A Practical Guide to Buying Beer Brewing Equipment

A Practical Guide to Buying Beer Brewing Equipment

This is the second part of a three part series luring you into the fantastic hobby of brewing beer at home. You can read the previous post giving a high level view of the beer brewing process here:

A Beginner’s Guide to Brewing Beer

Per-Brew Economics

Financially, brewing beer falls somewhere between owning a blog and owning a boat. It is true that the typical grain bill, the primary consumed ingredients used to brew a beer, will be cheaper than the cost equivalent of purchasing  the same amount of beer.  You might pay forty American dollars for grain, hops, and yeast to yield at a minimum of four gallons of beer. This would yield 42 – 12 oz bottles, or seven six-packs of beer. At my local grocer a six-pack is typically at least $8. So for $40 we saved ourselves from buying $56 plus tax and a trip to the grocer. I’ve been fairly conservative in my estimates here: a typical grain bill is less than $40, a typical brew yields more than four gallons to drink, and a typical, comparable sixer is more than $8.

I’m ignoring mass produced American pilsners in my costing above. Due to the necessary equipment for lagering it is actually quite expensive to make such a cheap beer. More later.

My math savvy readers may be accounting their own beer consumption and preparing an argument that it would be financially irresponsible to not start brewing their own beer. And that, dear reader, brings us to the focus of this article:

What about the equipment?

My goal in recommending equipment is to convince you to buy as little as possible to meet your level of commitment while avoiding buying throw away equipment. If you buy necessary equipment from a retailer you will be spending hundreds of dollars to get started. I’ll lay out below some key decision points, what you need to get started for each, and my recommendation if money isn’t the obstacle to the hobby.

For all the equipment discussed I recommend looking on your local, social, online marketplace. Folks are constantly upgrading incrementally selling their prior setups at fractions of the price they were purchased at. If you feel comfortable doing so this is a great way to pick up boil kettles, kegs, and carboys.

Getting Started Guide

Let’s enumerate the decision points and how they effect the equipment buying process:

  • Malt extract brewing or all grain brewing?
  • Ferment in a bucket or a carboy?
  • Do we want to make lagers?
  • Bottle or keg?

Tools We Always Need

ToolWhy
Boil KettleVessel for wort boil
Heat sourceWort must boil
Wort ChillerAfter boil, wort must chill
HydrometerMeasure gravity
Muslin bagsHold our hops for removal later
Long SpoonHard to stir boiling wort with small spoon
Airlock and BungBeer has to burp
Necessary Equipment for Beer Brewing

I’ll have tables with affiliate links at the bottom of the article.

Malt extract brewing or all grain brewing

To brew with malt extract we won’t need any tools beyond the tools described above. Because we are starting with what is essentially concentrated wort we get to skip the lautering stage all together and all the equipment that comes with it.

You’ll recall from the firehose of knowledge in the preceding article that lautering is the process of separating the sugar from the grain once we are satisfied that the necessary enzymatic activity is complete. The decision of how we rinse the grain, or sparge, is the driving factor for what equipment we will need.

The word sparge is derived from the Latin verb spargere meaning to sprinkle or scatter. In brewing we mean to sparge as a mechanism to lauter. We will sprinkle water across the grains to rinse the sugar from them.

Or will we…

One option is to not sparge at all. If we don’t sparge then likely we will have lower efficiency. Efficiency is the measure of the amount of sugar we get from the grain relative to the expected yield of the grain. It is a function of the quality of our mashing process and sparging process. Without pouring water over the grain we can’t expect to extract all the available sugar. The reality is that reduced efficiency isn’t the end of the world. There are calculators that will help you estimate a grain bill given a target brew.

Methods of ‘No Sparge’ Brewing

When the mash is complete we can simply drain the wort wasting all the sugar trapped in the remaining grains. To do this our brew kettle must have a valve on the bottom to drain from and we must have a second boil kettle to drain our wort into. Note that to do this our entire volume of water must fit in our kettle with the grain. Now that you’ve read that: we should never do this. If you have a drain on the bottom of one kettle and you have a second kettle then you have everything you need to sparge. More on this in a moment.

A sparge-less technique that we can execute with one boil kettle with no drain is the brew-in-a-bag setup. In this setup we will use a heat resistant bag to hold our entire grain bill in the boil kettle with our entire volume of water. For a standard 5 gallon batch this will take quite the pot. Once complete we will lift the bag out grain out of the boil kettle, allow the wort to drain into the boil kettle, and place the bag of grain…somewhere else. At least until it is cool enough to empty and clean. The wort boil can then take place in the original boil kettle. The lower efficiency can be overcome with more grain in your grain bill.

There are a several considerations to be made when considering brew in the bag:

  • The entire volume of water including water lost to the grain as well as the volume of the grain must fit in your kettle. For a five gallon yield this may mean as large as a 12 gallon brew kettle.
  • Our efficiency will tend to be lower without sparging. Remember that efficiency the actual sugar yield compared to the expected sugar yield of a given grain bill. To achieve the same original gravity we will need to increase the size of our grain bill. There are many efficiency calculators available to help us adjust.
  • We need our bag to not drag at the bottom of the pot to avoid scorching the bag. Ideally during mashing we aren’t applying significant heat mitigating this, but if the mash temperature is dropping it is critical that the bag not be compromised when we apply heat. Have you ever burst a tea bag in a cup of water? It’s a bad time.
  • We need a plan to remove the brew-in-a-bag from the kettle after the mash. We want to drain and press the bag to get wort out before setting it to the side. This might weigh as much as 50 lbs. We should also have a safe place to set it as it will be hot.
Batch and Fly Sparging

The two most common methods of sparging are batch sparging and fly sparging. Batch sparging is the most accessible to the home brewer. We have a kettle or lauter tun with a drain at the bottom. We will drain a gallon or two of wort and pour this over the top to set the grain bed for filtering. Our grain husks and any added rice hulls will act as a filter bed to prevent sediment from draining from the mash. We can now drain our wort, close the drain valve, and pour our remaining sparge water into the vessel. The goal here is to free more sugar from the grain. We will stir the mash, allow ten minutes or so, then drain this liquid into our boil kettle with the originally drained wort.

The benefits, at cost of more equipment, of this method are several:

  • This method will have slightly higher efficiency over brew-in-a-bag.
  • The mash kettle or lauter tun need only hold part of the water volume as well as the grain bill.
  • A dedicated lauter tun will hold temperature well through the mash process potentially yielding better beer.
  • The vessel holding the mash after lautering can hold the mash until it has cooled enough to dispose of it.
  • The total mass to be lifted at any given time is reduced.

We can start batch sparging as long as our mash vessel has a drain. Beyond batch sparging there is fly sparging, a process where we slowly drain the wort from the lauter tun as we add water using a sparge arm to rinse the grain. Most fly sparging systems require a pump. If there is anything we need to take our brewing game up a notch it is surely hot water hydraulics.

What should I take away from this?

The simplest decision we can make to unblock future expansion of our system is to buy a boil kettle that can hold at least 8 gallons and has a drain valve at the bottom. Later we can expand our setup to buy a second kettle for the wort boil, a lauter tun, a pump system, and a sparge arm to expand into batch sparging and eventually fly sparging. This 8 gallon boil kettle will allow for malt extract brewing and brew-in-a-bag immediately.

One more note on the drain valve. If we can get a drain valve with a threaded connection this will eventually make any pumping system we might put in place that much easier. We might pump to sparge, pump into our wort boil kettle, or drain with a solid connection into a plate chiller. You’ll likely never be upset that you paid for a threaded connection.

ToolUnlocks
8 Gallon Boil Kettle w/ Drain Valve brew-in-a-bag, batch or fly sparge
2nd Boil Kettle – 5 gallonsbatch sparge or fly sparge
Lauter tunOptional for sparging
brew-in-a-bag bagbrew-in-a-bag brew
Necessary Equipment for Beer Brewing

Alternatively, we can opt for an all in one system such as the Mash and Boil, Anvil, or Grainfather. By the time you add up the investment in propane burners, large kettles, and lauter tuns along with the associated storage space you might find that the cost and size of these all in one systems are quite appealing. I recommend opting for any of these system versions that come with a wort chiller and pump included. Typically with these systems you will mash in a removable interior pot with a false bottom. We can recirculate to sparge or pull the mash pot to rest above the system on dedicated posts then batch or fly sparge. Once the wort has drained from the mash we can set this to the side in a bag or sink while we wait for it to cool. We’ll boil wort in the main chamber, insert the wort chiller at the appropriate time, and finally drain into a bucket or carboy. I purchased a Mash and Boil because I already had a chiller and pump, and my brew days have never been simpler.

Mash and Boil Brew Day

Fermentation bucket or carboy

This conversation will be much shorter. I prefer carboy brewing for a few reasons. Transparency of glass allows us to see what’s happening without introducing air. With a glass carboy it is easier to be confident the vessel is airtight. Air exchange with fresh oxygen is the enemy of anaerobic fermentation. Aerobic fermentation, the kind with oxygen, yields more yeast. Anaerobic fermentation makes beer. Plastic is more likely to scratch. Scratches harbor bacteria that potentially will taint your beer.

It lives!

Folks who advocate for plastic buckets will tell you that a plastic bucket never shattered across their kitchen floor sending them to the hospital for stitches and blood loss. They’ll also tell you that you don’t need to look in the bucket. If it is bubbling it is good. And that they’ve never lost a beer to contamination. A plastic bucket with a handle is much easier to lift and move around. Plastic buckets also stack easier, so if space is tight a set of plastic buckets may be a good choice.

Do we want to make lagers?

Temperature control is key during fermentation. Each yeast, each style of beer, has an ideal brewing temperature. A steady basement temperature will get us pretty far in ales, but lagering will likely require refrigeration. If we want to lager I suggest buying a kegerator large enough to hold at least one keg and one carboy.

To Bottle or to Keg

Keg.

We will need a kegerator to chill and serve our beer, a co2 tank, a co2 regulator, a Cornelius keg, and the associated hosing for gas and beer.

For those familiar with hobbyist and professional debates, e.g. emacs vs vi(m), Pathfinder vs D&D, tabs vs spaces, gif vs gif: I congratulate you. You’ve stumbled into yet another set of opposing encampments. You will necessarily decide a side soon. If you go into your local brew store and ask to buy a keg setup they’ll likely ask you whether you want pin lock or ball lock. More than likely, in my experience, they’ll assert that you want to go to ball lock. For a decade of brewing I’ve been told every time I buy a keg or a fitting that pin locks are going away.

Each Cornelius keg will have two posts: one for carbon dioxide called the gas pin and one for the beer. On a pin lock keg the gas post will have two pins while the beer post will have three. If you look to the interior you’ll notice a dip tube that draws beer from the bottom of the keg that attaches to this beer post. On a ball lock it is a bit harder to tell. The gas post will have some notching or star pattern as a designation. If you disassemble either type of keg for cleaning and an O-ring swap pay special attention that it is assembled back together correctly. Consider cleaning one post at a time.

I’m currently still using pin lock as I have come too far with my variety of pin locks and pin lock accessories. I can’t convert at this stage of life. The single exception is my carbonation lid that pumps gas through an air stone to dissolve CO2 into my beer more quickly when I keg.

Beer Brewing Accessories

We’ve now come to the affiliate link section. I love my local store, Adventures in Homebrewing. Lucky for us they also happen to be a national distributor. I have friends from across the country who brew who prefer to treat AiH as their local brew shop too. For some products I’ll also include Amazon links if I think they may be of interest.

The Miscellaneous Stuff
ToolAffiliate Link
Float HydrometerInexpensive, but a bit messy (AiH)
Optical HydrometerWhat I use today (Amazon)
Tilt HydrometerIn fermenter digital monitor (AiH)
Note the available colors. The Tilt App will only pair with one Tilt Hydrometer of each color to monitor multiple brew. Red and blue good. 2 blue bad.
Large Muslin BagsPerfect for a few pounds of grain in a partial mash + malt extract (AiH)
Small Muslin BagsFor hops (AiH) I sanitize and reuse these bags. Grab a few.
Plastic Long SpoonSpoon (AiH)
Airlock and BungCarboy Bung only needed w/ carboy fermenter (AiH) Airlock always required.
Necessary Equipment for Beer Brewing
All in One Systems

If you are starting from scratch then I sincerely believe the all in one kit is the most economical place to start. By the time you buy pumps, burners, kettles, and lauter tuns you might find that your money would have gone further with one of these. I own the Mash and Boil, but I’ve chosen not to list it as I believe the Anvil 10.5 w/ pump and chiller is ultimately a better value for a new brewer.

All in One SystemsAffiliate Link
Anvils 10.5 w/ pump and chillerAdventures in Homebrewing
Grainfather G30Adventures in Homebrewing
All in One Systems
Kits and Pieces

If an all in one system isn’t right for you I recommend the below kits. The Everything kit is everything you need to make great beer. Add a kegging system to this and you have a quite permanent solution. You may look at a lot of the odds and ends in the kit and consider them redundant to your kitchen. If so the All grain kit may be a be a better fit for you.

If you took my advice and picked up some equipment used at a discount I do recommend browsing Adventures in Homebrewing to complete your set using the below kits as a guide to what is needed.

ToolAffiliate Link
All grain kit8 gallon kettle, lauter tun, chiller, drain valve (AiH)
Don’t forget to add the thermometer add on.
EverythingThis kit has everything but the consumables (AiH).
The kit has a bottle capper and a bottling bucket. If you plan to keg this could be a small amount of waste.
Keg SystemsA page of options at AiH.
If you are getting a kegerator then you only need the CO2 regulator. If you plan on chilling enclosed in a fridge then grab a picnic tap as well. I’d say go for two kegs because variety is the spice of life.
Keg Carbonation LidLid substitute uses a suspended air stone to diffuse CO2 directly into beer. Works great to carbonate a keg quickly. Drinkable same day, perfect in a couple more. (Amazon)
KegeratorBeer (AiH)
Carboy6 gallon carboy (AiH)
Only the ‘everything kit’ above has a fermenter. For any other solution you’ll be needing this. Consider grabbing a carboy carrier too.
Siphon hoseYou’ll need to siphon beer out of the carboy into a bottling bucket or keg. Siphon hose (AiH)
Kits and useful pieces

As a bonus: emacs and spaces. And it’s certainly pronounced gif, not gif.

One response to “A Practical Guide to Buying Beer Brewing Equipment”

Leave a Reply