If you’re reading this then I’m guessing you like to drink beer. And, more importantly you’re keen to try your hand at actually brewing it yourself. That’s great. It’s brewing, not rocket science. And why the hell not? In the long run you’re going to save yourself some cash and do a bit of science and artistry. Anyone can have a go at it and it’s not particularly expensive to start out. Plus, Autumn and getting into Winter is actually a great time of year to brew.
Once you have your basic gear, at it’s cheapest you can churn out about 22L (or a little over 2.5 cases) of beer for less than $20 (possibly less than $15 if you’re happy with very average beer). So if you’re paying $35 a case of basic lager, then you’re going to save yourself about $75 for every batch you brew. You can pick up a Home brew starter kit for about $120, which includes everything you need to brew and the ingredients to do your first batch. So you’re going to be ahead financially after you’ve done 2 batches. If you’re paying $55-70 a case for premium craft beers then you’re going to be saving a lot more. That should help you sell the idea to your skeptical better half.
In this blog post I’m going to run you through the things you’re going to need to brew your first beer.
Shit you really need:
- Fermenter – This is where you’re going to ferment your wort. Wort is the extracted goodness from grains and hops which makes your beer. You’ll get one in a home brew starter kit, or you can go buy a 30L drinking water barrel from Bunnings, Rays, BCF… It should be round, and have a tap which you can unscrew, and have a lid.
- Bottles. – Well duh. If you want bubbly beer you’re going to need to put it somewhere after it’s fermented to carbonate. So unless you’ve got kegs (in which case you’re probably beyond this post in terms of your beer making capabilities) bottles is by far the easiest. Glass, PET its doesn’t really matter. Purists will say glass is better, but frankly at this point in your beer making journey it doesn’t matter. Again most starter kits come with enough 750mL PET bottles for a batch. You can save your PET bottles (LFL bottles would be perfect) or old glass bottles and reuse them for your beer. However they should be brown (or green, and not clear), and the pop top ones are better for re-sealing than the screw top ones. (Screw top ones will work, they can just be harder to seal). One big benefit of PET is you’re unlikely to create bottle bombs as they can withstand more pressure than most glass.
- A bottle brush. You’ve got to clean the bottles, and getting scungy old yeast off the bottom of bottles requires a brush. Because, lets face it, at some point you’re going to forget to rinse the bottle straight after you pour it.
- Thermometer. One of the little stick on heat sensitive ones is fine. You just stick to the side of your fermenter. Most starter kits will have one, or you can get one from a pet store, they’re used for aquariums. You want a range of about 8deg – 35deg, in 2 deg increments.
- Cleaner. If you don’t like cleaning shit, you better get used to it. Brewing beer is actually a lot of cleaning. Again most starter kits will have a cleaner. Alternatively you can use non-scented nappy soaker, the active ingredient is stuff called sodiumpercarbonate, most laundry soakers have it at about 32%, the higher concentrate it is the better. It’s non corrosive, so very safe.
- Sanitiser. Guess what, most starter kits will have this stuff too. Don’t mistake cleaner with sanitiser. Sanitiser will kill any nasties which will fuck up your beer. Some sanitisers are no-rinse, which as the name implies means you don’t need to rinse it off after you use it, I prefer these. I mean whats the point if you sanitise something then rinse it off with plain old water which may have contaminates in it. If the sanitiser you get is not no-rinse make sure you rinse it…
Shit that’s really good to have
- A hydrometer. This should probably be in the list above, but you can get away without one if absolutely necessary. Comes in a starter kit, but can be bought separately, they’re pretty fragile so break easily. This thing measures the sugar content in your liquid. Plain water should read 1.000, this number is called your Gravity. Your wort before fermentation should read up around 1.048, this is your Original Gravity (OG), your beer after fermentation should be down around 1.008, this is your Final Gravity (FG). As the yeast converts sugar to CO2 & alcohol the gravity drops until the yeast has converted all the sugars it can, any readings you take along the way are called Specific Gravity (SG) readings. Toward the end of fermentation you should take SG readings every day. Once the reading is steady, and hasn’t changed for 3 days you’ve generally reached your FG. This is important. If you don’t reach a steady reading, and bottle to early you end up with over carbonated beer that will pour as all head, or if you’re using glass bottles, you’ll get glass bombs. You don’t want these, flying glass will embed itself in plasterboard ceilings and wall easily, imaging what it would do to your kids face if they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.
- A bottling wand. This is a nice little thing you shove in your fermenter tap, then when you put the bottle on it and press up beer flows out of the wand into your bottle. When you lower the bottle beer stops flowing. This is much easier than turning the tap handle for every bottle. If you’re lucky one of these might come in your starter kit.
- An Air-lock. The fermenter needs to be sealed to stop bad things getting in. But also needs a way to let the CO2 the yeast makes out. Enter Mr Air-lock, basically a miniature S bend for the top of your fermenter. They come in your starter kit. Personally I don’t use one, I just cover the top of my fermenter with cling wrap and use the rubber O ring from the lid to hold it in place, this stops the bad stuff getting in, and still lets the CO2 to escape from around the O-ring, and also has the added advantage of letting you easily see what’s happening in your fermenter.
Shit that’s nice to have, but not really needed
- Bottle drying tree. After washing all your bottles you’re going to want somewhere to dry them all, one of these is handy.
- Bottle rinser. These little wonders are great for spraying sanitiser up into your bottles.
- Bench capper. If you’re using glass bottles these are shit-loads easier to use than a hand capper plus a hammer.
- Sugar measure. White sugar is cheaper than “carb drops” and these things give you a perfect measure of bottling sugar for a certain size bottle. They’ve normally either got 2 or 3 scoop bits for 330mL, 500mL, 640mL, 750mL etc etc.
So that’s your equipment covered. Everything you really need, and everything that’s good to have will come in a starter kit.
You can pick up Home brew starter kits in a bunch of places. Big W, Dan Murphys, local home brew shops, and sometimes K-Mart. They’re all pretty similar in what they contain (make sure it has the bottlling wand) and should cost you about $120.
4 Types of Home Brew
There are commonly 4 types of home brew that people make. Kit & bits, Full Extract, Partials, and All Grain.
For this post I’m only going to cover “Kit beer”. I’m not even going to really cover the “& Bits” piece, I’ll leave that for another post.
First up, what’s the ingredients of any beer?
- Wort. Wort is the liquid extracted from the mashing process (I’ll cover what mashing is in another post) during the brewing of beer or whisky. Wort contains the sugars that will be fermented by the brewing yeast to produce alcohol. (thank-you wikipedia).
- Hops. There’s lots of different varieties, and they all impart different flavors. Fruity, citrus-y, floral, resin-y, earthy, wine-y.
- Yeast. There’s lots of different types of yeast too, for different styles, which work at different temperatures, and impart different flavors too.
So what’s in a “Kit beer”? At its simplest it’s a 1.8kg tin of pre-hopped wort extract, plus 1kg of extra fermentables.
You can find home brew tins in Big W, Dan Murpheys or your local home brew shop, often they’re in Woolies, Coles, IGA, Frankins, sometimes in K-Mart. They’re made by Thooeys, Coopers, Briglow, and a host of other people. They range in price from $10 to $40, but most decent ones are around the $20 mark.
Your extra 1kg of fermentables can be as basic, and cheap, as 1kg of white sugar. However sugar (sucrose) isn’t the best thing to use as it can impart flavors you don’t really want. A better option than sugar is stuff called “dextrose”, it’s completely neutral in flavor and will ferment fully leaving no residual sweetness. Dex (or white sugar) is probably an acceptable option if you’re brewing a light bodied beer, like a lager or a cerveza. But if you’re brewing an Ale (or pretty much any other type of beer, porter, stout, etc) then you might want a bit more body and flavor to your beer. Coopers sell this stuff called “Brew Enhancer” and “Brew Enhancer 2”. BE2 is a mixture of Dex, maltodextrose (helps with beer head retention) and light dry malt extract (LDME). LDME is a powdered, un-hopped, version of whats in your kit tin. If you want even more body and flavor then you can use 1kg of straight LDME you can buy LDME at your local home brew shop, or online brew shops. Or you can mix your own 1kg from white sugar, dextose, DME, brown sugar, lactose, honey, maple syrup, or anything else that’s basically just some sort of sugar.
Last thing you need is yeast. Without it you’re not going to make beer. Yeast are little microorganisms that eat sugars, fart CO2, and defecate alcohol. They are your best friend in the brewing process, you want to keep them happy. Make them unhappy and they’ll make your beer taste shit. A kit tin will have a packet of yeast in the lid (unless someone has nicked it, so just check to make sure it’s there). It generally doesn’t matter what kind of kit you buy, the yeast will be a mixture of lager and ale yeast, the reason for this is the manufacturers want to make sure it’ll work in as wide a temperature range as possible. Lager yeasts work down around the 6-12 degrees mark. Unless you’re in a really cold time of year and have your fermenter out in the back shed it’s hard to keep your fermenter down at this temperature range (unless you have a fridge with a temp controller – I’ll write a post about this at some point). So most beer you make is actually, strictly speaking, going to be an ale. That’s ok, do it right and your lager kit, fermented with ale yeast, is still going to taste like a lager.
So there you go. That’s all you’ll need to start making your very own beer, and a little bit of info about the various bits.
Brewing is a slippery slope, you start out with kits, and before long you’ll be brewing all grain with a 3 Vessel brewing setup and your wife (girlfriend, de-facto, boyfriend, husband) will be saying “wasn’t this supposed to save us money? What are you buying a $200 urn? What’s that esky with the tap in it for? Why do we have an Erlenmeyer flask in the dishwasher?”
SO, go out buy yourself a Starter Kit, or beg, borrow, scrounge together the bits you need to start. You’ll be glad you did.
About me – I’m a father of 2 boys (2yo & 5yo), work in IT, I build stuff, I like power tools, I don’t like reality TV, I listen to rock/heavy metal music, I occasionally watch UFC, I like learning new skills, I used to play the saxophone, I cook stuff. Oh, and I make beer (even won an award for one), you can find me on Untappd as “mkstalen”, and my Homebrewery “Steel Mountain Brewing” lists a number of my beers, if you ever try one make sure you check it in.