Homebrewing, I have found, can be a bit of an addiction. Not in the “I’m addicted to drinking” sense, although I find it enjoyable to have a pint or two with friends and family. More so in the “doing it” part. It’s something cathartic, knowing that you’re creating something with your bare hands.
Ok truly you’re not creating it. You’re creating the liquid you’ll feed to your yeast that then creates the beer for you. But I digress.
The thing is it’s a hobby, and like any hobby it can be addicting. You make something, and with making it you can always make it better. There’s new ways, new processes, new things to consider when you’re brewing. New ingredients to try, new ways to ferment or add hops.
And of course, new equipment you can either buy or make.
When you’re bitten by the homebrewing bug, it’s certainly an investment. In ways you could say it’s cheaper than buying a six pack, but not if you consider all the equipment you’ll invest in. So I feel like, as a follow up to my article What you need to get started with Homebrewing, this article focuses on all the directions you can go from here, with a focus on both a product and diy solution. This is not meant to be a comprehensive “Everything you could possibly do with brewing” list, nor do I expect to cover every angle, but in some cases I might want to explore a few different options and what you can do. I will try to sort them in what I feel is the important things to consider in growing your brewing practices and equipment
Equipment after getting started
This should be the very first thing you should work on investing in after you start brewing. When starting out with partial boil, you can place the pot in an ice water bath and circulate the wort in the pot with little issue, but as you get to full boil size, you need something a little extra.
With Wort Chillers, you have three choices:
- Immersion coil
- Counterflow coil
- Plate Chiller
I’m not going to cover the different types in detail, but the basic concepts are this: Immersion coil you circulate tap water through one end, dip the coil in the wort, and out the other end comes the tap water that’s absorbed the head from the wort. As for the counterflow and plate chillers, instead of submerging the chiller in the wort, you extract the wort and run it through the chiller and surround its (contained by pipes of course) with water that is extracting the heat before it’s transfered into your fermenter.
If you’re still starting out, I’d suggest getting a immersion chiller. this allows for even chilling of the wort and less cleanup. When you scale up to larger batches then you might want to look at a counterflow or plate chiller, but this is the easiest to get rolling with.
Commercial: These are relatively easy to find at any homebrew store and usually will come in 25′ or 50′ varients. You can get them in stainless steel, but because of the heat transferring properties of copper I’d always suggest copper. This 25′ chiller at Atlantic Brew Supply is $55 and The 50′ version is $119.99. Larger/longer coil will allow for more thermal exchange, meaning quicker cooling times.
DIY: Brew your own magazine has alot of great articles, and this is one of them. I’d suggest going all the way with making a 50ft chiller, which you can find the tubing here for about $34. With the rest of the parts in the list I’d give it a rough estimate of about $45. It’s not as fancy as the soldered full version and is a smaller diameter, but works pretty effectively.
Propane Burner and larger pot
Unless you’ve got a gas stove range, brewing on an electric stove top is not the most efficient. This means that your brew days may take substantially more time, and in some cases you might not achieve a rolling boil even on a partial boil of 2.5 gallons, let alone a full batch. Therefore, getting a propane burner and larger pot are things to consider at some point, so I figure I’ll pair them together.
Commercial: There are many different types and packages you can chose from. To start with, you can just get yourself a turkey fryer kit ($59.97 w/ Prime Shipping). As long as it’s at least 30 quarts (7.5 Gallons) you should be able to hold a full boil volume. That’s what I started out with. It’ll be low power though, so if you want to pump that power up, you can instead get a Banjo Burner ($82.94). As for the pot, the onse usually included with a turkery fryer are aluminum so you may want to upgrade to a stainless steel pot ($57.95)
DIY: Technically there are DIY options, but for this I’m basically going to say N/A when you’re first scaling up. I mean you CAN DIY it if you want to. You can get the individual burners, build yourself a burner rack that you can place the pots on, and you can even make brew kettles out of old kegs (These are often reffered to as ‘keggles’. I did not chose the name. They left me off of the voting committee at the time). My main point is time and effort I don’t feel that these are necessarily the best focus starting out. You can get to them when you’re really addicted.
I received a bit of flack for one of my points on Top Ten Tips for a new Homebrewer when I stated as a point “Bottling sucks, invest in kegging”. Bug I stand by what I say. It does suck!
Yes, it’s good to know how to bottle and how to do all that stuff. I get that. But it takes several extra hours of work and several more weeks before you can even enjoy your first brew. If you keg though, you just transfer your beer directly into the keg, close it up, gas out the oxygen, then you can either set it at serving pressure and put in the kegerator for a few weeks, or if you’re impatient like me set it at 30 psi for a few days and serve. No cleaning bottles and caps, no transferring to a bottling bucket, no filling every bottle and capping it, no extra cleanup. Nothing. Just keg.
Both choices here will presume you’ve gotten a keg, which you can get used for $65 or less.
Commercial: there’s several options here, but this one is $399. It’s a single tap though, and I’d suggest investing in a two tap kegerator if you can,
DIY: Here’s where things get interesting. There are alot of options available to you here, but affordability? I don’t know if I can say it’s better financially, but at the same time I don’t think that’s a reason to not consider it. First off, here’s BYO’s article on considering a conversion and what you’d expect to do, and here’s a more indepth article on doing it. Pricing it out is a bit difficult and depends on how you want to do it. First, we’ll say that you have the option of a kegerator or a keezer (a kegerator built out of a chest freezer), so pick if you want to do a fridge or a freezer. Often you can find either of these on craigslist for $50-100, but you want at least a 4.5 cubic feet fridge that’s measured to hold at least one pony/conrelius keg (Check this reference guide for measurements). Then you’ll need a CO2 tank, a regulator, gas tubing and fittings for the keg for carbonating, and a coupler for the keg (sankey, pin, or lock). If you want to do 2 kegs you’ll need a gas line splitter (or if you want more precise control a two line regulator, but that will cost you). For the beer serving you need a liquid line out, and then the question is what is it feeding out to? If you’re doing a fridge you might want a serving tower and drip tray. If not you can just get the faucet and drill it through the front, which you would do with a keezer setup. Needless to say you’ll need to at least do some drilling. And if you’re doing a keezer you’ll also need to do some woodwork, as you won’t want to drill through the freezer and will want to instead raise the lid off and give yourself a drillable surface. I won’t price out every choice, but presuming we said kegerator with 2 tap tower, here’s a conversion kit that goes for $240. So expect this to set you back at least $300. Plus the cost of kegs.
The Next Step
All Grain Brewing: This is the next major step for a homebrewer. I’d like to say first off it’s not required necessarily. You can still make wonderful homebrews via extract. But as brulosophy points out the extract alternatives do not produce the same flavor as the all grain variant. That’s not necessarily bad, but it’s a factor to consider. Additionally it gives you more control over the wort that you produce which will eventually become beer.
You’ve got several choices when it comes to all grain brewing. The most basic is a cooler “mash tun”, in which you leave your grain and hot water for about an hour, extract, and then rinse it with sparge water. The next option is a bit newer, called “brew in a bag” which is much simpler than making a mash tun. It requires only a single vessel, your brew pot, to soak your grains in as you put them in a bag that is easy to extract. The negative side is while you don’t have to sparge, it ends up with a lower efficiency. The efficiency though is still acceptable. Finally there are a few other options which I’ll list under “tri vessel” methods. The basic level is having three brew pots and three heaters. One is your mash tun where you soak your grains, one is your hot liquor tank (where you heat up your mash and sparge water), and one is your brewing vessel. on the basic level that’s all there is, but you can add valves for extracting the liquid from one to another and pumps to pump it through. Additionally there’s some alternates to this setup called RIMS and HERMS which are systems that extract the mash wort from the mash tun and recirculates it through a heating vessel. With RIMS the heat is applied directly to the recirculation tube, while HERMS it’s infused from water exchanging ti heat in the HLT.
Commercial: There are so many choices here. At the simplest brew in a bag is the easiest to suggest as it doesn’t really require much that you haven’t already aquired by this point. If I had to suggest a “professional” setup I’d suggest from brewinabag.com since they aim on building them a bit better than the standard type ($30). Next there’s the Mash cooler option, which will run you $159. Finally the tri vessel system is your most expensive soute. I won’t detail all the different combinations, but suffice to say take my information on larger vessel and burner and add them together.
DIY: Here’s where things get fun. You don’t HAVE to use any of the commercial ones I suggested because most of these choices are really easy to make yourself. For brew in a bag brulosophy suggested this bag which is $12.49. For a mash tun here are instructions on how to make one. Mine I made for about $40 with a 52 quart rectangular cooler. Basic Trivessel doesn’t really require DIY, but here are instructions to make a HERMS lid. I’ve also experimented with the idea of regulating the heat of the HLT water for the HERMS system with a sous vide cooker which you can get for $179.
In my What you need to get started with Homebrewing article I suggested you should get a water bath for your beer to regulate the temperature. This is a good starting level to keep your temperature in your beer more consistent, but if you want real precision you need a fermentation chamber. instead of heat exchange and regulation, a fermentation works on active heating and cooling to maintain a stable temperature. it’ll give you more control and make it easier for you to lager your beer precisely.
Options here are varied. On the base level, most fermentation chambers require a highly insulated chamber and something to provide both cooled air and to heat the fermenter, and a temperature monitor to control both heating and cooling should the beer fall out of range. On the top end, instead of using an actual chamber to contain your fermenter, heating and cooling is applied directly to the fermenter, which is usually found on high end conical fermenters.
Commercial: There’s not alot of “prebuilt” setups for this. The best I can provide is a modification kit for SS conical fermenter, which is $249. I could go into “prebuilt” vs. “DIY” temperature controllers here but I feel that’s beyond my focus in this article.
DIY: There’s two I think should be the focus here: the “son of fermentation chiller” and the simpler “fridge/freezer fermentation chamber”. The first one requires building your own enclosure, adding ice, having a fan to circulate air, and add a heating element and hook them all to the temperature controller. The second just requires the temperature controller and heating element. I’ll let you decide which route you want to go, but I chose the latter. For mine, I went with a chest freezer with an Inkbird ITC-308 digital temperature controller that has a compressor delay (needed for the deep freezer) ($38.99) and wrapped in some heat tape (about $20 assembled)
Full Automation: the ultimate dream goal, full automation. brewing can be a very physical act and the less extra effort the better, I say. It takes hours out of your day but the payout is worth it. Delicious, beautiful beer you can say that you made yourself. So why not aim to take some of the back breaking blood, sweat, and tears out of it?
Now when I say Full automation there are varying degrees. To this I consider at least a pump transferal system for recirculation, valves to extract the wort, and to heat/boil within the same setup and not have to move alot of equipment around and do alot of heavy lifting until after you start cleaning up (some exceptions will apply as you’ll see). There’s plenty of options here so I’ll try to get focused on a few
Commercial: Here’s a comparison of automated systems. This has been my recent addiction, the Grainfather. This is a single vessell all in one 120v electric system with temperature control, a basket that has a false bottom to contain your grains that you can stand on top of it to do fly sparging, recirculating pump to run the wort through and maintain tempreature, and includes a counterflow wort chiller. Since it’s got the mashing basket you do have to remove it before you boil, but that’s a minor amount of movement in my opinion. The Brew boss is pretty much a pre-assembled electric single vessel brewing system and not as distinctly designed as the grainfather. Additionally its price point starts at $1149. Then there’s the Bilchman Brew Easy, which starts at $1,929. This thing is fancy and stacks vertically, seems like a much finer version of the grainfather. And finally there’s the Picobrew Zymatic. This is as automatic as it gets. You put in your ingredients, put in your mashing schedules, turn it on and go. You don’t have to come back to it until you put your brew in to ferment. There’s alot of mysticism lost in this process but I don’t feel like it’s necessarily a bad thing in some ways. The biggest issue with it though is it only does 2.5 gallon batches, and starting at $1,999 there’s very few situations I can appreciate this. I’d preffer this for a “recipe testing” scenario rather than a full brewing device.
DIY: Matching these full setups requires more engineering know how than I think alot of brewers would have. That’s not to say you can’t do it but instead I’d advise you focus on making a three vessel RIMS or HERMS system. Since there’s so many ways to achieve this there’s not really “one” way to do all this and not one set of instructions. Instead you’ll just have to piece things together. You’ll basically want:
- Three brewing vessels with valves
- three heating elements
- two temperature controllers hooked to the heating elements to regulate the temperature
- food grade heat safe tubing to transfer the wort
- food grade pump to transfer the wort and liquid
- Counterflow wort chiller
There are plenty more devices and attachments you can get to improve your beer. I won’t detail everything of course, and will only provide commercial examples. Suffice to say there are often DIY options for many of these
- Hop Spider: This is intended to submerge the hops in the boiling wort w/o the residue spreading throughout the entire wort. I personally don’t use one and would only suggest it for setups involving pumps and valves.
- Stir Plate and yeast flask: This is to help propagate and develop yeast before pitching. It’s important to pitch healthy, active yeast and the appropriate amounts of it based on your style, so this will aid in getting your yeast levels up to par
- Hop Back: If you’re into IPAs, maximizing the hop aroma and flavor is often a end goal for you. This attachment will aid in extracting more hop flavors from your beer
- Storage containers: This isn’t so much for brewing itself rather than making your brewing cheaper. Get yourself some air tight storage containers that can store up to 50 lbs of grain, and buy your ingredients in bulk. Brulosophy has a wonderful article about the cost benefits of getting ingredients in bulk
- Conical fermenter: I can’t begin to explain whether this is a must have or a nice to have thing. It’s definitley a nice device that allows you to ferment in it and easily harvest your yeast.What I will say is my understanding is that the shape of your fermentation vessel will have effects on your beer so it may not necessarily be “better” as much as it’ll produce a “different” beer.
- Raspberry Pi: This thing is versatile. This isn’t necessarily used for one specific task, rather you can get a raspberry Pi or two and set them up for monitoring several things. You can use it in controlling your mash schedule, the control your fermentation schedule, to keep track of your kegerator chamber or even to display what you’ve got on tap and act as a web server. There are plenty of projects and software out there for this device that’ll aid you in your brew day so this cheap and highly useful device will come in handy.
Did I forget anything? Have any other devices you suggest? Write it down in the comments below! I’m sure I didn’t cover every little device out there that you can make, so let others know what you think can also benefit your beer brewing day!