Beer has to be one of the greatest beverages on planet Earth. It’s delicious, it’s intoxicating, and as it turns out, it’s easy to make. If you’re a beer admirer and imbiber, you might consider becoming a brewer as well; you’ll find that skipping the middleman can be rewarding and save you money in the long run. To help you realize this dream, The Manual is embarking on a series of posts on how to make beer. To start, we thought we’d provide a quick rundown of the equipment you’ll need. For some expert advice, we’ve tapped the wisdom of Jocelyn Fabbri, co-owner of The Homebrew Exchange in Portland, OR.
If you’ve been to a big-time brewery, you’ve probably been slightly intimidated by the enormous copper boilers and fermenters. However, brewing beer at home is actually a fairly simple endeavor. “If you know how to boil water, you can make beer,” says Jocelyn Fabbri. If you don’t want to commit to the big-boy equipment, Fabbri recommends making a one-gallon batch to start. A lot of brewers like to leap straight into five-gallon batches, as brewing takes about the same amount of time regardless of batch size.
Make sure everything that will touch your beer is totally sanitized. “That’s the biggest thing we stress,” says Fabbri. “There’s a lot that can go wrong with brewing, but as long as your equipment is clean and sanitized, it’s at least gonna be something you can drink.” You can use whatever sanitizing method works for you; some brewers use a mild bleach solution, while others use a no-rinse sanitizer called Star San.
Since brewing requires boiling, you’ll need a large pot. Fabbri recommends a pot that’s “a little bit bigger than a normal soup pot you would have in your kitchen.” If you’re making a five-gallon batch, you’ll obviously want at least a five-gallon pot. You can absolutely boil your beer in your kitchen, though you might consider using a propane burner outdoors to reduce cleanup.
You’ll also need a special vessel for fermentation. The Homebrew Exchange sells one-gallon vessels that are great for beginners. More seasoned (or more ambitious) brewers should go for a five-gallon bucket or clear glass carboy. “A carboy is nice because you can see what’s going on,” says Fabbri. Some brewers use a bucket for the first week of fermentation, then siphon their brew into a more airtight carboy for the remainder of fermentation. You’ll also need a fermentation lock to keep oxygen from infiltrating your beer during the fermentation process.
Siphon Hose and Racking Cane
You’ll need an easy method for transferring liquid from your pot to the fermenter, then again from the fermenter to your bottles. This process is known as “racking.” If you’re just making one gallon of beer, pouring the beer into the fermenter is easy enough. If you’re making five gallons, you can use a bucket with a spigot (available from The Homebrew Exchange), or use a racking cane and siphon hose.
As the yeast devours the sugars during the fermentation process, it emits carbon dioxide (CO2). If you leave your fermenter completely sealed, you might end up with a fairly explosive situation. The key is a good airlock. “This is what you’re going to put on top of the fermenter,” says Fabbri. “It’s gonna allow your CO2 to come out as it’s fermenting, but not allow anything to come in.”
A thermometer is another important tool, as different beers require different storage temperatures. Fabbri recommends slapping an adhesive thermometer on the side of the fermenter to help you keep tabs of the temperature during fermentation. It’s also a good idea to use a pot thermometer to make sure the beer is at the right temperature before you transfer it to your fermenter.
Bottles, Bottle Caps, and Capper
Most people put their beer in bottles after the fermentation process is complete. A single gallon of brew will fit into about 10-12 12oz bottles, while five gallons will fit into about 50-55 bottles. You’ll need a capper to make sure your bottles are airtight. Fabbri touts the capper’s magic: “It has a little magnet, so you can just put the cap on the bottle, and *shloop!* [bottle capper demonstration].”
The following equipment isn’t exactly necessary, but it will help make the brewing process more fun, and hopefully encourage you to brew more often. Here’s what Fabbri says: “You can brew beer with whatever you have around, but if something is messy, you’ll be like, ‘That was hard, why would I want to keep doing that?’ These are the kind of things that make the job easier.”
Mesh Filter Bag
If you’re new to brewing, you’ll likely use malt extract for your first few batches. Once you’re ready for a more advanced brew, you might incorporate steeping grains for enhanced freshness. For this, you’ll need a mesh filter bag for your grains. Think of the steeping process as making “grain tea.” It’s also a good idea use a special muslin sleeve for your hops. While these items aren’t essential, they can prevent loose grain or hop pieces from getting loose in your wort (brew liquid). You can always use a strainer to catch stray debris, but this is tricky with five-gallon batches.
To bring the wort from near-boiling to the proper fermentation temperature, most beginners use a bathtub filled with ice. To chill your wort more quickly, you might use the aptly named wort chiller–a coiled copper tube that fits inside the wort. “You put the wort chiller inside your wort before it’s done boiling to sanitize everything, then you run cold water,” says Fabbri. “You just put a hose on one end, and the water circulates, making the chilling process go a little faster.”
A hydrometer is an excellent tool for novice and advanced brewers alike. “If you want to know how much alcohol is in your beer, you have to have this,” says Fabbri. “A hydrometer measures how much sugars are in there. You’ll have a starting number of how many sugars, then you’ll have a bottom number, and you can do a little bit of math to get your alcohol percentage.” A hydrometer can also help determine the precise moment beer is ready for bottling, which is great for impatient brewers. Some brewers instead opt for a refractometer, which performs the same functions as a hydrometer but is harder to break.
Spring-Tip Bottle Rod
A spring-tip bottle rod can help make the bottle-filling process smoother and cleaner. “You press it to the bottom of your bottle to get the beer flowing, then when you pull it up, it stops the flow,” says Fabbri. With this device, you might just feel like a big-time brewer with your own sophisticated assembly line.
If you’d rather not bother with bottling, you can always put your beer directly into a keg. This is especially a good investment if you plan to do a lot of brewing in the future. Homebrew Exchange sells excellent five-gallon soda kegs that are perfect for storing your brew. Fabbri says it best: “If you have a keg, everything can be put right in there, put on CO2, and it’s all sweet and nice.”
While the specific ingredients for beer vary from recipe to recipe, the basics are all the same: malt, hops, yeast, and water. Here’s quick rundown of the ingredients you’ll need for your homebrew.
In the brewing world, “malt” refers to grain that has been dried, soaked, and heated. The sugars from malted barley give beer its sweet flavor. Again, you’re probably going to use a dry or liquid malt extract if you’re a beginner. Once you become familiar with the brewing process, you can brew your own all-grain from malted barley and incorporate it into your homebrew. There’s a wide range of malts with a broad spectrum of flavors, including chocolate, roast, biscuit, and caramel.
Yeast is a type of fungus that eats sugars and produces alcohol and CO2. It also plays an important role in smell and taste. “If you have a Belgian [style beer] and notice a fruity smell, that’s coming from the yeast,” says Fabbri. You’re going pitch yeast into the fermenter with the wort to begin the fermentation process.
Brewers also use flower clusters of the female hop plant to give beer a tangy, bitter taste. “If you think of something that’s bitter–an IPA, for instance–that bitterness is coming from the hops,” says Fabbri. Brewers use many different types of hops to create a variety of taste profiles, including piney, resinous, tropical fruit, spicy, and earthy.
Water probably doesn’t need a whole paragraph. Still, it’s the main ingredient in beer, so it at least deserves some respect. If you’re brewing with a malt extract, you can probably use normal tap water for your beer. You might want to be a bit more discerning about water once you get into the more complicated aspects of homebrewing.
If you’re interested in homebrewing, you would do well to get some or all of the equipment mentioned above. You can get just about everything you need from The Homebrew Exchange’s online store. You can even purchase one of their homebrew kits to simplify the whole equipment accumulation process.
Jocelyn Fabbri co-owns The Homebrew Exchange with her husband, Aaron Fabbri. They offer brewing classes at their Portland, OR store.