The Beginner Brewer: Buying Brewing Stuff: Part I

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Buying Brewing Stuff: Part I


For the beginner brewer, buying the right equipment can be a scary prospect. Like any hobby, there's plenty of opportunities to spend a pile of money and still need more stuff. So in this post, I'm going to cover some of the essential pieces of kit you need to get started.

The Bare Essentials: What you have to have


Before I start, let me be upfront about some of the assumptions I'm about to make. For a start, I'm going to assume that:
- You'll be brewing using malt extract
- You want to make great tasting beer
- You're willing to invest at least some money to buy essential, good quality equipment.

Now that we've got that out of the way, let's get started!

1. The Brew Kettle


To make homebrewed beer, you are going to need to boil your wort. There's a cheap way of doing this: by boiling only part of the wort and then diluting with water to the right volume (19 litres). This allows you to use your existing cookware and stove-top. That's the plus side. On the down side, it's difficult to remain consistent with this technique and you just won't get the full flavour profile that you can from a full volume boil.

For these and other reasons not worth getting into right now, I would strongly recommend that you fork out the cash for a proper, large stock pot that has at least a 21-22 litre capacity. This allows you to do a full volume (or close to) boil, and believe me, your beer's flavour will be far the better for it.

If you go for the stock pot option, you can choose between aluminium or steel pots. A 21 litre stainless steel stock pot will easily set you back about a R1000, while an aluminium one will be far less expensive, at around R400 - R500 depending on size. While stainless steel is really nice and will last forever, aluminium heats more rapidly and can last a long time with the proper care.

2. The Burner


Great! You've got one of your most expensive pieces of kit out of the way. If you've got a stock pot of 20 plus litres capacity, your normal stove-top won't be able to achieve the proper temperature to ensure what is referred to as a 'rolling boil'. So unless you own a really cool, expensive gas stove with high pressure capacity, you will need a high pressure gas burner (pictured).

A high pressure burner converts the normal low pressure gas from a standard LPG cylinder into high pressure with a high pressure manifold (the red thingamabob pictured). Try to buy a burner with a stand: you won't damage whatever surface you place it on. With a medium size high pressure burner, you will easily bring 20+ litres of water to the boil quite rapidly, and achieve the ever-important 'rolling boil' that vastly improves the flavour of beer by boiling off nasty tasting compounds found inside wort.

If you're a bit of an equipment junky, beware not to buy too large a burner. All burners need to be well ventilated. Also remember that you only need to achieve a rolling boil for 21-25 litres of liquid. You do not need a burner that can smelt steel or be seen from space when in operation. A burner will set you back about R200 - R400, depending on the model.

3. The Fermenter and Bottling Bucket


Once you've got your wort boiled and cooled down, you'll need to stick it in a sealed vessel to start its journey towards becoming beer.

While a lot of brewing books and web resources advocate glass carboys for this purpose, they are hellishly difficult to come by here in South Africa. You can have one made, but unless you commonly have the sort of spare cash lying around sufficient to fund revolutions, I wouldn't recommend it.

Instead, you need to buy a food-grade plastic fermenting bucket or carboy. These can be purchased at homebrew shops or from food-grade plastic suppliers.

Please make sure to buy food-grade plastic. This will keep oxygen out (O2 is not good for fermenting beer), and can be cleaned properly to avoid bacterial contamination.

Don't skimp on this! It makes no sense to brew up a great beer and then stick it in some cheap and nasty plastic bucket to ferment.

Some pointers: Buy two fermenting vesselsThe other fermenter will be your bottling bucket


Fortunately, plastic fermenters are relatively cheap (about R80 for one) so buying two won't break the bank. Also, it's a good idea to buy a fermenter with a pre-fitted tap, which allows for easy sampling of your brew.


A final addition to your fermenter will be the airlock, which is also known as a bubbler. These devices are filled with sterile water (or vodka!), and lets the CO2 out while preventing contaminants from coming in.

4. Measurement Tools


You can get away with guesswork when it comes to home brewing, and some homebrewers are amazingly successfully using 'Kentucky windage'.

On the other hand, it is pretty nifty to track the progress of your brew more accurately, while also feeling like a mad scientist, so I recommend investing in some basic measuring equipment. You will need an immersion thermometer and a hydrometer (pictured). The hydrometer measures the gravity of your beer and is used to track fermentation and eventual alcohol level.

You will also need a test tube of some kind. Altogether, it should cost you about R200.

5. Racking


Once you're beer is fully fermented, you will need to transfer it to a bottling bucket, and then into your bottles.This is called 'racking' and is done with a racking cane. You can make you own by filling a rigid food-grade plastic tube with sugar, heating a section about two-thirds of the way up, and then bending the tube into a cane shape. You then connect this to some flexible food-grade hose, and viola: A racking cane! Using it is a bit tricky, but it gets easier with practice.

If you want to save yourself a whole bunch of trouble and time, I'd recommend investing in a auto-syphon (pictured), which is one of the cleverest little inventions since magnetic screwdrivers and those little things they use to close bread bags with.

An auto-syphon will set you back about R200.

Expensive I know, but it saves you lots of frustration in a phase of beer-making that is the least enjoyable: bottling.

5. Bottles


Finally, you will need containers for your newly made beer. For this, you should use brown glass beer  bottles or plastic bottles (also brown). I'm somewhat reluctant to use plastic bottles because they allow more oxygen in, which can spoil beer, and cannot be re-used as often as glass. 


In my experience,the best bottles to use are 750ml or 500ml brown glass bottles.

I'd avoid the more common 340ml bottles for one very important reason: you are going to produce 18-19 litres of beer per brew, which translates into 52-54 340ml bottles to fill! This is a pain, and I'd rather do something more pleasant, like say, having dental surgery without anaesthetic, than fill 50-odd bottles of beer.

If you use 750ml bottles (quarts), you only need to fill 24 bottles--not great, but much better than 50!

Fortunately for South Africans, 750ml quart bottles are quite easy to come by. Now if you are totally cheap, you can try to get free, used bottles from your local liquor store. If you like cleaning out cigarette butts and unidentified gunk from empties, then go right ahead.

If not, there is a far easier and more pleasant method: create your own ! If you're in a hurry, invite some friends over and ask them to help you with your brewing by helping drink for a good cause!

Good tip: once a bottle has been emptied, immediately fill it with warm water and rinse a few times--it will make cleaning far easier later on!

Another tip: buy a plastic crate of quarts, or if you've bought them piecemeal, buy a crate from your local liquor store (for about R10). They are great for storing both empty and filled bottles, and prevent accidental breakage (and carnage).

6. Bottling equipment


Finally, you will need some new bottle caps and a capper to seal your new homebrew. Bottle caps come with nifty oxygen-leaching liners, and are quite cheap (about R50 for 100). A bottle capper will set you back about R200, but should last forever. You'll also need to get a bottle brush, at about R30.

So that's it. This is the absolute basic equipment you need to start brewing properly. There are odds and ends that will come in handy later, but I'll cover those in future posts.

So before I close off, let's take another look at your total initial investment:

- Stock Pot (aluminium): R 450-00
- Gas Burner: R 400-00
- Fermenters x 2: R 160-00
- Thermometer, Hydrometer, Test tube: R 200-00
- Auto-syphon: R 200-00
- 24 750ml bottles (plus beer!): R 230-00
- Caps, capper and brush:  R 280-00

Total: R 1920-00

That may sound like a lot, but let's put that into some perspective. It's way cheaper than a new set of decent golf clubs, and about the same amount you would spend on taking the family out to a restaurant 3 or 4 times.

The majority of the equipment above will also last you for years (including the bottles). From here on in, it only gets cheaper.

Next Time: I'll cover some additional odds and ends that make a homebrewer's life far easier in: Buying Brewing Stuff: Part II--What you might want to have

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