A side effect of the craft beer boom in the US has been a significant increase in interest for homebrewing. Although it has been federally legal in the US since 1978, there has been a noticeable uptick in recent years. Homebrew shops are popping up all over the place, (I have two nearby in Brooklyn, NY) and online retailers like Northern Brewer, Midwest Supplies, and MoreBeer make it easier than ever to get started making beer at home. The prospect of brewing and fermenting your own beer might seem somewhat intimidating, but I’m going to show you that with a small investment, and a little bit of education, you could be cracking open bottles of homemade beer in a few weeks’ time!
The beauty of homebrewing is it can be as easy or as complicated as you’re comfortable making it. On one end of the spectrum, there are self-contained kits like Mr. Beer, which make it as simple as mixing pre-hopped malt extract with water, adding dry yeast, and letting it ferment for a few weeks before bottling. It’s an incredibly low-stress way for a new brewer to nail down the basics. On the other end, there are brewers who have high tech all-grain setups, where they pay careful attention to water pH and chemistry, mash and lauter their grain, perform saccharification and protein rests, and ferment their wort using liquid yeast starters or possibly even yeast cultures they harvested and washed themselves from previous batches. If that’s making your head spin a little, fret not; there is a great big world of brewing to explore in between those two extremes!
The very first thing you should do as a new homebrewer is to scope out two books. They are The Complete Joy of Homebrewing by Charlie Papazian, and How to Brew by John Palmer. They are THE quintessential homebrewing guidebooks. Charlie Papazian was the granddaddy of American homebrewing. He founded the American Homebrewers Association in 1978, and wrote the first edition of Complete Joy in 1984. Before Charlie, there wasn’t a lot of educational information about homebrewing available, and his book became the bible for homebrewers. To this day, his zen-like mantra "Relax, don't worry, and have a homebrew!" remains the motto of a generation of homebrewers. John Palmer started writing How to Brew in the mid-90s and released it for free online. It was more current, in-depth, and technical than Papazian's tome, but still explained the process in a way that novices could understand. The first edition of his book is still available online, although there have been updates to the print edition that make it well worth owning. Both books contain valuable information for novice and advanced brewers alike, and should be an integral part of any homebrewer’s library.
Once you’ve perused those books, (no need to read either cover to cover; treat them as you would a reference book) it’s time to pick up some equipment. Most homebrew supply stores have a basic “starter kit” that includes (almost) everything you’ll need to craft your first 5-gallon batch, and cost around $70-$90. You can find them online as well here, here, here, here, and here. (Or, you know, just google “homebrew starter kit.”) Those kits do not include a brew kettle, however, so if you don’t already have a large enough pot (at least 5 gallons) you’ll need to pick one of those up as well. A basic one can be had for $20-$40. If you’d rather create your own starter kit, these are the essentials I recommend:
- 5-7.5 gallon brewpot
- 6-6.5 gallon carboy or 6.5 gallon bucket w/drilled, grommeted lid
- Drilled rubber stopper that fits 6 gallon carboy (*not needed if you go with the bucket)
- Airlock (I recommend the 3-piece kind)
- 6.5 gallon “bottling bucket” with spigot
- Hydrometer test jar
- Thermometer (floating kind or electronic version with probe)
- Auto siphon
- 3 ft. of plastic tubing (size that fits your auto siphon)
- Wine thief
- Twin lever bottle capper
- Bottling wand
- Bottle caps
- Large funnel
- Large strainer
- Bottle of sanitizing solution (I recommend Five Star brand Star San No-Rinse solution)
If the names of some of the equipment look unfamiliar, don’t worry. Trust that everything on that list is essential, and the function of each item will become clear as we progress. You could also buy bottles, but I find it much more economical to save empties of commercial beer, scrape off the labels, clean, and re-fill them. If you do save bottles, though, make sure they’re the pry-off kind and not screw tops. While it is possible to re-cap a screw top bottle, you get a more reliable seal with a pry-off bottle.
Now that you have your equipment, the next step will be to decide what to brew for your first batch, and purchase your ingredients. We'll discuss why you'll want to start with an all-extract recipe and the particulars of your first brew day in part two of Homebrewing 101! Be sure to post your questions in the comments section, or tweet me at @b_vanderbrook.
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