Equipment: La Batterie de Brasserie
A proper sauté pan, for instance, should cause serious head injury if brought down hard against someone’s skull. If you have any doubts about which will dent—the victim’s head or your pan—then throw that pan right in the trash. — Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly
Brewing, like cooking, requires a certain minimum assortment of tools. And just as using a high-end sauté pan doesn’t guarantee great scallops, high-end brewing equipment doesn’t guarantee great beer. In the right hands, good gear can certainly turn out exquisite beer, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you need the fanciest stuff out there.
Compared to other pursuits with which we entertain ourselves, homebrewing demands only modest equipment. Unlike, say, skiing, golf, classic cars, or home theaters, you can make great beer at home with only a small outlay of cash.
You may accuse me of lying if your best friend brews on a stainless steel rig with pumps, hoses, controllers, and enough power to launch half a barrel of barleywine into low earth orbit. And, indeed, there’s no limit to what you can spend. But you don’t need all that much to get started.
Any good homebrewing store should be more than eager to sell you everything you need to get you started. Most will offer a complete starter kit that includes a full range of basic necessities, usually at a favorable discount compared to purchasing it all à la carte. As always, of course, it pays to shop around.
Here are the basic items you need to get started. I describe these in greater detail as we discuss their use throughout the book.
I consider equipment anything that has staying power, things that you buy once or very rarely. A good brew kettle, for example, might last your whole life. A plastic bottling wand, on the other hand, is likely to break at some point, or even become contaminated if it gets scratched. Thus, think of equipment as anything you purchase once with the intent of not purchasing again until the hands of circumstance make doing so a necessity.
Fine mesh strainer
For removing hops after the boil.
You may already have a suitable brew kettle in your kitchen pantry. All you need is a pot of 5 gallons (19 liters) or larger. In a pinch, you can even get away with one as small as 3 gallons (12 liters), but the bigger the better. Stockpots, tamaleras (pots for steaming tamales), and canning pots all make a good brew kettle.
Large spoon or paddle
For stirring, naturally.
If you don’t already own a kitchen timer, most smartphones have a countdown timer built right in. There are also oodles of apps available that will count seconds, minutes, and hours to your heart’s content.
Nylon bags are reusable while muslin bags are disposable. It’s worth buying a couple of mesh nylon bags up front because they have a wide range of uses and can be chucked in the washing machine and reused time and time again. Most also have drawstrings, a welcome feature that keeps floaters out of your beer.
You don’t need a fancy thermometer to get started. An inexpensive meat thermometer is perfect because it covers the window of temperatures of interest to brewers. Avoid candy thermometers, which may sacrifice accuracy in favor of a wide temperature range.
Fermentation vessel with lid or stopper
Most of us start out using a food-grade plastic bucket with a lid. You can use a glass or plastic carboy, too, but you’ll also need a stopper and a funnel. Regardless which you choose, make sure your fermentor has a volume of at least 6.5 gallons (25 liters). I favor the larger 8-gallon (30-liter) buckets used by home winemakers.
This allows carbon dioxide to vent during fermentation, but prevents air from returning, which could potentially harm the beer.
Bottling bucket & wand
These are typically 6.5-gallon (25-liter) food-grade plastic buckets, just like the fermentation vessels. However, bottling buckets have a spigot near the bottom to facilitate bottling, and they rarely come with lids. The wand attaches to the spigot and features a valve that opens when pressed into the inside base of the bottle.
A good hydrometer lets you measure fermentation progress so you know when your beer is ready or when it needs some attention. Trust me, you need one of these. You’ll use it all the time.
For pulling samples from your beer. As the name suggests, you can also use it for wine! Fermtech makes one simply called The Thief that has a unique design that lets you take hydrometer readings right in the thief itself.
Wing-style cappers are the most common for beginners, and they work on the vast majority of bottles you’ll encounter. Bench cappers are sturdier and can cap even oddball bottles, but they are more expensive.
Auto Siphon & siphon tubing
Most of us use a gravity-fed siphon to transfer beer from point A to point B, and this handy device makes starting a siphon a breeze. The simple flexible plastic tubing lets you move wort and beer around quietly and without splashing. Make sure it’s the right diameter for your auto siphon and bottling wand. If possible, try to maintain separate lengths of tubing, about 5 feet (1.5 meters) each, for siphoning and for bottling.
Consumables are those items that you know you’ll need to replace with some regularity. I like to keep a list around (I use a simple Google Doc), and every time I brew, I note how much I have left. Then I either wait or buy accordingly.
Avoid cleaning your brewing equipment with household detergents, which can leave a soapy film that destroys the head on your beer. Instead, turn to Powdered Brewery Wash (PBW) or good old-fashioned as-seen-on-TV OxiClean.
Once you’ve cleaned your brewing equipment using a good cleaner, you have to sanitize it to destroy microorganisms that could potentially contaminate and spoil the beer. The two most popular sanitizers are Star San and Iodophor, both of which require no rinsing when prepared according to the manufacturer’s recommendations.
Dried malt extract (DME)
No need to run out and buy this straight away, but it’s nice to keep some of this around for propagating yeast and adding additional fermentables.
Corn sugar (dextrose)
This stuff has a range of uses in the brewhouse, the most common of which is priming bottles with a small dose of sugar, which yeast eats and transforms into carbonation right in the bottle.
That’s really about it. With just a few basic items, you really can make excellent beer right in your own kitchen.
This is an excerpt from our Illustrated Guide to Homebrewing by Dave Carpenter. Want to read the whole thing? Download it here.