Help me start homebrewing!
September 15, 2010 2:12 PM   Subscribe

Help me start homebrewing! I need advice for the simplest possible homebrew setup.

I've been ordering and bottling "homebrew" beer from a local shop for the past few months, and I'd like to start actually brewing my own in my house.

A friend has offered to sell me his old equipment (here): basically a fermenter, a carboy with airlock, and tubing.

I'm looking to do this as simply as possible to start, and then build up from there. I figure that probably means buying no-boil ingredient kits.

I know I'll need to buy some sort of disinfectant, but is there any other equipment I'll need before I get started? Can you recommend any simple ingredient kits you've had success with that would be good for a beginner? (I'm in Canada, if it matters). I plan on asking these questions at my brew shop as well, but I'd like some other opinions so they don't try to sell me things I don't need.

Also, do you know of any good online resources for beginners? My google searches are just turning up lots of people trying to sell me things.

posted by auto-correct to Food & Drink (21 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Google for local homebrew groups/shops. I got a "starter kit" for £70 which included literally everything I needed to make fifty pints of tasty ale. The best thing I can recommend is chatting to someone who owns a shop. They don't do it for riches.
posted by Biru at 2:25 PM on September 15, 2010

Best answer: Please at least get a kettle so you can boil your wort. A standard (albeit large...) 15L to 20L kitchen pot should suffice, and you should be able to get one for under, like $40. Without even this minimal setup, you'll be limited to "brown" or "dark" ales with whatever type and amount of hop oil the syrup manufacturer decided to throw in.

Getting a kettle, on the other hand, opens the possibilities for you to use any combination of extract, hops, and yeast you prefer. Realistically, you get a range of light-to-dark, mild-to-VERY-hoppy ales as possibilities.

Anyway, I would recommend the boiling kettle, a fermenter (could even be a food-grade bucket), the carboy is nice if you've got it coming your way anyway. Get a good thermometer to use in the hot wort, a thermometer strip to stick to your bucket, a nice big spoon, and do bother to purchase hop/grain bags when you pick up ingredients.

My suggestions for initial brews would be roughly this. Pick a style such as IPA, amber ale, or "dark ale" (you probably won't hit, e.g. the porter/stout distinction on batch #1. Chill out.) Get enough malt extract and the correct hops and yeast at your local brew store. Boil the extract in ~12L water; when it boils, throw in the hops. Boil for 1 hour. Let it cool with the lid on for an hour or so, then gradually cool in a cold water bath (sink if it fits, otherwise bathtub). When it gets around room temperature, transfer to fermentation bucket, throw in the yeast, and top off to ~20L with clean water. Leave in a cool corner for 1-2 weeks then transfer to the carboy.

Oh! Eventually you'll need 2 cases of bottles and corresponding tubing. Fill them from the carboy when the beer is clear, and add priming sugar at the rate of 3-5 dry oz per entire batch (stir well!). Seal bottles and relax for an additional week or 2.

Good luck!
posted by rkent at 2:25 PM on September 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

I've recommended this on mefi a bunch of times, but this amazingly palatable recipe is the best way to easily start homebrewing that I know of:

Man, I Love Apfelwein.

Simple, straightforward introduction to the basic process of fermentation, with no cooking involved.

Bottle-wise: I'd recommend keeping the amber-colored bottles, tossing the plastic ones and the green glass ones (non-amber bottles let in more light, which breaks down hop oils), and getting an Emily Capper, for capping used brown beer bottles.

For basic instructions, you could check out How To Homebrew, but I would recommend you pick up Papazian's Joy of Homebrewing -- it's super informative, it's got tons of recipes, and it's generally a fantastic resource to have on hand.
posted by Greg Nog at 2:32 PM on September 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: How to brew.

A classic, available online in it's entirety.
posted by gyusan at 2:32 PM on September 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

Can you recommend any simple ingredient kits you've had success with that would be good for a beginner? (I'm in Canada, if it matters). I plan on asking these questions at my brew shop as well, but I'd like some other opinions so they don't try to sell me things I don't need.

Just go, and trust them. As Biru said, they are not in this to get rich (or if they are they picked a very difficult way to go about it). Just let them know you want a minimal equipment setup and would like your recipe to take this into account - mostly extract, minimal (if any) grain, no fancy yeast that needs temperature control, etc.
posted by rkent at 2:33 PM on September 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Greg Nog is right.
Ed Wort's Apfelwein is one of the quickest and easiest ways to brew your own alcohol.
Easy, tasty and man, will it knock you on your ass.

The recipe is almost infinitely adaptable.
I amped up my last batch with brown sugar (instead of corn, adds a miolasses flavor) and flavored it with Szechuan peppercorns.
Excellent stuff.

Start with the base recipe and follow the advice to hold off on forming an opinion until after your third glass.

To do this right you:
1 5-7 gallon fermenter
1 airlock
1 bung of appropriate size
Sterilizing solution

All of this fits into the minimal list of tools for homebrewing (extract or mini-mash).
Also will need:
A large pot
Siphon hose and cane
Bottling (plunge) valve
Capper and caps
Large funnel
a grain bag
a large spoon
Irish Moss (for clarifying)
posted by Seamus at 2:41 PM on September 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

And, yes, trust them.
They will have a list with instructions. They will not forget things like I do.
Also, a thermometer is good.
A Hydrometer is non-essential but good for measuring abv.
posted by Seamus at 2:45 PM on September 15, 2010

Ask if the homebrew shop does classes. I attended a beer brewing and tasting class at my local place, which was a total blast and very informative. The shop owner himself hosted it, and on subsequent visits he recognized me straight away and was more than happy to spend time chatting with me. It was 5 Tuesdays, 2-3 hours a night. We could have done it much faster, but there was a lot of tasting going on and one week was a 'field trip' to the local brewpub.
posted by IanMorr at 3:01 PM on September 15, 2010

Best answer: I don't know what a no-boil kit is, so I was just going to skip right to basic homebrewing advice.

And my first tip was going to be: skip the kits. A basic beer made with malt extract and one or two specialty grains is almost as simple as a kit, but lets you have the experience of putting a recipe together yourself - and it will work! and be tasty! - and also have the complete brewing experience from the start. Until you are doing all-grain brewing, nothing about this first beer will be different from any other beers you make (well, except lagers). The process is exactly the same every time. I guess I understand the appeal of kits - if you just want to make it past the hurdle of making edible beer, but your first non-kit beer is very empowering.

I really recommend writing down the steps each time in a very organized list, and referring to this list constantly. There's nothing like finding the bag of hops you were supposed to start boiling an hour ago, or re-bottling five gallons of beer because you left the priming sugar to dissolve on the stove.

If you can think of a beer you really like, try looking up recipes for it. Or even just a style of beer. There are plenty of homebrew forums and people trying out different recipes, and someone's no doubt tried to copy your favorite beer. My first batch was a brown ale a la Moosedrool. The recipe might look really complicated, but they list a lot of stuff you don't need to pay attention to right now, like specific gravity, or IBU, or color. When you parse the recipe into English, it will just tell you to get some lbs of some grain or another, a few cans of malt extract, and these sorts of hops and yeast.

I second the idea of hanging out at your local homebrew shop. Mine did demonstrations every other Saturday, where they brewed beer while you watched and asked questions and chatted (it takes a while). They will walk you through every step and tell you what style they're aiming for and why they used certain grains/hops/yeast. They can also almost certainly put together a first recipe for you, or make sure that the one you've come up with seems okay, or give you an equipment checklist.

Looking at the kit, I'm not entirely sure what's up with the plastic bottles, unless you're making root beer. You'll need glass bottles - no twist-offs - and a bottle capper. But you can worry about that later, even weeks later, when your first batch is ready to be bottled.

The other things you'll need to brew are a large pot (that can hold at least 3 gallons), a bottle of sanitizer, and a grain bag. Everything else is pretty much optional. I really really recommend a wort chiller though. Once you boil the wort, you need to cool it to a temperature yeast will grow in. The main reason you should do this quickly is that the longer your wort is, er... chillin', the more likely it is that it will be contaminated by bacteria (this has never happened to me, and I'm terrible about sanitizing). The real reason, though, is that it takes FOREVER for three gallons to cool down to 80 degrees. Forever! Even if you're outside in the snow. You can easily smoke a whole pack of cigarettes this way. A wort chiller is just a coil of copper tubing that runs cold water through the wort and then out again and cools it quickly because of its wonderful heat conduction. All you need is some copper tubing, a way to bend it, and some way to attach it to a hose or faucet (I use a bucket of ice water and an aquarium pump). There are many guides online. It's cheap, will save you time, and is really fun to make. You can also buy them.

Good luck!
posted by ke rose ne at 3:44 PM on September 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oh, after looking at the Apfelwein - YES! Hard cider is the way to go. It's amazing. And it will knock you on your ass. It won't really get you closer to brewing beer though.
posted by ke rose ne at 4:03 PM on September 15, 2010

You said you want simple... I used old wine jugs as carboys, a large pasta pot for sterilizing ingredients, an airlock, a piece of tubing with a stiff end for a siphon, a thermometer that I use for other kitchen stuff, a hydrometer (probably not required), and plastic bottles saved from soda. I made the beer with malt extract, corn sugar, yeast from the beer shop, and some spices. I disinfected things that could be boiled by boiling, and the others with a weak bleach solution. I used "The Complete Joy of Homebrewing" for general guidelines. The advantage of plastic bottles is that even if you get the priming sugar wrong, they are unlikely to explode, and you can tell when the beer is carbonated by feeling if they are hard.
posted by SandiBeech at 4:03 PM on September 15, 2010

You can get a big-ass pot for pretty cheap if you're willing to shop at Wal-Mart or KMart or equivalent. My boyfriend, who does alot of homebrewing (mead mostly) uses one like this. With the mead, he only boils about 2 gallons of the 5-gallon batch so that size pot works well. I don't know if that's true for beer though.
posted by cabingirl at 4:43 PM on September 15, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for the great answers everyone! A lot of info that I haven't been able to find easily.

I've already got lots of bottles, so no problems there. Also, I've never been a big cider fan so it wasn't really on my radar, but maybe it's worth a shot.

I'll be giving it a try soon, I'll let you all know how it goes!
posted by auto-correct at 5:12 PM on September 15, 2010

DO NOT FORGET A DRAINAGE BUCKET!!! I did this the first time I brewed cider, and I ended up with rotten apples all over my friend's utility closet. His roommates were not happy with me, suffice it to say. And cleanup was a bitch. Just make sure you have a hose and a bucket to collect the bubbled-up mash.
posted by chicago2penn at 5:33 PM on September 15, 2010

Homebrewtalk is probably the most highly-regarded forum.
posted by box at 7:36 PM on September 15, 2010

I'm not entirely sure what a no-boil kit is, but it sounds like a way to save a couple dollars and end up with terrible beer. If you think this is a hobby you might want to continue, at least spring for some extract yes-boil kits, which can make very drinkable and commendable beer. If you try to pinch too many pennies, you are going to make horrible beer, hate the hobby, and have wasted what few pennies you may have spent. Or, as others have said, you can buy extract and steeping grains from any local homebrew shop or any online homebrew shop that will probably get you comparable beer for a slightly lower price than for a kit.

As far as equipment recommendations go, for transfer between vessels, get yourself an autosiphon. It's not a truly essential item, but the cost to convenience ratio is strongly in your favor. If you plan on fermenting in one vessel and bottling from another, then you are going to need some sort of siphon and holy cats, the extra few dollars are well spent on an autosiphon.

A little time perusing websites like (as recommended by gyusan) and Homebrew Talk will take you a long ways. If you don't mind buying online (support your local economy! when possible) online retailers like Northern Brewer, Austin Homebrew, and Midwest all sell excellent kits at reasonable prices which will make you great beer, and they all include pretty excellent instructions.
posted by wondercow at 8:06 PM on September 15, 2010

What ke rose ne said.

When I was big into brewing I had a 10 gallon pot so I could boil my entire batch, and one of these guys to do the boiling on. I made a giant funnel out of a five gallon bucket, hung a piece of cheese cloth in there (to catch the spent hops), and then plumbed that (by way of a brass bulkhead fitting) to a home made counter flow wort chiller (a lot like this one). This let me go from boiling to room temp in a matter of minutes. That way you can yet your yeast into the wort quick and not give anything else that happened to get in there a chance to grow.

To sanitize things, I recommend a cap full of bleach per gallon of cold water, but only so long as the things are not copper or stainless. For that, go with an iodophor. You don't need to sanitize your brew kettle because the boil will take care of that.

For a simple ale, I did something like this: Put two cans of amber malt extract and six gallons of water in the pot, simmer until things are mixed (soak the cans in hot water before you start and have a rubber spatula and big spoon handy). Then add your bittering hops (an ounce of Cascade is a good choice) bring to a low boil and let things go for about an hour with periodic stirring. During this period your extracting the bitterness from the hops. After an hour turn off the head and throw in another ounce of cascade hops (for aroma - all the volatiles will have been cooked out of the hops you added long ago) and send it through the chiller and into the fermenter. Then add your yeast put a stopper with a blow off tube and a four foot length of hose into the top of the fermenter with the free end in a jug containing an inch or two of sanitizer. All of those things were sanitized while the boil was going on.

Within a day or so the jug would be filling up with foam and crap (blobs of malt protein and bits of hop mostly) and will make a hell of a mess is you let it, so be careful where you put things. If your hose gets clogged you can detonate your fermenter but I've never seen anthing like that happen.

After a while things calm down and your can replace the blow off tube with a normal fermentation lock (which you remembered to soak in more sanitizing solution, right?)

For bottling, you need about 50 bottles, caps (boil them), a capper and some way of getting your beer out of your fermenter and into some sort of intermediate, then into bottlers. I had a little hand pump, a sort of shepherds crook looking racking tube and a spring loaded bottle filler. Oh, and you want one of these little racking tube clamps.

When it's time to bottle you sanitize your bottles and a second carboy with bleach and rinse with hot water. I recommend one of these. Boil a cup of water and add a quarter cup of corn sugar to it (check that volume before your beer is flat or bottles explode). Siphon your beer into the second carboy. (you did sanitize all your siphon stuff, right?) Add the freshly boiled corn sugar solution about half way through the siphon so things will be mixed. Try not to suck up to much of the crap that settled out of your beer during the fermentation. OK, now install that bottle filler, restart your siphon and start filling bottles. If you stand them in a mixing bowl as you fill them that little bit of overflow you get won't matter and your head space will be consistent. Have a friend put caps on while you fill. (You did boil those caps to sanitize them, right?)

Now stick your newly bottled beer in nice dark, not too cold, not too hot a place for a couple weeks to carbonate. If you want to earn extra points, make your own labels.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 11:15 PM on September 15, 2010

It looks like gear itself has been covered pretty well...but after my first foray into home brewing earlier this summer, I can offer this advice:

Don't buy a kit. Make a list and scrounge it up. I found almost everything i needed, with the exception of a couple specialty tools WAY cheaper than ANY kit through a 2 week long process of cruising craigslist for carboys, and sourcing parts and tubes from restaurant and medical supply stores. Find a local brew store to pick up the couple items you need. The best score was going to a grocery store and getting a large 6 gallon bucket for racking, all it needed was a hole drilled in it, and a valve installed. 10 minutes and 3 dollars later i had a bottling bucket that the brew store was charging 30 bucks for.

Never underestimate your friends and coworkers when it comes to gear. I got both my glass carboys from coworkers who started to brew, then gave it up. That's 60 bucks of equipment for free. Craigslist usually has an abundance of large glass containers that work very well for fermenting containers.
posted by furnace.heart at 9:17 AM on September 16, 2010

Buy a one gallon jug and make some Joe's Ancient Orange mead. Like the apfelwein, it's another easy way to get some fermentation experience. Follow the directions exactly!
posted by maurice at 10:15 AM on September 16, 2010

The only things you really need to give a lot of attention to is carefully sterilizing everything just before you use them, including the primary fermenter, the secondary fermenter (carboy) and the glasses when you bottle them, and watching the fermentation lock/transferring from the primary to the secondary in time. That is the only real ticket to skunky beer. Other than that, have fun with it and don't stress out too much, the yeast does all the work. You can control the specific gravity (Alcohol % strength) very precisely by measuring the amount of sugar you put in in the beginning; this is a lot easier to do if you just buy a malt extract instead of malting grain, which requires a food thermometer. Honestly I haven't been able to tell a HUGE difference between the different hop strains, but I don't exactly have the most refined of palettes. I do like Cascade and Hallertaeur though.
posted by spatula at 5:01 PM on September 16, 2010

Just wanted to share a tip that I got from Kid Charlemagne once:

Go buy yourself a spray bottle and some cheap-shit vodka. It's about 40% ethanol and works great for touch up sanitation around the rims of carboys and such. Plus, it won't hurt anything if you get a bit in your brew.
posted by Dr. ShadowMask at 3:06 PM on September 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

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