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Homebrewing: Essentials for Your First Brew
Editor's Note: Please welcome beer expert Joe Postma to Serious Eats! Joe will be serving up his homebrewing know-how every week. Take it away, Joe!
Anyone can brew great beer at home. I first learned how from a friend who brewed in his backyard. He made 10 gallons at a time on an outdoor setup that you had to get up on a step ladder to use. When I moved across the country to a smaller apartment, keeping up the hobby meant that I had to scale down the process in order to brew indoors. But a small space shouldn't get in the way of your desire to make your own beer.
It does take a bit of specialty gear to make quality homebrew, but you don't have to spend a ton of money to get started. It's possible to make delicious beer on a setup that will cost you less than $150 total. Here is a list of the minimum equipment setup and ingredients, along with a few optional pieces that will make your brew days easier. These items can be purchased online or at your neighborhood homebrew supplier (if you're lucky enough to have one of those.)
- 4+ gallon pot. The bigger the better! A $30 aluminum lobster pot works great.
- 6 gallon plastic bucket with a spigot for sanitizing and bottling. ($13)
- 6 gallon fermentation bucket. These have a lid with a hole drilled for an airlock. ($12)
- Airlock and stopper. ($3)
- 3 or 4 small nylon bags for adding hops to the boil. Pantyhose works in a pinch, but try to use a new pair. ($12)
- Racking cane. This is to syphon beer out of the fermentor or kettle. There are "auto-syphon" versions that save headaches and help with good sanitation practices. ($10)
- Food grade sanitizer, either iodine based or acid based. ($10)
- Hydrometer and Hydrometer Jar. ($10)
- Waterproof thermometer with a range that includes 130*F-190*F. ($6)
- Bottle caps ($5)
- Bottle capper ($16)
- Bottling wand ($4)
- 5 feet of 3/8 inch beverage line. Use this for transferring beer and filling bottles.
- Bottles ($0-$40). You'll need enough for 5 gallons, so either 30 of the 22oz bottles or 55 of the 12oz variety. If you want to save money, just throw a party, have your friends bring the beers and keep leftover bottles. Or just save your own. They need to be the non-twist-off variety and they need to be thoroughly cleaned. You can stick them in the dishwasher, but don't use detergent.
- 5 or 6 gallon carboy. Replaces the fermentation bucket from above. (glass or plastic, $25-35)
- Wort chiller. These save time at the end of the brewday. ($60-100)
- 8 gallon stainless kettle with ball valve. For the new brewer who loves cool gear. This replaces the pot from above. ($160)
This might seem like a lot of stuff, but most of these items are pretty small. If you stack the buckets together, almost everything else will fit inside and you can hide it in a corner of your closet when you're not using it. Homebrew stores typically sell these items bundled in a beginner set, and these can be a bargain and save you some shopping time. Here's a good one that includes everything you need, with the exception of the pot and empty bottles. If you do buy a bundle, make sure it has the gear that's listed above as "essential" at the very least.
Once you have your equipment, you're going to need a recipe. There are quite a few ingredient kits out there for new brewers, and these can be a good place to start. You'll want to choose a kit that's geared toward beginners if it's your first brew. Anything that states "partial mash" or "all grain" will require more advanced techniques. Beginner ingredient kits also usually come with instructions that can be a helpful reference as you make your first few batches of beer.
Many kits promise a clone of your favorite commercial beer or style. They range from pre-packaged retail products like Mr. Beer to custom packages put together by the homebrew shop. To start, I recommend avoiding any product that uses "pre-hopped" malt extract. The flavors of pre-hopped kits never come through quite right and people who taste your beer will be able to tell it's homebrewed right away (and not in a good way). Also, be sure you buy a fresh kit that has been stored properly. If you buy from a reputable local shop or from one of the bigger online homebrew suppliers, they're generally going to provide you with a fresh product.
The best advice for the new homebrewer is the classic phrase you'll hear many times: "Relax. Don't worry. Have a homebrew." Grain, hops and yeast want to become beer, and all you need to do is show them the way. Don't worry, I'll be here to help. Get stocked up and I'll see you back here next week!