Equipment for the extract homebrewer

Warning: Long Post

This post is for a friend of mine whose wife is due to give birth any day now. He texted me somewhat frantically one morning, writing that he wasn’t going to be going to the pub much in the near future and would I please send him a list of the equipment he needs to start brewing. I texted back that I would put a list together and post it here and hey presto! today’s blog post was born.

This list is assuming a number of things:

1) you have a pretty much standard 21st century kitchen: stove, refrigerator/freezer unit, sink, and some counter space,
2) you are going to be brewing from malt extract with specialty malts (not all-grain) – this is how I currently brew,
3) you are going to be brewing ales (not lagers, which require colder fermentation temperatures and refrigeration as part of their conditioning),
4) you are going to bottle (not keg) your beer.

I am going to break this down into seven categories:

1) a book (or books)
2) pots
3) brewing tools
4) cleaning agents
5) fermenters and airlocks
6) racking and bottling gear
7) miscellaneous

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Books

Get a book. Or get several. A book will be your companion and friend and your resource when you can’t remember what to do next or you get into trouble. There are a lot of books available that describe home brewing in excruciating detail now, and I am not familiar with most of them. Books will be the subject of a future blog post (or posts) on Beer in Nashville soon but I am sharing here three I am familiar with, pictured above. Two are classics by Charlie Papazian: The Complete Joy of Homebrewing (1983) and The Homebrewer’s Companion (1994). These books date me and the advent of my homebrewing hobby. I am sure they are quite outdated now; The Complete Joy of Homebrewing Fourth Edition: Fully Revised and Updated is due to be released on September 30, 2014. I am looking forward to reading it. Charlie is an entertaining writer, and he is passionate and humorous about beer. He is also the godfather and midwife of the American homebrewing movement. His mantra “Relax. Don’t worry. Have a homebrew.” got me through a lot of times when I didn’t understand or trust what what going on with my brewing, and he was almost always right.

How to Brew (2006) by John J. Palmer is a more contemporary overview of our hobby. It was recommended to me by the folks at All Seasons, the hydroponics and brewing store I frequent. I have found it to be readable, clear, and comprehensive – check it out!

There are a lot of resources on the internet now – websites, blogs, videos, etc. – by all means, make use of them! But a good book will be helpful when you are in a pinch, and reading and rereading will greatly assist your understanding of the process and refine your technique. More about beer and homebrew books is coming your way soon on Beer in Nashville, stay tuned!

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Pots

What else did you think you would be brewing in? Probably you will only need to purchase one pot – your brew pot, which will be a dedicated piece of equipment. The others you will use may already be part of your kitchen. The three pots pictured above are what I use for most brew days: the pot on the back left burner is a two gallon pasta cooker I use to steep grains in, the one gallon pot on the front left I use to heat water to sparge those grains with, and on the right is my brew pot. Get a good quality stainless steel brew pot – it’s going to have to stand up to some heavy use. I am pretty sure my brew pot is a four gallon.

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Brewing Tools

Some of the miscellaneous items you will need you probably already have and some you will have to purchase specifically for your home brewery. I use a large mixing bowl to soak various pieces of hardware and siphon hoses in cleaning solution, a sieve for sparging, measuring cups for several tasks (sometimes including measuring), and measuring spoons (usually for measuring). Every homebrew book you will read will tell you to use a stainless steel spoon to stir your wort but I am still using the charismatic wooden spoon I bought for my first batch, and I never use it for anything other than brewing beer.

You will need a scale to weigh hops, malt extract, and adjuncts. My advice is to go ahead and get a good digital scale. It will be more expensive than some alternatives but it will be more precise and it will result in more accurate records and in the long run, better beer. The one I use (pictured above) is accurate to 1/20 ounce (.05 oz.), which will be adequate for home brewing.

You will need a thermometer to measure the temperatures your wort at stages in the process, and you will need a hydrometer to measure the specific gravity of the wort before and after fermentation, to determine if it is ready to bottle, and to calculate your beer’s ABV.

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Cleaning Agents

You will be cleaning and sanitizing everything that comes in contact with your beer. This is the most important thing you can do to ensure your beer turns out well. Clean and sanitize everything! For this you need two cleaning agents: a cleaning product and a sanitizer. In the early days I used bleach, which stank. I soon graduated to a product called “B – Brite” which I do not think is available any longer. B-Brite is a percarbonate cleanser, and you can read more details about this in Palmer’s book. There are several on the market. I currently use “Easy Clean” with excellent results. It’s a powdered cleanser which you mix with water, and generally clean by immersion after manual scrubbing with detergents (don’t use soap!) if necessary.

To sanitize my equipment I have been using Star San, an acid sanitizer. It does not reek like bleach nor is it as hard on your hands, and it is more convenient and quicker than using heat.

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Fermenters and air locks

Here you are going to have to make some choices. The standard size batch for the extract home brewer is five gallons in the U.S. (Of course you can make any size batch you like, but most of the recipes you will encounter are based on this volume.). Depending on the style of beer you are making, some batches may only need to be fermented in one vessel (primary fermenter) before bottling. However, stronger ales that require a longer fermentation will need to be transferred to a secondary fermenter before bottling, and it is necessary for other processes you may incorporate, like dry-hopping. A couple decades ago we were recommended to transfer the beer to secondary after a week or so, to avoid the beer having prolonged contact with the trub (sediment that forms at the bottom of the vessel from fermentation) which can contribute off-flavors to your beer. Nowadays a lot of homebrewers disregard this advice for some styles, keep beer in primary as long as three weeks or more, and don’t rack.

Chances are 100% that someday, sometime, and soon, you are going to rack your beer to secondary. For this, get a five gallon glass carboy (pictured above on the right). Trust me, you are going to use it. I have three of them.

Now you need to decide what to use as your primary fermentation vessel. You can also use a glass carboy for this, which has the advantage of allowing you to watch the fermentation process happening at its most dramatic stage (the first few days). The disadvantages are 1) the small neck of the carboy requires that you purchase a large funnel to pour your wort through to get it into the bottle, 2) your concentrated wort must be cooled enough that it will not break the bottle from the shock of the difference in temperature between the wort and the glass, 3) you must have a larger carboy for primary fermentation than for secondary (6 or 7 gallons) to allow room for the foam and blow-off from the active stage of primary fermentation, or you will lose a lot of your beer.

I use a “food -grade” plastic vessel for primary fermentation. It is a bucket fitted with a lid. For years I used a six gallon primary (pictured on the left), but some beers generated a lot of blow-off during primary fermentation, and I would find myself racking the beer to a carboy and fitting it with a blow-off tube the day after brewing. You can see a photo of this situation on my “Homebrewing Testimonial and Confession” Post. With a really active yeast (like Chimay) or a beer like a strong stout, I would lose a half-gallon or more of my beer in the blow-off. To avoid this situation I bought a larger plastic fermenter earlier this year – the kind intended for brewing wines – and have had good results. This is pictured in the middle, above.

You will also need an airlock, which is a contraption that is fitted into the neck of the carboy or into a hole drilled into the lid of the plastic fermenter that allows outgassing carbon dioxide generated by fermentation to escape the vessel but prohibits contamination from outside the vessel with a water barrier. There are a couple different styles of airlocks to choose from; I use the one pictured above, which is shown both assembled and disassembled. I like this style airlock because it is easy to clean, since you can take it apart.

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Racking and bottling gear

Once fermentation is complete, it’s time to bottle. Homebrewers commonly add a small amount of sugar at bottling, creating a second fermentation in the bottle that carbonates the beer. Here’s a quick overview of the process I use, and the equipment you will need. After trying various techniques I have gotten bottling down to a chore I can reliably complete in two and a half hours for a five gallon batch of beer.

You are going to need bottles. You can purchase bottles at most homebrew supply shops but I have saved the bottles from beer I have purchased, and soaked and scrubbed the labels off of them. I also am very fortunate to have a good number of Grolsch “swing top” pint bottles which my father gave me during the first year or two after I started brewing. Start saving bottles now. I like the Grolsch bottles for session beers and stouts, and prefer 12 oz. “longneck” bottles for higher gravity beers (just a personal preference). I also like having a lot of 12 oz. bottles because these are the bottles I am willing to give away. Most people you give beer to won’t return your bottles, and I don’t want to lose my swing tops! You will also need something to store all these bottles in – I use milk crates. There are commercial solutions available for bottle storage if you want to spend the money.

The process goes like this: clean and sanitize the bottles, rack the beer from the fermenter to a bottling bucket, add bottling sugar, fill the bottles, and cap them.

Cleaning and sanitizing is a three-step process. 1) When you empty a beer bottle (drink a beer) rinse it out right away, drain it, and put it with the rest of your bottles when it is dry. On bottling day, 2) immerse the bottles first in a percarbonate cleansing solution, then drain and 3) immerse them in sanitizing solution. Drain, and set aside for a few minutes. You are going to need five gallon buckets to hold the cleaning and sanitizing solutions. You will need at least two; I use a third to soak the labels off bottles. Under no circumstances use a fermenter or bottling bucket for anything other than fermenting and bottling, especially not for cleaning and sanitizing bottles.

I take a sample of the beer I am about to bottle with a “wine thief” and take a hydrometer reading for my records, either before I rack (if I am not certain it is finished fermenting) or once it has been transferred to the bottling bucket. It’s handy to have a hydrometer stand for hydrometer readings, but not necessary – you can use the plastic tube the hydrometer came in.

Rack your beer (which has fermented “all the way out”) to a bottling bucket. This is a five gallon bucket which has a hole drilled on the side near the bottom to which you have affixed a piece of hardware like a nozzle that allows you to attach a hose through which you will control the flow of beer from the bucket to your bottles. You will siphon the beer from your fermenter to your bottling bucket. Here I am going to recommend a specific piece of equipment: get an Auto Siphon (pictured above). This is a very useful, inexpensive plastic tube thingy to which you attach your siphon hose. It allows you to start your siphon with a simple pump and operates hands-free. I have only had mine this past year and wish it had been around when I started homebrewing. You will also need the appropriate siphon hose (usually 1/2 “) to attach to it. You can use the same hose to attach to your bottling bucket.

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Once you have racked your beer to the bottling bucket, add the bottling sugar to your beer (which you have boiled in water in a small saucepan) and it is time to fill bottles. Attach the hose to the hardware on the bottling bucket, and to the “bottling” end of the hose attach a straight plastic tube and the “flow control” attachment which comes with bottling kits to the business and you are ready to go. Fill your bottles, and when you are done, cap them! You will need bottle caps and a capper to crimp them around the necks of your non-swing top bottles.

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Miscellaneous

You will likely wish to have some way to label your bottles, especially if are going to make more than one kind of beer. There are many ways to do this, some as elaborate and expensive as printed labels that mimic commercial beer labels. I use 3/4″ round labels that I stick to the bottle caps, and write the name of beer and the date I bottled it on each.

You will need a quiet, cool, dark, out-of the way place to store your beer. This requirement grows in demand as you sink into the depths of this hobby, I have found.

Last but not in the least least, you will need to decide upon a method to keep records and begin with your very first batch. Keep a beer log and write down the recipes you brew, brewing, racking, and bottling dates, and keep notes on the progress of your brews. This is extremely important for being able to improve upon the beers you have made and being able to repeat the ones you like. There are many options available now, from simply writing everything down in a book (what I have done for 20 years) to advanced software programs.

I am sure I have forgotten something but hope this is a good start.

Cheers,

phirx

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