Homebrewing Equipment Guide

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Homebrewing can be a very rewarding hobby. Of course it can be- your end product is beer! However, there are some challenges when getting started. For me, the most difficult part was choosing my homebrewing equipment setup. There are literally dozens of different configurations that can be used to produce good beer, and I’ve gone through at least 10 different iterations at this point.

The purpose of this page is to present my recommendation for a starter equipment setup and accessories. This recommendation will be applicable to extract, partial mash, and all-grain brewers, so your setup can grow with you as you progress.

The guiding principle on my site is efficiency.

I will try to present the easiest, most cost-effective methods for making great beer. My goal is that you will be able to start brewing with minimal effort and without spending thousands of dollars.

 

Which Homebrewing Equipment Setup Should I Use?

Before I get into specifics, I want to add a little more detail about the following recommendations. This guide will focus on brewing batches of up to 5 gallons of beer. Of course, many people will eventually want to scale up to 10 or more gallon batches. However, I think 5 gallons is a good starting point for beginners. I think it’s wise to stick to smaller batch sizes until you’ve mastered the basics.

Batch sizes of 5 gallons or less allow for using all-in-one electric brewing systems and stove-top boils, if your situation requires. If you brew more than 5 gallons, you will need either need a hardwired 240V electric setup ($$$$), or you need to use a gas burner.

Personally, I only brew 5 gallons or more for special occasions such as parties/beer fests, and my average batch size is ~3 gallons these days. I also use the Brewer’s Edge Mash and Boil for most brew days. It allows for a fast, simple brewing experience, and produces great beer!


Homebrewing Equipment: Table of Contents

  1. Starter Kit / Basic Accessories
  2. Mashing
  3. Boiling
  4. Fermenting
  5. Other Accessories

 

Starter Kit / Basic Accessories

Homebrew Starter Kit from MoreBeer!

 

Before you get started, there are a number of specific tools and accessories you will need to acquire that will make your brew days go much more smoothly. A basic list of these items looks something like this:

 

 

 

 

  • large spoon
  • siphon
  • tubing
  • hydrometer and test jar
  • thermometer
  • airlock
  • bottle brush
  • fermentation bucket (preferably with a spigot)
  • cleaner
  • sanitizer
  • bottling bucket
  • bottle capper
  • bottle caps

These items are essential, meaning your brewing experience will suck without them. One exception is if you never plan to bottle, you don’t need the bottling items, but I would recommend to have these things anyway.

Fortunately, most Home Brew Supply Shops (HBSS) have these accessories pre-packaged in a set for your convenience. Unfortunately, they sometimes give you too many starter kit options, which makes it difficult to choose the best kit for you.

My choice is the Homebrew Starter Kit from MoreBeer! It is inexpensive, and provides you with the basics you will need to get started.

I would not suggest any of the “upgraded/deluxe” kits; they will include parts that you also need (mash tun, kettle, fermentor, etc..), but I would suggest to choose these items separately so you get exactly what you want.

Cleaning and Sanitization

In addition to the basic kit, you should purchase additional cleaner and sanitizer right away. Properly cleaning and sanitization, as many will tell you, is critical to a successful home brewery. I highly recommend PBW and Star San, respectively, for these applications.

PBW (Powdered Brewery Wash) is an alkaline, carbonate-based cleaning agent supplied in solid form. PBW is a better alternative to traditional chlorine/bleach based cleaners, because of its breakdown products. Whereas a bleach based cleaner leaves behind chlorine compounds that can contribute to off flavors if not sufficiently rinsed, PBW breaks down into carbon dioxide and water, ensuring that any residual cleaner will not negatively impact your final product. Additionally, PBW is mild on the skin, and shouldn’t cause any irritation.

Buy PBW Here: 1 lb (AIH / Amazon), 4 lbs (AIH / Amazon)

Star San is a no-rinse sanitizer consisting of dilute phosphoric acid and a surfactant. Similar to PBW, Star San’s biggest advantage is that it will not harm your beer, and actually it can be slightly beneficial for yeast health. An alternative sanitizer, iodophor, is a stronger disinfectant but is not as beer-friendly and should be rinsed thoroughly. Hence my recommendation of Star San.

 

Buy Star San here: 8 oz (AIH / Amazon), 32 oz (AIH / Amazon)

As a general rule, buying in bulk will save you money in the long run. But you already know that.

 


Mashing

If you plan on doing extract and/or partial mash brewing exclusively, you can skip to the boiling section. If you are already brewing all-grain, or you plan to do all-grain brewing eventually, you need to set up your mashing/lautering system.

The primary objective of a mash tun is to maintain mash temperature. This can be accomplished through insulation or active temperature management. In other words, you want your mashing vessel to prevent heat exchange with its surroundings, or compensate for heat loss by heating the mash back to a target temperature. Insulated coolers (think Igloo / Gatorade) do a terrific job of the former, all-in-one brewing solutions provide the latter.

Before getting into the details of mashing equipment, I want to talk briefly about the mashing method I recommend: Brew In A Bag (BIAB).

 

Brew in a Bag (BIAB) Method

The BIAB method works exactly like you might guess: after milling your grains, they are placed inside a mesh bag, normally composed of a polyester fiber weave. The bag (now full of grain) is then immersed in the mash tun containing your heated strike water. The water is able to penetrate the mesh, hydrate the grain, and allow the normal enzymatic activity to take place. Once the conversion is complete and the mash is over, you can just pull out the BIAB, squeeze out excess liquid from the grain, and proceed to the boil!

Advantages of Brew In A Bag (BIAB)

  • Easy to handle the milled grain- just pour it into the bag
  • Grain/bag is easy placed into and removed from the mashing vessel
  • No chance of clogging any ports/tubing with bits of grain
  • Almost no grain will make it to the boiling step, which can cause astringent/bitter taste

 Brew Bag for insulated coolers – 5 gallon / 10 gallon brew bags from Adventures in Homebrewing

 

Mashing Equipment

I highly recommend springing for an all-in-one solution, such as the Brewer’s Edge Mash and Boil or the Grainfather. I purchased the Mash and Boil soon after it was released last year, and I’ve been very pleased with its performance, especially considering the price. The Grainfather, though considerably more expensive, has a few more bells and whistles, specifically an integrated pump for recirculating and transfer through an included counterflow wort chiller. If you piece together the Mash and Boil with a pump, wort chiller, and necessary tubing/hardware, you can save some money, but the Grainfather is a nice option if you want to dive right into brewing without making multiple equipment purchases.

Brewer’s Edge Mash and Boil

 

 

 

Brewer’s Edge Mash and Boil from Adventures in Homebrewing

The Grainfather – all-in-one alternative, includes integrated pump and chiller

 

 

 

If you’re not ready to pull the trigger on an all-in-one brewing vessel, then you’ll need to choose an alternative for mashing. As mentioned above, the key attribute you’re looking for is the ability to insulate and maintain temperature. Fortunately, insulated plastic coolers serve this purpose quite effectively. Additionally, if you employ the Brew in a Bag method, there is no modification necessary to the cooler. (Otherwise, you would have to install a false bottom in the cooler to prevent grain from getting into the boil kettle). I would still recommend purchasing a mash tun cooler that includes a ball valve in place of the spigot, since it allows an easier way to open/close the tun. Also, a ball valve/spigot can be modified with tubing and disconnects as your brewing system matures.

Insulated Cooler Mash Tun

One note on sizing of your mash tun- always go bigger! In the event that you may eventually graduate to larger batch sizes, you should go with the larger mash tun size now, especially considering the minimal price difference. A 10 gallon cooler will easily handle 5 gallon no sparge batches, and can be used for 10 gallon batches of beer with a “batch sparge” method.

5 gallon Insulated Mash Tun from Adventures in Homebrewing

10 gallon Insulated Mash Tun from Adventures in Homebrewing

(no false bottoms)

 

 

As a general rule of thumb, you should plan for 10-15% water loss to grain absorption, and potentially 15-20% volume loss during the boil, depending on the specifics of your kettle, boil time, and the vigor of your boil. Therefore, you want to size your mash tun roughly 30% larger than your batch size, possibly a little bit more to be safe.

 


Boiling

If you’ve decided on an all-in-one brewing solution, then you’re all set! You will be mashing and boiling in the same piece of equipment.

If you’ve opted for a more traditional approach, you will need a brewing kettle. You can always start off with an aluminum or stainless steel pot from your kitchen, provided it’s properly sized. You want to allow enough volume for a vigorous boil while preventing boil-over from the hot break. I would suggest using a pot that’s at least 2-3 gallons larger than your boil volume.

If you’re going to purchase a kettle, I would suggest getting one with an integrated valve, for drainage, especially if you plan to brew batches closer to 5 gallons. Additional accessories you might want to consider include a triclad base to prevent scorching, a port for an integrated temperature probe, and etched volume markings. These are all “nice to have” options that will make for an easier brew day and a better final product.

SS Brewtech Kettles

There are a number of companies offering nice kettles with the options listed, but I am going to strongly recommend SS Brewtech. The products from SS Brewtech are of exceptional quality, engineered with great attention to detail and many nice features that are missing on economy kettles. That being said, SS Brewtech equipment is also very competitively priced, and often measures up in quality and features to other companies’ offerings that cost twice as much. Additionally, their customer service is excellent. I had a small defect with one of the accessories for my kettle, and they sent me a replacement immediately, along with a few extra replacement parts, and they refunded me a portion of my purchase price!

10 gallon SS Brewtech Kettle

When selecting your kettle, err on the larger side. The cost difference for each size-up at SS Brewtech is approximately $50, which is reasonable considering you should get many years of brewing out of this item. And your future self will thank you when you decide to start brewing bigger batches!

5.5 gallon SS Brewtech Kettle from MoreBeer!

10 gallon SS Brewtech Kettle from MoreBeer!

15 gallon SS Brewtech Kettle from MoreBeer!

 

 


Fermenting

When it comes to fermentation vessels, there are many options. You can use a bucket, or a carboy, or a cylindrical fermenter. Fermentor materials include ordinary plastic, specialty plastic such as HDPE/PET, glass, or stainless steel. There may be temperature monitoring/control functions. There may be a sampling port, a drainage port, a curved bottom for collecting trub, or various other nuances.

So, which fermentor should you buy?

My answer: start simple. If you bought the More Beer starter kit (link), then you’ve already got a fermenting bucket that will work perfectly fine for you as you begin brewing. I still use fermentation buckets on occasion, especially for mixed cultures to avoid contaminating my other fermentors. They work great!

If you want something a little fancier, or you need to purchase something with a larger capacity, then I would recommend the Speidel line of plastic fermentors.

Speidel Fermentor

Speidel has designed heavy duty HDPE fermentors with quite a few nice features. They are resistant to scratching and oxygen permeation, very sturdy, have nice handles on the sides and a wide opening for easy cleaning. Also, they include a drainage spigot and a nice custom airlock. I bought a Speidel years ago and I couldn’t be happier with the purchase.

 

20 L (5.3 gallon) / 30 L (7.9 gallon) / 60 L (15.9 gallon) Speidel fermentor

30 L (7.9 gallon) is perfect for 5-6 gallon batches

 

In the past, many people used glass carboys for fermenting. Glass is virtually impermeable to oxygen, and can be cleaned very well to ensure almost no chance of cross-contamination or infection. On the other hand, glass carboys are heavy, and quite dangerous if they are dropped. Also, they have a very narrow opening, which makes scrubbing the inside a total pain in the ass! With all of the alternatives available theses days, including PET and stainless vessels, I really see no need to mess with glass. I have a few sour beers aging in glass in my basement, but I still wouldn’t recommend them in almost any situation.

One more word of advice- make sure you have enough headspace. If you are brewing 5 gallon batches, you want to have a total volume of at least 7-8 gallons, to account for the krausen and avoid a yeasty mess all over your floor.

 


Other Accessories

Since the explosion of the homebrewing scene over the past 5 or so years, there are now countless accessories available to the homebrewer. There are niche products you can buy to augment nearly every aspect of the brewing process. Many are useful, others are gimmicky, and some are closer to useless.

I think you should buy the following items right away. The risk/reward is very high with the following accessories; they will give you excellent bang-for-the-buck, and ultimately will help you create a better product, more easily and reliably.

 

Digital Scale

A digital scale is a must-have in your home brew lab. If you are only using pre-packaged recipe kits, you may be able to avoid buying a scale for a short while. But as you add complexity to your brewing process, you will need a scale. This will include weighing out grains and hops for custom recipes, additives for water chemistry adjustments, DME for yeast starters, and priming sugar for bottle conditioning.

small digital scale

My brewing equipment setup includes two scales. I have a 3 kg, high precision scale that measures out to 0.1 g for brewing salts and other smaller additions.

I also have a 5 kg (11 lb)  scale for measuring out larger quantities of hops and grains. This one stays next to my grain mill for helping me measure out my grain bill.

These scales are cheap and work great. Plus, you can use them as kitchen scales too!

Digital Thermometer

Whether you’re trying to control your mash temperature, checking on your starter wort, or determining if you can finish chilling and pitch your yeast, you need reliable, accurate temperature measurements. You will never make great beer if you cannot maintain proper temperatures at various stages in your process. So do yourself a favor and pick up a nice digital thermometer.

If you want the Rolls Royce, then go with the Thermapen from Thermoworks. They are the industry standard.

I use this inexpensive Javelin thermometer and have had no problems over the past couple years of use.

 

Refractometer

A refractometer is an alternative to the hydrometer for measuring the specific gravity of wort or beer. A hydrometer works by floating in the wort and measuring the displacement/buoyancy of the liquid.  A refractometer measures the liquid’s ability to refract incident light, which is correlated to its sugar content. The advantage of a refractometer is that it only takes a drop of liquid, and it is not as temperature sensitive as hydrometer readings. Armed with one of these units, you can easily check your S.G. during the mash, pre-boil, post-boil and even during fermentation (using a correction chart).

You can pick up a cheap refractometer such as this one and it will work perfectly well.

 

Immersion Chiller

A chiller (immersion or plate) is one of those things that you technically don’t need, but you absolutely need to get one. I brewed exactly one batch of beer without a chiller, and purchased one immediately after my brew day. It takes forever to chill your wort after boiling, even if your batch size is only 2-3 gallons and you are using an icewater bath. It’s the difference between 2+ hours of chilling time and 15-20 minutes. Also, the longer time before you reach proper yeast pitch temperature, the greater chance of contamination. You need a chiller!

Copper Immersion Wort Chiller

 

 

25 Foot Copper Immersion Chiller – good for batches less than 5 gallons

50 Foot Copper Immersion Chiller – good for batches of 5-10 gallons

 

 

 

 

Temperature Controller and Heat Wrap

Finally, I will strongly recommend you purchase a temperature controller and heat wrap. Proper temperature control is critical to making great beer at home. The temperature profile during fermentation can be the difference between a mediocre brew and an award winning beer- seriously. Setting up a temperature control system can get really involved (and costly), because there are various ways to do it. Getting an Inkbird ITC-308 and a heat wrap such as the FermWrap is a simple way to get started with temperature control. By having the ability to heat your fermentor, you can ensure that the yeast does not become too cold, causing stall-out before fermentation is complete. Also, you can improve attenuation and prevent diacetyl issues by heating the beer toward then end of fermentation. All-in-one, this small up-front investment can pay major dividends for the quality of your beer.

Inkbird ITC-308 Controller

As an added bonus, the ITC-308 controller is dual-stage, meaning it can be used for simultaneously heating and cooling. This means that you can continue using this controller as your fermentation system evolves and incorporates active cooling.

 

Inkbird ITC-308 Temperature Controller – dual-stage (heating and cooling)

FermWrap Fermentation Wrap

 

 

 

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