Size does matter. To make the standard 5 gallons of beer you need at least a 3 gallon brew kettle, 7 to 8 gallons is better. Go for size of pot over the material it is made out of, doing a full boil in enamel will give you a better beer than half a boil in stainless steel. If you can swing the bucks get a large kettle with a built in thermometer and heat proof faucet at the base, this will give you a lot of options. You also want something with a thick bottom, if you have a thin pot you have a much greater chance of burning the malt on the bottom of the pot and that is not a flavor you want.
There is a large battle going on about what makes the best Brew kettle, Stainless Steel, Aluminum, Enamel, or Copper. The answer is all of the above, with some notations. Copper is great if you can afford to buy it and clean it (few of us can). Enamel is good as alone as it does not have any chips in the enamel, once it is chipped throw it away. Aluminum can work if before you ever use it to brew you fill it with water and boil until if forms a white film over the aluminum (do not scrub off the white film! That is what is protecting your wort from the aluminum taste). And the King is Stainless Steel, Easy to use easy to clean and leaves no after taste in the brew (Chlorine is a good cleaner but it will etch stainless steel if left on too long).
If you have a spare $250 to spend you could go with a super deluxe Kettle, and make a fantastic brew. On the cheap you could get a $5 three gallon enamel pot for the discount store and still make a great brew.
You can get a food grade plastic bucket that the corner deli is going to toss out for free or you could by a stainless steel temperature controlled conical fermenter for $700. And a wide range in between. First let’s look at the material normally available, Plastic, Glass, and Stainless Steel. The ideal material would be easy to clean, and sanitize, not allow oxygen through to the beer and opaque so light does not spoil the beer. Plastic is easy to clean and mostly opaque but it does let oxygen though to the brew. O2 can pass through most plastic but very slowly so this makes a good choice for a fast ferment or a primary where the beer will be in it for less than 2 weeks. Glass carboys are great for a long term fermentation because they do not pass oxygen, but they are hard to clean, getting you hand in that little hole is not easy and ever harder to get out once it is in and they do pass light. Be Very careful with Glass! It is slippery when wet and if you drop a full 5 gallon glass carboy on your foot, you will no longer have a foot, if the breaking glass does not chop it off the force of all that weigh will crush it. Almost all homebrew horror stories involve Glass Carboys. Stainless is great, it block oxygen and light and if you can get something you can reach your arm in it is easy to clean.
Air tight. If you are doing a quick ferment or a primary for a few days before going to a secondary, you can just cover with a loose lid to keep the dirt and dust out and most of the time you will be fine. When fermentation starts it can be very vigorous and you may need a blow off tube, the little hoses we use for racking beer will not due, a good size chunk of leaf hops will plug that in nothing flat. You want a primary that has a few gallons of head space or a blow off tube going in to a bucket of clean water so your primary does not explode all over your ceiling and walls, and drips down on to the floor… Not only is it a sticky mess, it does not lead to marital bliss.
But if you are going to ferment for more than a few days or you are picky about cleanliness air tight is what you want. You want something that you can close air tight and put in an air lock.
What is the big deal with conical? As you know if you have even made one batch of beer when the yeast is done doing its thing it all falls down to the bottom of your fermenter. Dead yeast starts to break down (Autolysis), and this gives off flavor to your brew. A conical fermenter has a cone shaped bottom with a valve on the very bottom and another a little above the bottom. This allows you to open the bottom valve and remove the dead yeast without disturbing your fermentation. The other valve is good for removing your beer from the fermenter. The come in high end stainless with refrigeration built right for $700 to $130 for plastic.
When you are looking for a new fermenter, think about the following…
Is it easy to clean? Is it air tight? Will it keep out oxygen? Will it block the light? How to attach a blow off tube? How to attach an Air Lock?
Tips: Make one gallon marks on your fermenter if it does not have them. You only need a five gallon mark but it is nice to have them. If you ferment in a carboy Cut a hole in the bottom of a paper grocery bag and place it upside down over your carboy to block the light. Never put anything in your air lock you do not want in your beer, Vodka works good, add a drop of food color for fun.
Glass, Metal, Digital, Analog, Floating, Clip-on, Sick-on. I’m sure the list goes on and on. The two most important things aspects of your thermometer is that it is accurate and that you can clean it. If you are using grain in the wort before the boil you need to pull the grain before the temperature reaches 170° F / 77° C at this temperature the hulls from the grain leach tannings that will give your beer an off flavor, so you really need a thermometer if you are adding grains.
Tips: Be careful with the glass floating type, set them in your wort, never drop them in, they have the perfect shape for diving to the bottom of your vessel and braking on the bottom. The sick on thermometers on glass carboys can be up to 10° off of the temperature in the middle of the carboy.
My best advice is replacing them if you cannot get it clean as new (often). At least they are inexpensive.
Double bubble, three piece, Mason jar and hose, or aluminum foil. The job of an air lock is to keep oxygen and bacteria away from the beer, but still let the CO2 out. When fermentation starts sometimes it is quite powerful and you get a Lot of krusen this will over power a small air lock so it is normal to start off with a blow off tube that will go in to a jar half full of water, this way any junk that gets kicked out of the fermenting beer is dumped neatly in the over flow jar. This is great for the first day or two after that you will want an air lock. There are many ways to do this and air locks are cheap, it is more important what you put in the air lock. Eventually you will have a batch where the beer will suck air in, you want to be careful not to put anything in your air lock you do not want in your beer, so NEVER put cleaning solution in the air lock! But you do want something that will kill bug if you beer sucks air. Most people use vodka or gain alcohol, you can add a drop of food coloring so it is easier to see, or use whiskey. When the beer is actively fermenting aluminum foil works good, just extend it down the side 2 to 3 inches. Aluminum foil will keep the bacteria out but not the creeping crawling bugs.
A hydrometer is a device that measures the specific gravity (Density) of a liquid. Hydrometers are calibrated based upon the specific gravity of water at 60°F being 1.000. Liquids denser than water will have a higher specific gravity, while liquids less dense will have a lower specific gravity. The higher the specific gravity of the wort before fermentation, the greater potential alcohol. After the beer is fermented take another reading, the difference between the two readings can tell you the actual percentage of alcohol.
To use a hydrometer, fill the test tube with the liquid to be measured. Put the hydrometer in the tube, giving it a spin to dislodge any air bubbles. Once the hydrometer has settled, take the measurement reading from the scale on the side. The liquid must be at 60°F. If the liquid is not at 60°F, then the measurement must be adjusted, most hydrometers have a scale to adjust for temperature right on them.
TIP: Do NOT put the wort or beer sample back! The risk of infection is too great. Drink it this will give a feeling for how the beer is at this stage.
Nice Toy! If you have the extra cash this is a great addition to any brewery. Just put a drop of wort on the screen and look through the view finder to get a reading of your original gravity. You can even use hot wort out of the boil, one drop has a very low thermal mass and will quickly adjust to the temperature of the Refractometer. The scale is used by most refractometers is in BRIX but there are many programs like “Promash” or “Beer Smith” that convert BRIX to OG or percent alcohol. The do not work so good on beer after fermentation starts, but this is a great toy for checking on your wort quickly and easily with very little clean up.
TIP: There are many types of refractometers on the market make sure you get one that works on a range not above 32 BRIX. Unless you are working with car batteries, salt water, or pure sugar, you will never need to go above this range. Don’t forget to adjust your refractometer when you get it, it is and easy process and the instructions come with it.
These give you the ability to cool your wort fast after the boil, this will decrease the chance of an infection and increase the flavor of the beer. They are not essential in the brewing process but they are very nice. A wort chiller is just a bunch of copper tubing bent in loops that you can hook up to a flow of cold water to chill the wort quickly. Since the cold water runs through the copper pipe it is easy to clean, just rinse it off when you are done, and to sanitize it for a new batch, just put it to the boil for at least 20 min, quick easy and cheap. A counter flow chiller is a copper tube inside of another tube, you run the wort though the inner tube and the cold water in the opposite direction in the outer tube, they work great but they are very hard to clean since the wort run through the inside. My advice is to use a wort chiller and be impressed with people who have enough free time to clean the counter flow chillers.
There are many ways to get O2 in the wort before fermentation starts. Splashing is a parental favorite but it does not do much. Shaking the fermenter is fun also, but again not very effective and if you are using glass it can be very dangerous. A cheap gadget you can make at home is a fish pump aerator; you need a fish tank air pump, an inline HEPA filter, an air stone and some tubing. Hook it all up and drop the air stone in to the wort and let it pump for 20 to 30 min. A cool toy if you can afford it is a Pure O2 set up. Basically it is a cylinder of pure O2 and a hose connected to an air stone. Drop the air stone in the wort and turn on the gas; in a few min you are all done.
If you bottle you need one of these. It connects to the spigot of the bottom of the bottling bucket, when the tip of the bottle filler touches the bottom or side of the bottle beer pours in to the bottle. There are two basic types, spring loaded and not spring loaded. My vote goes to No Spring, they work just as good and are much easier to clean.
There are two types for the home brewer, the hand capper and the bench capper. If you have 3 hands, two to operate the hand capper and one to hold the bottle then the hand capper is for you. Otherwise you need a bench capper. Better advice is, skip the bottles and “Just Keg It”.
This looks a lot like a food grade plastic pale fermenter, except that it has a spigot on the side near the bottom. To bottle transfer the beer in to it, set it on a counter, mix in your bottling sugar, hook up a bottle filler, fill your bottles, then clean it ASAP. To save money you could use your brew kettle and a racking cane.
TIPS: Do not use it as a fermenter, the spigot has too many nooks and crannies that stuff can get in and grow, way too hard to clean all of the trub out of it. A good trick is to set your bottling bucket on the counter over your dishwasher, open the door on the dishwasher and put a step stool under the door to support it. Not only does this give you extra working space, when you are done bottling close the door and the mess gets cleaned up by running the dishwasher.
Anything that can hold carbonated beverage, preferably nothing that has had soda pop, especially bottles that have had Root Beer. 2 liter PET bottles that had Club Soda. Soda bottles will hold up to 120 psi before they blow and then they tear. “PET” pet will let in 1 dram of O2 per square inch per day (very little but not as good as glass). Flip top bottles.