Brewing Necessities

The bulk of my brewing equipment, though I’ve got a bottle drying rack on that table now, too.

In the last few years of brewing beer, I’ve accumulated a few additional “toys” beyond the standard brewing kit you can get from just about any retailer.  Thus, I thought it could be helpful to outline some of the other accessories that I think are “worth it,” as funds become available.  I’m going to go in order of what I’d recommend acquiring first, and then go down to other “nice things to have,” plus a few things I don’t have yet, but are definitely on my list of upgrades.

Please note that I’m linking to equipment through Northern Brewer, but in many cases, these aren’t the items I’ve got.  I just wanted to link to examples and am too lazy to track down the exact stuff I’ve got.  Do some research to get the best deals, but these are probably solid examples of what to expect and how much they tend to cost.

  1. Propane Burner – To some degree, this depends on how good your oven range is, but even if it’s a good one, I’d still recommend getting one of these.  Firstly, they’re capable of getting your wort up to boiling in about 20 min.  Secondly, it’s really, really easy to kill the heat, thus stopping spill-over without having to pick up 3-5 gal of wort.  Thirdly, you can do everything outside, so even if you do let it spill over, you don’t have to clean up your kitchen.  Finally, these things are useful for more than just brewing, as you can host a shrimp boil, fry a turkey, etc.  So even though this kind of equipment can be somewhat expensive, I think it’s the first thing to shoot for getting after you get started brewing.
  2. Gasket Bottles – These things are great, so long as you plan on drinking these volumes of beer in a given time.  They’re nice because you can re-use the bottles and re-use the caps and gaskets.  You may need to replace the gasket eventually, but I’ve never had to do it.  Also, depending on where you get your beer, you can sometimes buy beer in this kind of bottle, meaning you are effectively buying a bottle that happens to also come with beer (win-win!).  The 1 L bottle size is probably easiest to come by and most useful for an evening, but the 2 L bottles are nice to have, too.  If you like Grolsch beer, you can get 16 oz bottles from them, or buy the bottles empty.  Regardless, you don’t go through bottle caps this way, and you don’t need to employ a capper.  Definitely worth considering!
  3. Bottle Washer – If you bottle beer, you know that cleaning said bottles can be a huge pain.  Homebrew frequently leaves a film on the bottom of the bottles that’s difficult to remove without a bottle brush, and while those brushes work, they really slow down the cleaning process.  Thus, if you’ve got a sink that can fit one of these bottle washers, I highly recommend it.  They’re only about $12 and are worth every penny.  The nice thing is that mine also fits 5 gal glass carboys, too, which are equally ridiculous to clean, so again, multi-purpose.  They’re probably awesome at cleaning baby bottles, too, but I haven’t tried…  Highly recommended!
  4. Wort Chiller – The need for a wort chiller really depends on your situation, I guess.  Essentially, when you’re brewing your beer, you need to cool your wort down quickly from boiling to around 70 F before you add yeast.  If you’ve just been boiling 3-5 gal of liquid, this can take…a…really…long…  …time…  Thus, you can speed it up with ice, with snow (in the winter…or in Alaska…), or you can get a wort chiller.  Mine works pretty well for cooling down 3+ gal of wort within about 20 min, so it really saves time over what I used to do (putting the pot in the sink and adding ice water to it), which easily lasted an hour or more.  If I had an ice maker in my fridge, maybe I’d have stuck with ice, but in our situation, I don’t have enough ice trays to keep the water cold.  Thus, for me, a wort chiller is pretty awesome.  Not the first thing I’d get, but still pretty useful.  But, if you live next to a 7-Eleven and can pick up a few bags of ice, that works, too.
  5. Glass Carboy – Starter beer kits don’t usually come with these, but having one or two of these on-hand isn’t a bad idea.  The small opening at the top isn’t ideal, and the glass is breakable, but at the same time, it gives you a chance to keep an eye on your beer during the fermentation process.  Also, if you’re concerned about flavors of your beer “leeching” into (or out of) the plastic bucket that usually comes with kits, then glass is definitely your friend.  You can also get these in a 3 gal size, which is nice for small batches (or for hard apple cider).
  6. Bottle Drying Rack – There are ways around this, of course.  We used to clean bottles and put them upside down in a laundry basket with a towel, and that worked just fine.  It took up tons of space, but it worked.  So, I’m saying that there are alternative ways of drying your bottles.  However, for $20, these things aren’t bad to have.  Probably not the first upgrade I’d head for, but definitely a nice thing to have.  
Next Steps (as in, stuff I don’t have yet, but am considering for the future):
  • Temperature control system – If you want to make lagers or pilsners year-round, there are a few options, but the best way is to use something like a freezer with an external temperature control system.  Basically, you put your wort in the freezer, modified with a control box that controls the freezer’s compressor to cycle on and off depending on what temperature the probe inside is reading.  If you want to keep your beer at 55 F, this will make it happen, and temperatures like that are required if you want to make certain beer styles.  If you’ve got a cellar, it may not be required, but if you want to make that style of beer all year, it’s a necessity to have this kind of temperature control.  Otherwise, like me, you can probably only make lagers in February.
  • Fermentation Heater – Depending on your situation, one of these could be useful.  Yeast like to be active at certain temperatures, and if you brew in the winter, you may need to keep your wort at a reasonable temperature for a few weeks.  For example, this past winter, my basement held around 55 F, which is too low for many ale yeasts.  Thus, I used an electric oil heater, sat it right next to the wort, and that kept the temperature closer to 70 F.  However, you can use something like this heating pad to achieve the same goal, perhaps a bit more elegantly.
  • Bottle Capper – The cheap capper that comes with a typical beer kit is “functional,” but it doesn’t cap bottles “cleanly.”  As in, sometimes, the bottle cap will slip to the side as you push down on the handles.  Thus, something more like this one, that you can mount on a table, can be better as you gain additional stability while you cap the bottle, and moreover, you get additional leverage (i.e. strength).  Not the kind of thing, you necessarily need, but wouldn’t be a bad investment for later down the road.
  • Kegging System – There are any number of ways to make this happen.  The cheapest way is to get a used keg and the additional hardware to allow you to carbonate your beer and keep it sealed.  Used kegs can be purchased from a variety of locations, but it’s key to make sure the seals have been replaced.  Still, the used one from Northern Brewer is $161, while the version with a new keg is $224.  Additionally, you can always spring for a fridge conversion kit to allow you to make a keg-o-rator, but for my money, I think a “keezer” is the best plan.  It involves taking a regular horizontal freezer, raising the lid with some 2″x4″ boards, and drilling some holes for the tappers.  It doesn’t involve making holes in the freezer itself: just moving the lid up about 4″.  Of course, a kegging system is a whole other ballgame and it depends on whether you like having your beer in bottles, or whether you want to be “over and done” after you transfer your brew to a keg.  Or whether you want to be able to take a 6-pack to your friend’s house, or if you can live with always taking growlers.  Personally, I like bottles, but having a keg wouldn’t be a terrible thing, either.

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