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Brewing Equipment

When you first start brewing it's tough to figure out exactly what you need to get started.  Starter kits are great, but most of the ones that I've seen are tailored to wine making.  Kits also omit premium items which can save you a lot of time, mess, and frustration.

Starter equipment kits will usually include a variation of the following:
  • Plastic fermentation bucket with lid
  • Carboy (glass or plastic)
  • Long plastic stir stick
  • Siphon kit (shaft with hose)
  • Hydrometer and test flask
  • Airlock and stopper
Most kits come with a 25 Litre bucket for fermentation.  This is perfectly fine for wine, but when brewing a couple beer kits I found that this wasn't large enough and there was a fair bit of pressure around the lid.  When fermentation is this vigorous the airlock can become jammed with foam and sediment such that the lid could blow off.  Using a blow-off hose (preferably 1/2 inch or more) or a larger pale (at least 30-40 Liters) for beer can prevent this.  Many people don't use a bucket for their fermentation, and instead use a carboy.  It really comes down to preference and what you find is easiest.  Buckets are nice because you can attach a spigot to simplify the process of transferring to a carboy or bottling.

Other things that I've bought that are very helpful or essential:
  • Wine Thief - For grabbing a sample to test with Hydrometer.  Hydrometer fits right in so you don't need to transfer to a test flask.
  • Auto Siphon - For quickly and easily starting a siphon
  • Plastic Spigot - For transferring to secondary (carboy) or bottling without having to bother with a siphon.
  • Bottle Filler - For use when filling bottles using a siphon.  This particular one stops when your bottle reaches 12oz.  Mine stops when lifted from the bottom of the bottle.  If you didn't have this when filling bottles from a hose, I don't know how you wouldn't make a huge mess.  The filler can be attached to a bottling bucket to allow for even easier bottling.
  • Instant read thermometer - Useful when verifying the temperature of the wort before pitching yeast.
  • Stick-on thermometer or room thermometer - Useful for testing the temperature of the fermentation bucket or room where you're fermenting.
  • Bottles - There are a few options for bottling:
    • Plastic (PET) bottles - I use this option.  Plastic is nice because it can't explode from over-carbonation.  Another bonus is that you can test the status of carbonation by giving them a squeeze.  Plastic caps aren't supposed to be reused, so you will need to buy new ones for each batch.
    • Glass bottles - You can collect the bottles that you drink.  Preferably go for bottles with thicker glass that are usually used by import or micro-brew brands.  If you use glass bottles you will need a capper and caps for each batch.  With glass there is also a risk of bottle bombs if you over-prime your beer, resulting in too much carbonation.  To mitigate this, be sure to calculate and measure priming sugars carefully, and keep bottles in a tightly closed container while the beer is carbonating (first 1-2 weeks after bottling.)
    • Swing-top (Grolsch-style) glass bottles - The rubber o-ring in the swing top can be reused several times, making this the cheapest option.  All other concerns with regular glass bottles apply.  Eventually I plan on using this option if I don't start kegging.
    • Keg - High initial cost, but a huge time saver.  It's easier to have to sanitize a keg than 40+ bottles and kegging is safer than glass since you can release pressure or simply carbonate artificially.  If you don't plan on drinking the beer quickly, there are setups which replace consumed beer with gas so that the beer stays carbonated.
  • Scale - Preferably digital.  This is necessary for adding sugars to the wort and for priming.  You can go by volume, but weight is easier and way more accurate.
  • Jet Bottle Washer - This attaches to your laundry tub faucet.  It quickly and cleanly rinses/washes bottles with a strong spray.  There's also an adapter for fitting a kitchen faucet if you want to use it there.
  • Refractometer - Measures the index of refraction in a sample of liquid.  This is for quickly testing the specific gravity of the wort.  It's not really necessary if you're brewing from the kits, but if you start using grains and steeping/boiling it's ideal because you don't have to take a big sample, and you don't have to wait for the sample to cool much before testing.  The caveat is that it's expensive and you need to use a conversion chart (or complicated calculation) when using it after fermentation has started.
If I were to start over, I would consider getting Better Bottles or similar plastic fermenter instead of my bucket fermenter and glass carboy.  Plastic fermenters or carboys have attachments that are designed for brewing and make things like transferring and bottling very easy.  The disadvantage is that plastic isn't as durable as glass (not as much an issue if you don't use a scrub brush) and that they can be more expensive.

With all the stuff that I bought to make life easier, I think it would have been better for me to skip the kit and purchase everything separately. The United States has a few suppliers that are more beer brewing oriented, and have kits that include many of the things that I purchased after the fact. Regardless, you should expect to spend roughly $120 - $200 on all the equipment that you'll need to make your first batch, or even cheaper if you can find used equipment.

Brewing from a Kit

What you need to brew a batch of beer once you have the equipment and bottles:
  • Beer kit - Normally consists of liquid malt extract (LME) and a yeast packet.  Coopers is a good, popular, brand of kit.  LME kits are the most common.  There are also wort (pronounced "wert") kits that come in a box.  I've heard that LME kits are better, but only experience can tell.  The wort kits are usually more expensive (~ $30-40) than the LME ones (~ $15-20.)  I recommend starting with an ale beer since these are usually faster and easier to brew than lagers.
  • Sugar - Most beer kits alone doesn't have enough sugar to make beer, so you will need to add some more.  Sugar is also necessary for priming before bottling so that the yeast can naturally carbonate the beer in the bottle.  To start, I recommend going with all Dextrose (or following the instructions with your kit) since it's less prone to problems.
    • Dextrose (Corn sugar) -  Dextrose is "plain" sugar in that it doesn't affect the flavour or colour.  Dextrose is preferred for for priming.
    • Dry or liquid malt extract (DME or LME) - Comes in various colours and is used to add a bit more malty flavour to your beer.  You'll still need/want to use dextrose for a portion of the sugars that you add.
    • Priming Tablets - One method of priming involves measuring sugar to each bottle or using tablets.  The problem with measuring is that it's a pain and error prone.  Tablets are ideal but only if the tablet size matches your bottle size and they probably cost more.  I prefer to just measure the priming sugar and add it to the bucket I'm using for bottling with the fermented beer.
  • Caps - They can't be reused, so you'll need a new set each batch unless you're using swing-top bottles or kegging.
  • Water - Tap water is usually fine, but if you want to be sure, you can use spring water.  Don't use distilled water - the yeast require nutrients and minerals that are in tap or spring water to do their thing.
  • Sanitizer - Anything that comes in contact with the wort or beer can be a source of infection, so an easy to use no-rinse sanitizer is necessary for sanitizing equipment (fermenter, siphon, spigot, stirring spoon, etc.) that will come in contact with the wort/beer.