Congratulations on getting this far in your homebrew journey – the first step. With this post, I want to break down a few options and avenues available for the new homebrewer. I will address three different types of homebrewers that I’ve met along the way – the one and done, the hobbyist, or the semi-pro – and try to cover what I consider the best options for equipment and material for their use (and investment). I personally hate spending money on equipment that becomes obsolete if I want to brew bigger or more often. For me, the aspect of reusability and value of investment in equipment is very important, so much of my advice here will come from that point of view. (Side note/disclaimer – I typically do my shopping at NorthernBrewer.com or Love2Brew.com and will commonly link to their websites – I do NOT work for either company, and neither company pays me for this blog – I simply find that they consistently have the best pricing and offering for the hobby)
In my experience, I’ve come across a few different types of homebrewers as they begin the journey: the one-and-done – someone who will likely brew for a special occasion or two, but not much interest in investing in equipment than the bare minimum; the hobbyist – someone who will brew once or twice a month with little interest in investing more than required for a solid starter kit; the semi-pro – someone looking to brew many times a month with advanced techniques and a higher investment in equipment. Most people I meet fall somewhere around a hobbyist – very few people only want to brew one time and very few people want to brew weekly on professional-level equipment. For that reason, I will focus more on that area of the spectrum and briefly touch on the far extremes.
Basic brewing requirements include a brewing kettle (or simply a stock pot), an fermenter (can include a number of air-tight containers), and a method to carbonate and drink (either bottling or kegging). Other materials required include a mixing spoon (typically at least 12 inches long, or paired to length with your brew kettle), no-rinse sanitizer (can be OneStep, StarSan, or something similar), an airlock to match your fermenter, and a funnel for transfer.
A true one-and-done is a rare find in the homebrewing world – likely because homebrewing can be quite an addicting hobby. For this reason, and because so many offerings in this range suffer from extremely low and variable quality, I typically recommend that even those who think they only want to brew one time for a special occasion, such as a birthday or party, take a look at the items listed in the hobbyist section. Having said that, if you must only brew once, I typically recommend the 1 Gallon Small Batch Kit from Northern Brewer. While 1 gallon is not the typical size of a homebrew batch, this kit provides all that you need to produce nearly a 6-pack of your very own beer. I like this kit because it allows the brewer to learn the basics and joy of brewing without wasting money and effort on a 5-gallon batch. The small scale easily translates with little frustration and converts the most earnest one-and-done type brewer to a hobbyist. The bonus value of this kit is that it’s easily expandable for those that become hooked – I typically recommend going with additional fermenting space in the form of the Small Batch Quad Core Fermenting Kit. This will allow you to have a total 5 gallons of different beer fermenting at once, which can really make the hobby enjoyable (variety is the spice of life, right?). I began my brewing life with a similar setup, and still use the small batches to experiment on recipes so that I don’t waste material on a full 5 gallon batch of a chocolate IPA with dandelion if it tastes horrible.
The bulk of homebrewers will start in the category, and a brave few will migrate towards the semi-pro category. For the basic hobbyist, I’d still recommend starting at the 1 gallons size to learn the basics and minimize wasted money on very cheap equipment or wasted batches. Once the homebrewer is ready for the step-up to 5 gallon batches, a full new setup will be required (brew kettle and fermenter at least).
It is fairly standard for 5 gallon batches to required a 7 or 8 gallon boil kettle to handle extra water to account for boil off, as well as extra kettle space to prevent excess boilover. With that in mind, an 8 gallon kettle can get fairly expensive pretty quickly. It is tempting to go for a cheaper aluminum pot, but I highly recommend investing the bulk of your equipment budget in the boil kettle. A high quality boil kettle is essential to quickly heating such a large volume of water evenly, and I’ve found the best upgrade I ever made was to a 10 gallon stainless steel pot to accommodate an all-grain (we will cover a bit later) 5 gallon batch and sparge. Looking back, I would’ve bought the larger boil kettle first. For a reasonable budget pot without sacrificing quality, I have had good experience with Bayou Classic’s 40 Quart Pot. Obviously there are flashier kettles out there by Blichmann and other brands with spigots, thermometers and other gadgets that’s cost make them more for the semi-pro. These gadgets are available in other forms (a handheld digital thermometer is a cheap tool that can be used in multiple places on a brew day, so I’d recommend getting one of those and saving the extra money from the kettle for other use).
For fermenters, I am a big fan of the ease of use, quality of seal, and price of food-grade 5 gallon/6.5 gallon plastic buckets. They may not be pretty, but they make quality beer if used properly. I typically keep a few extra on hand due to how cheap they are just in case one gets scratched or broken during use. The key to use of these buckets (besides obvious sterility) is to not use abrasive cleaners on the inside to keep them as smooth as possible. If the interior gets scratched, the bucket should be thrown away as the scratch gives bacteria a place to accumulate. The lids may wear over a few uses, but can easily be replaced and used with an old bucket, which I find quite nice as well. I have tried the Big Mouth Bubblers as well as some other brands, and I consistently find myself drifting back to the buckets. One huge kicker for me is the built-in handle, which makes carrying 5 gallons of beer in a controlled manner much easier than struggling with other types of containers. The Big Mouth Bubbler is a viable alternative to the bucket, especially due to the ability to visually witness fermentation through the clear sides. This allows the brewer more control and monitoring of the full process, which can be helpful. I have found with the new lid design of the Big Mouth Bubbler, I’ve been less happy with mine (they are now gasket friction fit vs threaded) due to aggressive fermentations actually forcing the lid off.
The Semi-Pro is a difficult type of brewer to give recommendations to as a beginner. I highly recommend new brewers follow the above transitions before getting to this point. However, if money is not an issue for you and you would only like to buy homebrew equipment once in your lifetime, here is what I’d recommend. For a boil kettle, I would go with a BoilerMaker electric kettle by Blichmann. I would recommend going with an electric version, and buying an additional kettle to use as a hot liquor tank (not required – an orange sideline cooler can easily be converted to a HLT, but this section is for people who want the highest quality equipment). For a mash tun (only required for all grain brewers) – a BoilerMaker with a false bottom could be used (but again, an orange sideline cooler with a false bottom can make and equally good and arguably better mash tun). For fermenters, I would again lean toward Blichmann’s Fermenator. Blichmann’s equipment consistently is of the highest quality I’ve come across, and also the highest resale value (if you need to upgrade size or run from the hobby altogether).
The items recommended above are all ones that I’ve found can be reused and scaled as the brewer grows, and ultimately shouldn’t need replaced until the brewer decides to start a nanobrewery. These are the bare essentials required to get brewing – there are a huge number of items to go along with these to improve the quality of your beer, but these will be covered in additional posts.