I’m going to break the necessary equipment into two sections: equipment you need to brew and equipment you need to bottle. There are some really good beginner’s brewing kits out there that include basically everything you need with a few exceptions, but I want to break it down piece by piece.
If you look at those beginner’s kits, however, you will notice some fundamental differences between the equipment we use and the equipment they recommend. This is due to the fact that DB and I both feel – if you’re going to do something, do it right. For us, this meant not wasting our time and money brewing on the stovetop with a 3 gallon kettle. Yes, you can make reasonably good beer this way. There are plenty of homebrewers who are successful with stovetop partial boils. But we knew (from our prolific research) that you brew better beer with a full boil and that that route was the way we wanted to go. So we decided to go straight for the really good, high quality brewing equipment and skip the “learning to brew on your stove with what you have at hand” stage. And this is the way, and equipment, that we are going to recommend.
Also, this is the equipment necessary to do either extract or extract with specialty grains if you steep your grains in your brew kettle, not for all-grain brewing. We brew extract with specialty grains that we steep in a separate kettle, which is what we recommend. The extra equipment needed to do it this way is listed at the end of the page, as it is not strictly necessary to make great beer.
So, what do you need to brew? You need:
A Kettle – In order to brew a 5 gallon batch without horrific boil overs, I highly recommend that you purchase a 10 gallon stainless steel kettle. This is the kettle we have and we love it. The thing weighs a ton empty and is ridiculously unweildy when filled with boiling hot wort, so you will either need to chill and rack where you brew or (like we do) have a brewing buddy to help you carry the monstrosity into the kitchen. The brewmometer and ball valve are, in my opinion, absolute necessities. It is so convenient to use the brewmometer to monitor your wort temperature as you chill it and to use the ball valve when racking to the primary. I can’t imagine doing it any other way. Note: If you attempt to do a partial boil in this kettle (as we did our very first brew day ever), the level of wort does not reach the brewmometer nor does it make using your wort chiller a possibility. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth when we first noticed this, until we realized that a full boil would allow us to utilize both items appropriately.
A Burner – Now, if you decide to do a partial boil rather than a full boil (which we don’t recommend), you can get by with a smaller kettle on your stovetop and not need a burner. But if you’re going to do it the BeerCat way, you’re gonna need a big propane burner to power your brews. We use the Bayou Classic Banjo Burner, a propane burner with 210,000 BTUs. Our only issue with this burner, as opposed to the Blichmann Burner, is that there is no wind protection for your flame. Luckily DB has a good friend who made us a wind screen to use around the burner. If you don’t know someone with access to sheet metal and some heavy duty nippers, this burner is still a good bet – you just might go through propane a little more quickly than we do. Another Note: There will be people who say that they use this burner in their garage. We don’t, as neither of us has a death wish, and don’t recommend that you do so either. Brew outside and live to brew another day.
A Wort Chiller – The faster you can chill your wort to pitching temperature, the less exposure your wort has to possible contaminants in the air. To chill our wort quickly, we use a standard immersion chiller that gets the job done in 10 to 15 minutes. Wort chillers work by running cold water through the copper tubing as it sits in your hot wort. You can just let the chiller sit there and it will get the job done eventually, but we like to swirl it about and agitate the wort to have it work faster and save a little water. Plate chillers work even faster with less water waste, but you need pumps to use them and that’s a bit beyond beginning homebrewing.
Something in which to ferment your beer – Homebrew kits generally provide a 5 gallon bucket with lid in which to ferment your beer. This will work just fine and result in tasty beer. For us, though, we rapidly made the switch to fermenting in carboys. We use Better Bottles rather than glass carboys. There are some issues with carboys over buckets – they’re harder to clean since you can’t get your hand down in there and, with Better Bottles, you can’t use bottle brushes because it might scratch the plastic. But being able to visually monitor fermentation is a huge benefit for us and outweighs any drawbacks there may be. If you’re planning on doing two stage fermentation, you will need 1 6-gallon and 1 5-gallon carboy.
Various Small Pieces of Equipment, such as:
An Erlenmeyer flask and sponge stopper for yeast starters : We recommend getting at least one 2L flask (preferably two) so that you’re set when you start doing higher gravity beers, as you know you will… Also, it is hugely important that your flask is made of borosilicate and NOT lime glass. Sommanufacturers are using lime glass because it is cheaper, but it doesn’t withstand rapid temperature changes as well as borosilicate and may break. German manufacturers and lab/school suppliers almost always have borosilicate.
A long handled stainless steel spoon for stirring your wort
A funnel to use when racking to your primary, preferably one with a mesh screen to strain
A Hydrometer for taking an original and a final gravity
A Beer Thief for obtaining samples to check your gravity
An Auto Siphon for transferring your beer between carboys and to the bottling bucket
An air lock and bung for your carboy – there is a set up specifically for Better Bottles (bung and airlock) and a set up that is universal for carboys (bung, air lock 1 or air lock 2) – any will work just fine with a less vigorous fermentation, but the Better Bottle set up is nice because the bung can be used with a blow off hose for your really wild fermentations as well as with the air lock.
Equipment for Steeping Specialty Grains – According to the ingredient kits at Northern Brewer and many homebrew how-to manuals, you can steep your specialty grains in your brew kettle and save yourself some time and equipment. DB and I do not do it this way because we feel we get better results with stove-top steeping. To do it our way (which is obviously what you want to do, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this), you need at least a 3 gallon stainless steel kettle (you can get this from a kitchenware store), a long thermometer, and muslin mesh grain bags.
I’m pretty sure that this covers everything you need to get through your first day brewing. There are other pieces of equipment that you will need as you grow as a homebrewer and start using more advanced techniques and brewing more complicated recipes. But for a starting point, the equipment listed will see you through for quite awhile and is high quality enough to let you brew for years to come.
A final note on obtaining your equipment: I provided links to both Northern Brewer and Midwest Supplies. They are certainly not the only two equipment suppliers out there and, as long as you get high quality equipment, it doesn’t matter where you get it. We have always had very good luck with Nothern Brewer and they have wonderful customer service if there is a problem, but they are not the cheapest supplier on the market. Do your research and buy your gear where you can get a good deal. It’s a serious outlay of cash to equip your homebrewery and if you can save a few bucks here and there, you should.