If you’re considering diving into homebrewing, you’ve probably started doing your research and learned that the equipment options are endless. It’s easy for a new brewer to become overwhelmed by the assortment of gadgets, gear, and ingredients listed in homebrew catalogs. Much of the gear can be useful and fun to use, but if you’re on a budget, or just want to start out with the basics, those products can be intimidating or out of reach.
I’ll outline the equipment you’ll need to get started on a budget, and then provide you with some tips for investing in additional equipment and scaling up, in case you ever consider volume sharing or commercial sales.
Three Basic Brews
My first homebrew kit was a very basic set that consisted of a five-gallon bucket with a spigot, a five-gallon glass carboy, an airlock and siphoning tube, a hydrometer, a bottle capper and caps, and a 20-quart aluminum brew kettle. Today, these starter kits will run you around $130 to $200, depending on how many bells and whistles you want. I recommend asking around and checking online forums first, as people often sell old equipment when they scale up or clean out their home.
Over time, I became interested in moving away from extract brewing in favor of brewing with grain, because I wanted to make beer completely from scratch. In extract brewing, the sugars needed for fermentation have already been extracted from grain, and the homebrewer simply dilutes the extract into a wort, boils it, adds flavor, cools it, adds yeast, then waits. Brew in a Bag (BIAB) is an all-grain method in which you lower a bag of grain into a kettle of hot water to extract malt sugars, but a standard all-grain method is used to experiment and build recipes. In this method, the homebrewer builds a mash tun, a system that allows great flexibility for steeping and filtering grains into a wort specifically designed for homebrewing.
When I started brewing, the equipment in catalogs and homebrew stores for all-grain brewing had price tags that were out of my reach, so the DIY scavenger in me took over, and I started looking and asking around for the equipment. By posting on internet trading sites and asking around in my community, I quickly gathered the gear, much of it for free. Then, with a bit of research and experimentation, I started piecing together the rest of the equipment I needed.
Keeping it Cool
In beer brewing, it’s critical to chill the wort down to a comfortable temperature for yeast after boiling. If left to cool slowly on its own, the risk of infection from bacteria increases. The old-school method is to set your brew kettle in ice; this isn’t the quickest method, and requires multiple bags of ice, which adds up over time. A wort chiller can accomplish the same job in 10 to 20 minutes, and has enough power to chill 5 to 10 gallons of brew at a time. A wort chiller is simply coiled copper or stainless steel tubing with vinyl tubing attached to an ingress (where cold water goes in) and an egress (where warm water comes out). Wort chillers from homebrew suppliers run anywhere from $80
A large-scale wort chiller form Steve Dunkley’s brewery in the U.K.
Rather than buy a brand-new wort chiller, I pieced one together for a little under $30 with basic materials from the hardware store. It may not be quite as fancy as a store-bought chiller, but it does the job and saves money.
The trickiest part of this project is finding copper tubing. When the options at my local hardware store were too pricey, I looked online and found reasonably priced 25-foot, 3/8-inch outer diameter (OD) tubing. The more surface volume on the tubing, the quicker the wort chills, so don’t go under 25 feet. For larger volumes or faster chilling, you can use up to 50 feet of tubing, but it’ll be more expensive. Once you’ve purchased your copper tubing, search for 8 to 10 feet of vinyl tubing, at 3/8- to 5/8-inch inner diameter (ID). Make sure the ID matches the OD of the copper tubing, because the vinyl tubing will need to slide over the copper tubing. You’ll also need hose-repair clamps to tighten the vinyl onto the copper. Lastly, buy a ¾-inch female garden hose adapter with a male adapter that’ll either fit the ID or the OD of the vinyl tubing.
Bend the copper slowly into a spiral (a tubing bender helps avoid kinks), pulling one end up through the inside center of the spiral. Cut the vinyl tubing in half and place one end over each opening of the copper tubing. Secure the vinyl tubing with the hose-repair clamps. Then, attach the garden hose adapter to the vinyl hose coming out of the center.
Making a Mash Tun
When you’re ready to go full-on into all-grain brewing, your main piece of equipment will be a mash tun. A mash tun draws out wort without allowing grain particles to pass into the kettle. Homebrew supply stores sell either fully assembled mash tuns or individual parts to make one yourself. Fully assembled mash tuns run anywhere from $180 to $300 or more. When I moved to all-grain brewing, I put together a kit for around $70, which consisted of a container to keep the mash (a mix of hot water and crushed grains) at a consistent temperature for at least an hour, a system to filter the grains from the wort, and a spigot to draw out the wort.
When making your own mash tun, you’ll remove the spigot the cooler comes with and replace it with one that connects to the plumbing on the inside.
Most homebrewers use a cooler with basic plumbing gear. You can use a cylindrical or rectangular cooler. The important thing is to find one with a removable spigot, because you’ll be replacing it with one built for brewing. I had a hard time sourcing a rectangular cooler with a removable spigot, so I bought a cylindrical cooler for $50.
To build the new spigot, first remove the original cooler spigot. Take a ½-inch dual male pipe thread adapter and insert it into the hole. Next, snug rubber washers over the inside and outside ends of the adapter. Thread a female hose-repair coupling onto the inside adapter and the ball valve onto the outside end of the adapter. If your ball valve didn’t come with a spigot, create one by screwing a 1/2-by-3/4-inch dual male pipe thread adapter into a 3/4-inch garden hose thread and female garden hose repair.
Mid-to-large-sized breweries use a false bottom, which is a perforated piece of metal that sets in the bottom of the mash tun. This filters the wort from the grains. You may be able to put one together yourself affordably, but many homebrewers use a braided system. From my experience, it works just as well as a false bottom and is less expensive to put together.
To build a braided system, purchase a braided stainless steel flexible supply line (the kind that connects your sink to your water supply), cut both ends off, pull the inside tubing out, and discard it. Set aside the outer sleeve.
Using a tubing bender to avoid kinks, twist 3 feet of 3/8-inch OD copper tubing into a spiral with one end angled to fit in the drain opening. With a pair of pliers, flatten the inside end of the spiral, leaving the drain entrance end open. This is your manifold, which should sit flat against the bottom. To allow the manifold to draw in wort throughout its entire length, use a hammer and a small nail to punch holes in the bottom about 1/2 inch apart, starting an inch from the drain opening. Take the supply line sleeve and run it over the manifold, then set the manifold on the cooler floor, with the holes on the bottom. Fold the inside end of the copper tubing over itself and tighten a hose clamp over it to keep unwanted grain particles from working their way in. Use a small section of ½-inch OD vinyl tubing to connect the manifold to the inside of the spigot. Use an additional hose clamp to ensure everything is tightly fastened together.
Although you can produce a quality beer with a small, basic setup, you may want to scale up your equipment in the future. Producing high-gravity beers or commercial quantities of beer demands different equipment and larger volumes of grain. While there’s a lot of high-end equipment that’ll do the job, you can procure or make much of this equipment if you’re frugal and think sustainably. I’ve visited breweries of various sizes to learn about the setups they use.
Author Jereme Zimmerman ventured to the U.K. to learn more aobut large-scale commercial breing, and the equipment used to make it happen.
In the U.K., I spent a couple of days with Steve Dunkley of Beer Noveau, which started as England’s smallest commercial brewery. Though on a larger scale, Steve brews with a similar DIY and eco-friendly mindset as mine. When first starting his brewery, he created his own brewing equipment using almost entirely salvaged and reused items. While he did purchase much of the equipment for the new brewery, he still reused and recycled when possible. For example, his fermenters are former wine fermenters, and he stirs his mash with a kayak paddle. He also uses pallets, used kegs, and other salvaged materials for the brewery’s tables, chairs, bar, and other furnishings.
Steve’s brewing setup is just as operative as a brand-new system, and he produces some of the most flavorful beers I’ve come across. You can do the same if you’re willing to do a bit of the work yourself. By building your own brewing equipment, you save your money for what’s really important — ingredients for beer!
Jereme Zimmerman is a traditional brewing revivalist, homesteader, and speaker at nationwide natural living events, including the Mother Earth News Fair. He lives in Kentucky with his wife and daughters. View his schedule on his website.