Ask 10 different home brewers what equipment is essential for home brewing, and you will likely get 10 different answers. However, there will be some common items they all would mention, and chances are that stripped down, basic, “must have” list would include two plastic buckets with lids, plastic tubing for siphoning, hydrometer, and bottles.
There are many other pieces of home brewing equipment you can add to the basic set up, and there are many ways you can upgrade the basic components, but it is also possible to keep the set up very basic and still produce quality beer. A lot home brewers started with simple, even ghetto set ups, and still produced decent beer their first few batches. There are endless combinations for home brewing set ups, and there is no one right way to do it. Over time, you will find what works best for you through online research, your experiences, and the experiences of other home brewers.
Here is a quick rundown on the very basics for home brewing, as well as a few possible upgrades that you might consider.
The Brew Pot: you need something to boil your wort in, which will eventually become your beer. Your brew pot will need to be made of either stainless steel, aluminum, or enamel coated aluminum. The size of your pot also matters, and it depends on what size batches you will be doing–either a partial boil or full boil.
If you are new to home brewing, then you will likely be doing partial boils, which means smaller batches. If you live in an apartment, then you will be dealing with limited space. If you will be doing your boils on a stovetop, you may not have the power you need to do a full 5 gallon boil, as most stoves simply do not have the power to bring such a large volume of water to a boil in any reasonable amount of time.
However, this doesn’t mean you can’t do a full boil. You will just have to break up the boil into two separate batches and then combine them. If you are just getting started home brewing, you will likely be doing 2.5 or 3 gallon batches, and then using top off water to complete the 5 gallon volume.
No matter how much wort you boil, the key is to have a pot larger than the volume you plan to boil. If you are doing a full 5 gallon boil, then you will actually start off with over 5 gallons of water to allow for evaporation, so that you end up with 5 gallons of wort. You also want to avoid boilovers, so this is another reason you need a pot larger than the amount of wort you plan to boil.
Fermentation Vessel: most starter kits come with a couple 6.5 gallon food grade plastic buckets. Other options for fermenters are glass carboys and plastic better bottles. The important thing about the fermenter is that it is something that you can close and seal tightly to keep air out–air has many bad microorganisms like bacteria and germs that want to get into your beer and contaminate it.
Plastic buckets have snap on lids that form an airtight seal and have a hole in the lid for an airlock or blow off tube. Carboys and better bottles have rubber bungs (stoppers) to place into the opening to seal, and allow for an airlock or blow off tube. Airlocks and blow off tubes provide the same function: keep out air and contaminates, and allow the built up CO2 to be released gradually. Otherwise, the CO2 would blow all over the place and create a really nice mess for you to clean up.
Just like the brew pot, your fermentation vessel needs to be larger than the volume you put into it. A 5 gallon batch of wort needs to go into a fermenter that is 6.5 gallons or larger–this will allow room for the krausen to form, and also room for the CO2 to build up. You can also use plastic water coolers for fermentation (the ones used for office water coolers), but it is important to be sure they are large enough (at least 6 gallons) and made of food grade plastic. They will also need to be able to be sealed and allow for an airlock or blow off tube to be inserted.
Secondary Bucket: many kits come with 2 buckets, and the second bucket can be used two different ways. First, you can use it as a secondary fermenter. Some home brewers decide to rack the beer from the primary (first) fermentation bucket to the second fermentation bucket. It is debatable whether this step is even necessary, but like so much else in home brewing, do a little research and determine how you will prefer to do it.
For many beers, secondary fermentation will clear up the beer, making it less cloudy in appearance. For those brewers that secondary ferment, they do not want to leave the beer on the trub for too long, so that is why they use the secondary fermenter. Others see this step as unnecessary and skip it altogether.
If you decide to forego secondary fermentation, then you can still use the second bucket for a bottling bucket. If you decide to later upgrade your fermentation buckets to carboys or better bottles, you can still keep the buckets and use them for sanitizing equipment prior to brewing, for bottling, or to have additional fermenters so you can brew multiple batches a the same.
If you do not have a home brewing kit, you can look to purchase a food grade plastic bucket and use it for bottling. There are buckets that have spigots built in to make the bottling process easier. If you can’t find a bucket with a spigot built in, or already have a bucket that does not have one, you can even insert a spigot yourself (this is just one of the many do-it-yourself projects that can be done in home brewing) Ale Pales are a great option–this is simply a plastic bucket that has a spigot already built in.
Vinyl Tubing/Siphoner: in order to rack your beer from one fermenter to the next (or from fermenter to bottling bucket), you will need vinyl tubing and a siphioner. An auto siphoner is something you will want to strongly consider if the beer kit you purchase does not come with one. If you are assembling your own home brewing kit, then it is something to strongly consider adding–it simply makes the home brewing process much easier.
You do not want to siphon with your mouth, as this could introduce bacteria and germs to your brew and contaminate it. You can try gravity for siphoning, but the auto siphon makes it that much easier.
Another upgrade to the process is a bottling wand. These allow you to control the flow into the bottles, and to stop the pour of beer before it is overflowing and spilling all over the floor (and wasting beer!). These also leave the perfect amount of space in a bottle for carbonation. Like the auto siphon, a bottling wand isn’t absolutely essential, but will make the home brewing process much more efficient and easier.
Hydrometer: this is something you should absolutely have from the start, whether the kit you purchase comes with it or not. If not, definitely make the purchase, as this is an absolute must for home brewing. A hydrometer measures the density of a liquid, known as specific gravity. The hydrometer will let you know when your fermentation is complete.
You may hear of certain visual cues that let you know when it is done (such as activity in the airlock, or when the krausen falls), but these visual cues are not fool proof. It can be possible that instead of being done with fermentation, your beer actually isn’t finished and has what is known as stuck fermentation–or, fermentation that has been interrupted, and is “paused”.
This can lead to bottle bombs, or beer that tastes bad because it didn’t completely ferment. By looking at the specific gravity, you can tell if you are at your target specific gravity, or if fermentation is stuck. A hydrometer will also tell you for certain when fermentation is done–if you get the same specific gravity reading on consecutive days, then you know you are done, and ready to bottle!
Sanitizer: This is the most important thing for new brewers. This is why beginning home brewing is stripped down and simplified–so beginner brewers can learn the proper steps of the home brewing process (especially proper cleanliness and sanitation) first and foremost. Once you have the basics down pat, then you can start to expand and experiment to control and manipulate the flavor of the beer.
Sanitation is that important. If you are not clean and sanitary, your beer could easily become contaminated, and this will produce off flavors at the very least, or a ruined batch of brew that you have to dump. It’s been said that making good beer is 75% proper sanitation, so do not take this important step lightly!
Bottles: after all the hard work to get the beer through fermentation, you need somewhere to store it. Many home brewers use bottles. You can also keg your beer, but if you are new to home brewing, you will likely bottle your brew. Most home brewing kits come with bottles, but you can also purchase them online. Or, a really cool option is to simply buy some beer at the store and save the bottles.
No matter how you get the bottles, it is important that the bottles are sanitized prior to use. Some kits, like Mr. Beer, come with plastic PET bottles. You can even use plastic soda bottles, both the 20 oz. size and the 3 liter bottles–just be certain that you sanitize them before putting your beer in them.
One note about beer bottles–no matter where you get them, you will want to avoid twist offs. You can purchase bottle caps and a bottle capper online or at your LHBS. An alternative is the swing top Grolsch type bottles. You can find these online if you can’t find them at a store near you.
There are several other ways to upgrade your home brewing kit, but the point of this article is to look at the bare essentials, and a few possible upgrades that sometimes are included in a home brewing kit. There is nothing wrong with starting with a kit–in fact, many kits come with the bare essentials at least, and many include some of the upgrades mentioned here. Plus, they are often cheaper to purchase as opposed to buying the components separately.
There is always the option to go the DIY way, and build your home brewing kit from scratch. This way, you get exactly what you want. This is much easier if you have a Local Home Brew Store close by, but can be done online as well. Whatever kit you start with, it likely will be all you need for home brewing.
If you start with something like a Mr. Beer, you can continue to use that for home brewing. If you upgrade, you can still use it for smaller batches, easier brewing, or for experimental brews. What it all comes down to is that there are many options when it comes to home brewing. There isn’t a one size fits all. And that is what is fun about home brewing. While some prefer to keep it stripped down and simple, others will “geek out” and go deeper into it. Either way is fine, do whatever works best for you and your situation.
You can make some very good beer even with a simple, stripped down set up. Certainly better than what you can buy in a grocery store. No matter what path you choose, your home brewing equipment set up will still need a brew pot, fermenter or two, bottling bucket, bottles, tubing, siphon and sanitizer. Where you go from that basic set up is simply a matter of space, budget, type of brewing, and personal preference