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Homebrewing for Beginners: Bare Bones Brew Kits, Pt. 1

While homebrewing can seem daunting at first to the uninitiated, the only thing that is truly daunting about it is the amount of time you will spend thinking about your next batch. While homebrewing costs can add up (upgrading to bigger and better equipment, buying ingredients, etc.), a bare bones basic set-up can and will produce beer you will be satisfied with. I can’t say totally satisfied with because I don’t think that phrase exists in homebrewing; everything can always be improved, but you will love thinking about how to improve your next batch over a pint of your own special brew. I want to preface this article by saying that I am far from an expert homebrewer. I’ve made some beers I’ve loved, and I’ve made some beers I’ve hated. I’ve had successes and failures. Luckily, I can recommend a ton of people who know a lot more than me who are helpful and friendly (hell, some of them write for this site!) But I am passionate about homebrewing and I’m writing this for people who want to get into this and enjoy it as much as I have. All the information here is true as I understand it. I look forward to being corrected by more experienced homebrewers.

Let’s talk about the equipment that you’ll need to brew your first batch of beer. Luckily, you will not necessarily have to separately purchase every piece and part that you will need in order to brew. You can find sites all across the Internet that will sell you a basic beer brewing kit at a pretty reasonable price. Examples can be found here, here, and here. I would not recommend to you the Mr. Beer kit, which is also out there and very popular. I think you can probably make passable beer with the Mr. Beer kit, but you definitely can’t make too much of it in a batch. A Mr. Beer batch only yields two gallons, whereas the starter kits you can buy from these other sites will yield five gallons for about the same amount of effort. Mr. Beer, to me, seems kind of like the Easy-Bake Oven of brewing. I didn’t like the brownies my sister made out of that thing years ago, and I sure as hell am not going to trust their beer equivalents. (Sidenote, if you’re a Mr. Beer brewer and make a quality product out of that cutesy little brown plastic barrel, more power to you, I’d love to be made to eat my words about this through a homebrew swap!) Anyway, yes, I would look at getting one of the starter kits above if you’re interested in getting into brewing. I’ll briefly go through each piece of what they normally include to explain why it is useful and what you will use it for. That way, if you buy one of the kits, you’ll know what the stuff you received in it is for, and if you don’t buy one of the kits and decide to go piecemeal, you’ll be able to make informed decisions about what to buy and what not to. I’m not going to explain the whole homebrew process here (that’s covered in the resources here much better than I could ever do), but I’ll try to explain in basic terms what each piece of equipment will do. For this part of the series, we’ll go over some of the most important parts of your homebrew kit. Awaaaay we go.

Fermenters are an important piece of equipment in the homebrewing process and figure prominently in any starter kit that you will buy. Fermenters come in all sizes but most commonly are in 5, 6, or 6.5 gallons. They are also made of a couple of materials. There are:

– glass carboys:

– Better Bottles (a specific brand of plastic carboy), and

– brew buckets (plastic buckets with lids):

Each of these has its own pros and cons. Glass carboys can break (if you drop them), but they cannot get scratched (scratches in plastic can harbor bacteria that will spoil your beer during fermentation). Additionally, you can see the fermentation process in a glass carboy or a Better Bottle, which is not only useful but pretty cool. Carboys are the most expensive out of these three options. Better Bottles are slightly less expensive and have all the “see-through” benefits of glass, but they can be scratched. Lastly, brew buckets are the least expensive choice here, but they are the most easily scratched and you cannot see the fermentation process happen in them without taking off the lid. For the bare bones beginner, brew buckets are probably best. If, for some reason, you decide not to pursue homebrewing after giving it a shot, it is much more likely that you will be able to find a new use for a brew bucket than for a glass carboy. They also represent a much lower financial investment. No matter which of these you buy, your fermenter will be an important part of the brewing process because…you guessed it!…the magic of fermentation occurs within it. No fermenter, no fermentation, no beer, no happiness.

Admittedly, this next piece doesn’t normally come in the starter kits I linked to above. A brew pot is, well, a pot. It can be made of stainless steel or aluminum or whatever. Stock pots are really good for this.

You’ll want one that’s no smaller than five gallons, though you could I guess manage with two 3 gallon pots. You’ll be using this to boil your wort (unfermented beer) in. You can find these in homebrew shops or anywhere where kitchen equipment is sold. The price on these ranges from $25-50 depending on where you’re getting it and whether it’s aluminum or stainless steel. Both aluminum and stainless steel have pros and cons which I won’t get into here, but you can brew great beer with either one.

Mentally hit fast forward and pretend you’re through the brewing process. You’ve got a fermenter full of finished beer, and it is ready to go into bottles. So you get the beer into the bottles and then. Oh, shit, and then what? Well, then my friends, you pull out some bottle caps, slap them onto the top of your empty beer bottles, and then subject them to your trusty bottle capper.

There’s no real way around this process unless you’re interested in kegging from the beginning of your homebrew adventure, which is a possibility but not a probability. While there are a lot of different bottle cappers on the market, you can definitely get by with a basic one without bells and whistles. You don’t need laser-sighting and other kinds of black ops features, you need something that’ll get a cap onto your bottles. You can get a really basic capper for about $15. Caps are even cheaper, and a lot of places sell them for $4-5/lb. Depending on your batch sizes, one pound of caps can get you through 2-3 batches.

Those are the most important pieces and, honestly, you could probably get by with just the above if you really wanted to go bare bones. While you could get by, you probably wouldn’t have a whole lot of fun. There are a couple of other pieces of equipment that are cheap but will make your life much, much easier that come in the beginner kits that I linked to above. In the next segment of this multi-part series, I’ll highlight some of these other ancillary pieces that come in your typical basic homebrew kit and also tell you how to work around using them if you want to go that route.

I really look forward to the feedback from more experienced homebrewers who read our site, so please don’t hesitate to leave me comments below with your own suggestions, and I’ll work them into the article!

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