Aug

15

2008

Pitched For The Very First Time — Part 1: Equipment 

Looking in from the outside, homebrewing seems complicated. There are all kinds of weird equipment you have to buy; you have no idea what the recipes mean; people keep harping about sanitation; and the list of steps goes on for pages.

I know how you feel, and while brewing isn’t the simplest hobby you could pick up, it isn’t nearly as involved as you would expect. If you’re interested in starting but feel intimidated, the best thing you can do is find a friend who brews and sit in on one of his or her brew days. Mel and I watched Steph and Tim brew a pumpkin ale around this time last year, and we were genuinely surprised at how little work was involved, even for a recipe as relatively complex as a pumpkin ale. By the time we left their house, we felt like we were ready.

But, what if you don’t have any homebrewer friends? That is where I come in — Hi! I’m your new homebrewer friend! Today, we begin our beginning homebrew tutorial series, Pitched For The Very First Time. We are friends now. Please be my friend.

Today’s installment:

Equipment

Ready? This part’s easy. Here’s what you need: sanitizer, bottle filler, bottle caps, bottle capper, bottles, steeping bag, hop bags, big spoon, funnel, carboy, carboy brush, bottling bucket, airlock, rubber stoppers, flux capacitor, aaaggghhhhh…

Let me start over.

When you’ve committed to your decision to start homebrewing, go to Morebeer.com and buy this starter kit.

Ah. That was much easier.

The kit that I just directed you to contains almost all of the equipment that you’ll need. I’ll show you what else you should buy, but to get started, here is what the kit contains:

  • Bottle of Star San Sanitizer — A colorless, odorless, tasteless, viscous liquid that creates a 2.5 pH solution when mixed with water, acidic enough to kill microorganisms, but neutral enough to comfortably sanitize your hands (unless you have extremely sensitive skin). You’ll use this to sanitize anything and everything that will come in contact with your beer after you finish boiling.
  • Steeping bags — Thin mesh bags. You’ll use these to steep grains and to boil hops and/or hop pellets.
  • A big plastic spoon — Used to stir the boiling wort (unfermented beer). Also very useful for aerating the wort before you pitch the yeast.
  • 6.5 gallon glass carboy — This is where the magic [science] happens. The carboy will be your primary fermentation vessel. The basic kit comes with a plastic bucket instead, but I strongly suggest you get the glass carboy. I’ll explain why I’m having you get the deluxe kit in a moment.
  • Airlock — A plastic device designed to let air produced by fermentation out of the fermenter without letting air and microoragnisms in.
  • Rubber stoppers — For the carboy. One with a hole, and one without. The airlock attaches to the stopper with the hole in it.
  • Carboy brush — A bent brush on a long, metal handle. Makes cleaning the carboy a lot easier for people without 1-inch wide arms.
  • Funnel — For pouring the wort from the kettle into the carboy.
  • Hydrometer and hydrometer cylinder — A device that measures the specific gravity of your wort. Don’t worry about what that means just yet. Suffice it to say that you’ll use this to estimate how much alcohol is in the beer when it finishes fermenting.
  • Bottling bucket — A plastic bucket with a spigot. When it’s time to bottle your beer, you’ll siphon it into this bucket, hook up the bottling wand (see below), open the spigot, and fill your bottles. This bucket is also a great place to keep your sanitizer solution when you’re not bottling. Simply pour an ounce of Star San into the bucket, and then fill it to the top with tap water.
  • Tubing — Used to transfer beer between vessels.
  • Racking cane — A bent, metal tube that you’ll use to siphon beer between vessels. The kit also contains a siphon starter, but you use it by blowing air into the carboy, which I feel runs the risk of contamination. We don’t use ours, but I won’t stop you from using it yourself. It’s probably perfectly safe.
  • Bottling wand — A tube with an attachment at the end that allows liquid through when you press on the end. You’ll use this to fill your bottles with uncarbonated beer.
  • Bottle brush — For cleaning out the bottles
  • Bottle caps — They keep the beer from all falling out of the bottles when you throw them around your living room.
  • Bottle capper — A tool that locks your bottle caps down onto your bottles, creating a tight seal.
  • Homebrew book — I haven’t looked at this yet, but I’m sure it’s very informative. Charlie’s book is better.

Why am I having you get the deluxe kit instead of the basic one? For the glass carboy. The plastic bucket that you get in the basic kit will do the job, but plastic can scratch, and scratches make outstanding bacteria homes (it’s hard to get sanitizer into them). Plus, the carboy just feels more elegant. I even feel better saying the word carboy than when I say bucket. If you stick to brewing, you’ll probably upgrade to a carboy anyway, so why not get one now?

Apart from bottles (you can just clean and save the bottles you get at the liquor store) and a kettle (if you don’t already have a big enough pot, which you probably don’t), if you want to stop with that kit, you can, but here are a few more handy items that you may want to pick up to make brewing easier and to improve your final beer:

  • 5 gallon Kettle — A nice, big kettle is a must. You may already have a large pot, but depending on how old it is, it may have some funny flavors on its surface, ready to mix in with your wort. It’s probably also not very big, and you’re going to want to be able to boil about 3 gallons of water. Just get a dedicated brew kettle and save yourself a lot of strife. Benefit: You’ll almost definitely need one anyway.
  • Wort chiller — A coil of copper tubing attached to two long plastic tubes. You hook one tube up to your kitchen faucet, lower the copper coil into your boiling wort for the last few minutes of the boil (to sanitize it), and point the other tube down the sink drain. When the boil is complete, you’ll turn the cold water faucet on and stir the copper coil around the hot wort. This will chill the wort much more quickly than if you simply let it sit, which will allow you to pitch the yeast sooner, minimizing the amount of time that the cool wort is exposed to air and microbes. Benefit: Faster; Less risk of contamination.
  • More mesh bags — As your recipes start getting more complicated, you’re going to need more bags for steeping and hopping. We own three. I wouldn’t mind one more. Benefit: Easier boils.
  • Sample taker — Basically a big pipette. You’ll need this to take samples for hydrometer readings. I have no idea why the starter kit doesn’t include one. Benefit: Easier sample taking. I know, right?
  • Bottle/Carboy washer — Hooks up to your sink to turn it into a raging fountain. Cleaning a carboy will be unbelievably difficult without one. Benefit: Easier cleaning.
  • 5 gallon glass carboy — A smaller carboy to use as a secondary fermenter. When your beer is done fermenting (yeast settles to the bottom of the fermenter, no more bubbles come out of the airlock), you’ll siphon it into this carboy, leaving the sediment on the bottom of the primary fermenter (called trub) behind. After another week in the secondary fermenter, you’ll find that more sediment has settled out of the beer. The end result will be a clearer beer with fewer off flavors. In addition, you can leave the beer here for several weeks if you do not have time to bottle it for a while. Benefit: Clearer, better tasting beer; Convenience.
  • Carboy drainer — Used to leave your carboys upside down to drain. Easier than holding it like that yourself for an hour. Benefit: Convenience.
  • More Star San — May as well stock up. Benefit: It’ll be years before you need to buy more.

Overall, you should expect to spend about $200 – $300 on equipment, plus another $40 – $50 for ingredients for your first batch. Don’t let that scare you off. Theoretically, you should save money in the long run because you won’t be buying as much commercial beer. In practice, Mel and I still make weekly trips to the liquor store, but hey. The initial investment is the worst of it, though; I only set aside $10 from my paycheck every week to fund our homebrewing, and that has been more than enough.

Next Time

That was a long one. Next time will be a bit shorter. We’ll go over ingredients: what to buy, and where to buy them.

PS: If you want to go ahead and order your equipment and ingredients now in one shot (which you may as well), I’ll be talking about the Extra Special Bitter kit that we used in our first brew, so I suggest ordering that. You’ll also need a vial of White Labs English Ale Yeast. When your kit arrives, freeze the hop pellets and refrigerate the yeast.

One Response to “Pitched For The Very First Time — Part 1: Equipment”

  1. Excellent read. I feel so… well informed.

    Now I just wish I had the $300 to start up my own little brewery. I’ll have to start saving up, and maybe in a few months, come back to this post to give it a try.

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