By Greig McGill
This article might not be for you. If you’re reading this, you’re likely well set up with your own system for brewing, and have lovingly tweaked it over time to be exactly the way you’d like it. That said, I’ve often been asked by those new to the hobby what gear they should get, and while there is no one answer, I thought now might be a great time to put some simple answers to this question down in print. If you’ve got a friend who is thinking about getting started as a homebrewer, you might want to send them this article to help their decision making process. Or you might just want to read it so you can disagree with me! It is the internet, after all…
It’s coming up to the holiday season. A great time to be thinking about what you’d like to gift someone, or maybe you’re being asked what you’d like as a gift and are thinking about dipping your toe into the fantastic hobby (or obsession) that is homebrewing. What gear should you get? It doesn’t have to be a giant money pit. Nor does it have to be the be-all and end-all of systems. It needs to be something that will get you making consistent beer, and ideally be modular, so that it can grow as you do. The easiest way to spec a system is to break it down into task based modules, and look at what will do the job well. So, let’s do just that! A quick note before we go further; I am specifically talking about setting someone up for all-grain brewing. There is no shame in brewing with extract, but I think if you’re going to start brewing, you might as well start with all your options from day one, which all-grain provides.
This might be the hardest area to save money in, as a poor grain crush makes it very hard to brew beer with consistent results. If you can’t afford a mill, consider using the great service offered by brewshop.co.nz where they will happily pre-mill your grain for you. Just be aware that our old friend oxidation will start working on that grain straight away. Not a problem really, if you’re planning to brew the next day, but don’t let that grain sit around for too long. If you do want a cheap mill, with adjustable rollers to suit different maltsters grain sizes, the MaltMuncher 2 roller mill is a pretty good entry point. Note that it doesn’t come with a base board, but a bit of DIY can save some money there! This mill will pretty much last you a lifetime too, so while it might seem expensive for a “cheap” system, it’s not something you’ll ever need to throw out or upgrade (unless you really want to). Just keep it clean and dust free, and avoid storing it anywhere it might get damp.
Here is where you can save some serious money. A couple of decent sized plastic buckets, a plastic tap, and an old washable blanket can make a good insulated mash tun. Drill a grid of 1mm holes into the bottom of one of the buckets, stack it inside the second bucket, drill your tap through the lower part of the side wall of the second bucket, and wrap the whole thing in your old blanket and you have a pretty good insulated mash tun with a false bottom. Yes, you’ll need to sparge “manually” by pouring hot water over the top, and collecting your wort from the tap, but your total outlay here could be less than $40! I have personally made medal winning beer on this setup, and there’s really no reason to upgrade other than convenience, or for the sheer love of gear! Another option would be an old chilly bin/cooler/esky (whatever your nomenclature of choice). If it has an existing drain plug, you can fit a braided metal hose covering with the hose removed, or build a slotted/drilled manifold as your “false bottom”. Google this - there are many plans on the internet - here’s a bunch of options. Again, if you have a chilly bin lying around, this option is almost free!
A boil kettle is just a big pot. Sure the flasher ones have nice-to-haves, like sight glasses, whirlpool attachments, and trub strainers, but there’s money to be saved here! Any stainless steel stock pot of around 40-50L will do. You can probably even get away with 30L for a standard 20L batch of beer, but it can get a bit hairy when there’s a boilover! With this size, you’ll be able to use your stovetop elements, but any larger and you might need to use a BBQ, or get a dedicated burner or even a heating element.
If you trust in the no-chill method, you can simply skip this step and save money. If not though, the cheapest option is usually an immersion chiller. There’s not really any way to save money here, unless you have a cheap source of stainless steel or copper tubing, and are confident winding it yourself. You’ll also need some hose fittings to hook it up to your household taps or hose outlet.
Remember those buckets that you (might have) made your mash tun out of? Well, if you’re happy with another of those, there’s your fermenter sorted too! Just be VERY careful when cleaning. Any scratches in the plastic surface can and will harbour bacteria that will spoil all your yeast’s hard work with a contaminated beer. Keep the lid, drill a small hole, buy an airlock, or simply fit a piece of food safe plastic hose as a blow-off tube, seal it, and pop the other end in a jug of sanitiser.
I recommend never skipping temperature control. It’s often the difference between “OK” or even undrinkable beer, and truly excellent beer, indistinguishable from (or better than) anything you can buy. Yeast needs to operate in a certain temperature range, and will ferment the best when you start at the low end of that range, and progress to the higher end, never going backwards until fermentation is completely done, including the “cleanup phase”, where terminal gravity has been reached but the yeast will continue to clean up some off flavours produced during fermentation. Keep an eye out for old fridges or freezers where the compressor still works “enough” - remember that unless you’re making lagers, you don’t really need to hold a temperature lower than 17C. Ideally, you can drop to 0C for cooling and clarifying. Just find that cheap old fridge (all hail the luck gods of Trademe), replace the fridge’s thermostat with a temperature controller, and you’re away - a temperature controlled fermentation chamber. If you really want to save this money, I’d advise brewing seasonally only - ie. lagers in winter, ales in summer, and find the most stable ambient temperature space you can to keep your fermenter.
The cheapest option for packaging and serving your beer is still glass bottles. These can be found free usually, and so long as they are well cleaned and sanitised, can be used indefinitely. Crown seal caps are cheap, and a bottle capper is a fairly cheap one-time purchase - these things last forever!
Bits & Pieces
You’ll also need plastic hosing, miscellaneous clamps, a drill and bits, some sanitiser, some cleaner, some sealant, and a stirring spoon - most of this stuff you’ll either have already, or can be had for cheap. For cleaning plastic fermenters, I like to hose them out as much as possible, then fill them with warm water and some Oxy-based cleaner like Napisan - it’s cheap and at the supermarket! Bonus, you can soak all your other fittings in there too, just be careful not to scratch the plastic! Don’t skimp on the sanitiser though. StarSan remains the best option for the homebrewer, in my opinion.
The Bougie Option
If you’ve just won Lotto, and money is no object, well… People often ask me what I’d buy if I went back to home brewing and wanted “the best” setup. There’s no such thing as the best for all people and scenarios, but here’s my shopping list in case anyone has lots of money and wants what I’d use!
And, of course, kegs! Bottling gets old fast!
I hope you all have an excellent holiday season, get some cool brewing gear in your stocking, and give lots of great beer!