge and serve from the attached faucet.
Whether you make great beer is still up to you—there’s enough room in their system for tweaking with personal recipes and developing your own strategies for optimizing beer through the system. But if you just want to make homebrew to enjoy, with a reasonably simple process, BeerMkr is a low-stress way to do it.—Jamie Bogner
Five Star PBW Tablets
Whether cleaning a carboy before sanitizing or soaking a pot before attacking stubborn residue, PBW has long proven to be one of the most reliable and effective brewery cleaners on the market. Downsides: (1) If you brew often and use PBW religiously, the stuff disappears fast while the costs add up; and (2) you need to weigh or measure the powder before dissolving it—and it’s often surprising how much you need.
The new tablets at least simplify the process of going through PBW too quickly. Simply add one 10-gram tab per gallon of water. Five Star also sells a 2.5-gram size meant for 32-ounce quantities—i.e., great for filling spray bottles and growlers or washing glasses. I’ve found that the tablets dissolve easily in hot water.
A 40-count container of 10-gram tablets costs $19.95, while a 50-count of the 2.5-gram size costs $15.95. So that part of the equation remains the same: If you like the stuff—and I’ve long been hooked on the ease of use and peace of mind—then budget accordingly.—Joe Stange
Beer-related grooming products are difficult to execute without coming across as kitschy, but Cincinnati’s Harper’s Hops pulls off the challenging feat with a line of men’s grooming products (pomade, beard oil, lip balm) that perform well, smell great, and exude hand-crafted quality.
The key is the blend, with aromas such as Aged Sweet Tobacco, Sandalwood, and Rich Strop Leather naturally highlighted by light hop flourishes. The pomades perform on par with similar commonly available pomades but capture a bit of apothecary zeal from the subtle alchemy of earthy aromas and hops.
Whether you give them as a gift to that special beer-obsessed someone or just treat yourself, Harper’s Hops are sure to be a hit.—Jamie Bogner