If you’re a beer enthusiast, have you ever considered home brewing? In the introductory article of our home brewing series, Jared Kovacs shared that a good way to start out is to try duplicating some of your favourite commercial beers. Today, Jared helps you sort out the essentials to get started, in terms of both grains and equipment.
When I first started home brewing, I felt lost. There were so many terms I was unfamiliar with and what seemed like a mountain of equipment that I needed to get. If you read my first post, Home Brewing: Make What You Love, and felt some level of lost-ness, you're not alone.
It was overwhelming at first. It took some time and many conversations with my brewing friends to figure out what the essential pieces of equipment actually were. A simple Google search will reveal that there are some very expensive home brew setups on the market, some costing over $6000.00! But you don't need a lot of fancy equipment to get started. All you need is a willingness to learn and a little Kijiji prowess.
Grains: The Backbone of Your Beer
Beer is made up of four ingredients; grain (malt), hops, water and yeast. There are two main sources of grains: extracts and all-grain. It’s important to understand the difference between them because your grains provide all the sugar that’s required for fermentation. You can think of the grains as the backbone of your beer. So it’s important to not neglect them.
Both extract and all-grain brewing will give you good tasting beer, but know that all-grain is the better way to go if you can afford it and have space for it, because it gives you the most creative control over your brews. However, the benefit of starting with extracts is they help you understand the brewing process, help develop proper sanitization habits, and give you quality beer that'll keep you and your friends happy.
Extract brewing refers to home brews that have been made with malt extract. Meaning, a company has extracted the malt sugars and condensed them until they’re a thick molasses-like substance. All you have to do is add water to reconstitute, hops and specialty grains and you’re done. Easy!
There are also pre-hopped extract products on the market but please, I beg, don't use them. Sure they’re easy but they’re definitely the lazy way out. Isn't the point of brewing your own beer learning how to actually make it and not just drinking it? It's like someone saying they made cookies from scratch when they used frozen cookie dough. They didn’t; they played themselves.
This may sound like I'm all for going all-grain right away but that isn’t the case. You can make some fantastic beer from extracts with the addition of specialty malts.
All-Grain brewing is a little more technical and involved, as you’re responsible for getting all those sugars out of the grain yourself. This process is called the mash — think steeping tea but with grains. To do this properly you need to control how long the grains “steep” in temperature controlled water.
Considerations for Extract vs All-Grain Brewing
There are a few things you need to consider before jumping onto the all-grain train. The first thing is time. As much as I love brewing all-grain beer, it takes a considerable amount of time to do. When I first started doing all-grain it took me over six hours to brew one batch of beer. I've become much more efficient and can effectively do one brew in 3.5 to 4 hours now. Extract brewing is a lot faster: 2.5 hours tops for one batch of beer.
The second is space. Extract brewing needs less equipment. Mash tuns (the things you steep your grains in for all-grain) take up a lot of room. I have two 10-gallon converted water coolers and let me tell you, those things ain't small! This, on top of all your other essential equipment, and you'll soon be feeling cramped!
Finally, the third thing to consider is that at any given point you can easily move into all-grain when you feel ready to. All of the equipment you need for extract brewing can be carried over.
Essential Home Brewing Equipment
So what equipment is absolutely essential? Well, if you haven't already guessed, it mainly depends on your answers to the above considerations.
- 7-Gallon Brew Pot — You gotta boil your wort (beer before it’s fermented) somehow, right? A pot this size will help you avoid boilovers. They’re messy! It's good to avoid that hot mess.
- Grain Bags — If you add specialty grains, a grain bag is absolutely needed.
- Fermenter (6-gallon glass/plastic Carboy, Brew Pail, Demijohn) — This is where your brew sits while it ferments.
- Air Lock & Stopper — These are essential. You need something to stop bad bacteria getting into your beer and for carbon dioxide to get out.
- Brew Buckets with and without a Spigot — I use mine for measuring water and for mixing up the sanitizing solution and washing. They’re worth every penny.
- Hydrometer with Test Jar — If you want to know your alcohol percentage you need this. Also, it’s fun to spout off the facts of your beer to your friends. It’s impressive, and they’ll think you’re cool.
- Long Handled Stainless Steel Spoon — Don’t use wooden or plastic because both can carry bacteria that’s harmful to your beer.
- Auto-Siphon — Moving your wort from pot to fermenter to bottling bucket can be a chore. This makes it easy!
- 4 to 5 feet of 3/8-inch Food Grade Tubing — Same as above. Moving your wort without this is nearly impossible.
- Bottle Wand — Makes life easier when bottling, so yeah, it’s essential!
- Bottles — Throw a party and collect all the beer bottles that aren’t twist top. Better yet, throw a party that has the stipulation that people can only drink beer that has swing top bottles.
- Rinse-Free Sanitizer — I cannot express how important this stuff is. You have to clean and sanitize your equipment well. This product makes it easy.
If you go All-Grain:
- Mash Tun — These are made from converted water-coolers. There really isn’t a better option, so just spend the money to get one, or convert one yourself.
- Wort Chiller — This is a device that helps to cool your wort rapidly. If you want to have a quicker brew day this is a must-have.
So where do you get all this stuff? There are a ton of starter kits available from your local home-brew shop. They’re fairly inexpensive and will set you up with everything you need. However, the best-case scenario is that you find a homebrewer who’s looking to get rid of their equipment. They’ll be selling that stuff on Kijiji or Varagesale, or at a garage sale. All you have to do is take a look and see what’s available locally. I bought all my carboys used — totally worth it.
The other option is to make your own equipment, which a lot of home brewers do. I’m not inclined to do that, but if you are, have at it. There are a ton of DIY guides on the internet.
Brew on my friends.
Have you brewed your own beer? If so, share your most essential equipment in the comments!
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Home Brewing is written by Jared Kovacs. Jared comes from a long line of food and drink connoisseurs. His father was a chef, his grandparents owned a diner, his grandfather is a home brewer, and his great-great-great-grandfather was a brewmaster in Germany. He loves sharing good food, beer (especially home brews), and cider with friends and family. You can follow him at The Hesitant Chef or on social media at Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.