Homebrewing First Steps – Brewing Equipment

When it comes to homebrewing there is plenty to think about before you’re able to enjoy the fruits of your labour.  I know a few people who are looking to brew this year and thought I’d write up my thoughts on the first steps I took.  I hope to write three more posts in fairly quick succession but this one will focus on the kit you will need to brew an All Grain or Full Mash beer, based on starting with a set-up capable of 23L / 5 Imperial Gallon brew-length.

You may find some of this information useful if you can’t decide whether you want to give Partial Mash brewing a go first.  In my opinion, if you have the space, the money and the time to invest in 8 hour brew sessions (approx), then plan to do Full Mash first.  If you don’t have one of the above then maybe Partial Mash is the way forward.  Equally, find a local homebrewer who can show you the basics and give you a better appreciation for what’s involved than any book or blog post can ever offer, but don’t just try to copy what they do, because if you understand why you are doing something you have a better chance of enjoying homebrewing.

Beer kits can be fun too, but ask yourself why you want to brew before you go down this route.  If you want cheap, not particularly brilliant beer that will serve its purpose, then brew a few kits, some of them are actually pretty good.  If you want to create or recreate a beer you know you love to drink, as well as having a hobby that will help you learn about your favourite pastime (drinking beer) and possibly meet some great people, then give kits a miss.  These are just my opinions of course….actually everything you read here is just my opinion, and another homebrewer will give you slightly different advice.  Having said that, read plenty and be prepared to take the plunge and you’ll be brewing in your own way soon enough.

In no particular order, although you will end up with a mess on the floor without brewing equipment, the list below are the main components for brewing a beer.  Blend them with a little common sense and knowing when to ask questions and you’ll be grinning from ear to ear at the beer you’ve created.

  1. Brewing equipment
  2. Ingredients
  3. Mad keen sanitation skills
  4. Your first brew day

There is a wealth of information available in homebrewing books and even more on the internet, but as I learn how to brew myself, this is my attempt to document what I found to be the most time consuming part of the process – ‘the getting started’.   I talked too much about it and managed to over-complicate something that should be straightforward.  My experience is that even the beginners books hide the need-to-know information among the complexities, i.e. the stuff you will get around to learning as you go.   I hope this info is useful for anyone starting out.

Brewing Equipment

You may have already read my post on building my brewing kit.  I’ve built my mash tun and will move on to my and my wort chiller , and have bought everything I need to build a temperature controlled Hot Liquor Tank (HLT).  I was given a boiler (copper), but have now bought a 33L stainless steel boiler, ready fit with tap and hop stopper.  I’ll be fitting an element to enable brewing in the garage.  The links are to The Homebrew Shop, there are of course other places to buy kit from, but this is just as an example and I will be building my own where possible to save money and to gain a better understanding of the brewing process.

Hot Liqour Tank (HLT) – This is just a large kettle, but with a temperature control.  Ideally (for 23L / 5 Imperial Gallon brews) the HLT will have a 30-40L capacity to save messing around refilling it with tap water (liquor).

Mash Tun – An insulated vessel that is used to mash the fermentables (malted barley and other adjuncts).  It’s insulating properties are key to enable the mash to remain at a constant temperature, typically 66C for 60-90mins but this can vary greatly depending on what you are trying to achieve (read: advanced homebrewing).  Basically, this process is to convert the starch in the grain into sugars (i.e. extracting sugar from the malt).  It’s also essential that the mash tun has a filter or manifold, and a tap to allow you to easily run the wort into the copper (once the liquor is full of lovely sugars it’s referred to as wort)

Copper – A vessel used to boil the wort.  Without going into details, details that I hardly understand, the point of boiling the wort is to sterilise the wort, enable the proteins in the wort to stick together, remove unwanted volatiles (we don’t need to know what these are at this stage) and to concentrate the wort through evaporation.  There are many more reasons for the boil, but lets keep this light.  Typically, the wort is boiled for 45-90 mins, but as with the mash, this will depend on what you are trying to achieve.  It’s probably worth mentioning that a copper, for most amateur homebrewers, is going to be plastic, or even stainless steel if you are lucky.

Fermentation Vessel (FV) – In most cases the FV is likely to be a 5 Gallon plastic bucket.  The information for best practice during fermentation does vary from source to source, but most set-ups call for the minimum of a 5 Gallon bucket with a lid.  If you have the option, then it may be worth buying a bucket which is fitted with an airlock.  Without boring you senseless, and again with my limited knowledge, the importance of the lid and the airlock are as follows.  The lid is to protect your fermenting wort from contamination.  If you have a suitable environment to do so, it is possible to ferment without a lid, but if there is any chance of insects or inquisitive children or pets, then seal the bucket with a lid.  This will also stop any wild yeasts from contaminating your brew.  Wild yeasts are used in some cases, but that is for the more advanced brewer e.g. brewing a Lambic beer.

If you are using an FV with a lid but without an airlock, then it is important to open the lid every day to allow the build up of carbon dioxide to disperse.  An air-lock will do this job for you.  This will prevent off flavours in your beer and also from the mess of an exploding FV (a little dramatic, but you get my point).

Aside from a long-handled plastic spoon and a sanitising product (which I’ll write about below), then you have the basics to to start brewing.  The next two items are not essential, but will make your life easier and also increase your chances of achieving a drinkable beer every time you brew.

Thermometer – I bought a cheap thermometer for £3.50 from Wilkinson’s.  It’s very useful to be able to take temperature measurements throughout the brewing process.  You can get a long without knowing the temperature of the mash before and after 90 minutes, but you will find it difficult to diagnose a problem with your mash tun if you don’t know how efficient it is at retaining heat? Also, knowing the temperature of your boiled wort before pitching the yeast.  More on yeast in the next post on ingredients, but it is a living organism and is temperature sensitive.  The majority of top fermenting yeasts work within a range of 18-24C.  It’s not only disappointing when your fermentation stops (or never gets started), but it is also expensive to pitch more yeast.  You may also want to take temperature readings during the fermentation.  Don’t overdo this and always santise the object as per the manufacturers instructions.  Consider that every time you place objects such as a thermometer, hydrometer or trial jar into your beer you increase the chance of your beer becoming contaminated and/or infected.  This rule applies to contact with the wort post boil.  Knowing when your fermentation is complete can be tricky if you are judging it by sight.  The krausen (or frothy head that forms on top of the beer in the FV) will have subsided and sunk to the bottom of the FV or will be held in suspension, and there will be few visible bubbles rising to the surface.  If you don’t fancy this guess-work then get a thermometer and a hydrometer (see below) and use the readings from both to get an accurate indication that your fermentation is still progressing and that it has finished at the correct gravity (see below).

Hydrometer – A hydrometer is used to measure the Specific Gravity (SG) (or relative density) of your wort and eventually your beer (I believe that wort is referred to as beer once you have pitched the yeast).   Taking a gravity reading before and during fermentation allows you to understand its progress.  The hydrometer will sink deeper into low density liquids such as alcohol.  The SG of water at zero degrees C is 0.999, which is important to know when testing or calibrating your new hydrometer.  You can adjust your readings based on this knowledge or decide to buy a better quality instrument.  Your Original Gravity (OG – before fermentation has started) and the Final Gravity (FG – after fermentation is complete) will be determined by the recipe you are brewing.  A prepackaged all grain beer will state it’s OG/FG and target alcohol content by abv.  If you are creating your own recipes then it is a good idea to use a recipe calculator within one of the brewing forums, or within a piece of brewing software.  Based on the fermentables you are using, it will calculate the OG and FG for you.  It’s also important to remember that the gravity readings are affected by the temperature of the wort/beer (e.g. the SG of water at 4C is 1.000).  Using both a hydrometer and a thermometer will enable you to reference the readings using a conversion chart (buy a basic homebrewing book) to give you an accurate reading.  A couple of good reasons for taking gravity reading are: to prevent you from bottling beer that has no alcohol content (i.e a stuck or failed fermentation) and also from bottling or kegging a beer that hasn’t finished fermenting fully and running the risk, cost and inconvenience of exploding bottles/kegs.  This happens when the beer continues to ferment in the bottle/keg, creates more CO2 than the bottle/keg can take….and BOOM!

Quite literally on that bomb-shell, I think that’s enough for now.  As you can see from just listing the kit, it is almost impossible to describe what you need and how you should use it without getting into the basics of ‘how to brew’.  My next post will give an overview of brewing ingredients, followed by posts on sanitation and finally a brew day.

Thanks for reading.

(updated 20/08/12 – added links to IC build and update on HLT and boiler).

Mash Tun Build – Homebrew

Funny looking mash tun?

I’ve set myself a goal for the coming months, a DIY mission that many homebrewers embark on.  Building some or all of your own kit is something that is likely to save you some money when starting out, but if it doesn’t then hopefully there is knowledge to be banked along the way.  Understanding my kit and being able to maintain it is something I’m interested in, but I understand it’s not for everyone.  It’s also a lot of fun, honest!

To date I have inherited a shop-bought 5 gallon boiler and a few plastic buckets.  Having experienced first-hand what it’s like to use one boiler as a three-in-one; HLT (Hot Liquor Tank), Copper and Mash Tun I was keen not to experience it again.  With some instructions from the folks on The Homebrew Forum I managed to build my own mash tun.  It’s been done and documented many times by other brewers, but here’s my attempt:

I built this back in May 2011 and have used it for three brews.  The pictures aren’t great and I’ve not taken a shot of each stage, but I was concentrating on building the thing and the camera work came second.

There are a few ways to build a mash tun, but I decided to convert a cheap 24L coolbox and a copper manifold.

Total cost including materials:£25

Tools I Used: A drill & circular drill bit, copper pipe cutter, hacksaw (or some sort of angle grinder if you can get hold of one), I also borrowed a pipe bending gizmo which I needed to accommodate my ‘design’, pliers, files and wire wool.

Stage 1: Assembling the Tap

Measured up for the tap and cut a hole through the outer/inner casing of the coolbox. Threaded the tank connector through from the inside-out and using a small section of copper pipe attached the ball valve tap (all 15mm fittings).  I added a copper elbow joint to the end of the tap to form a spout.

Stage 2: Constructing the Manifold

First I measured up inside the coolbox to see what size manifold will fit comfortably and cut the copper pipe to fit. I had to bend the pipe connecting the tap and the manifold to allow the manifold to sit flat against the floor of the coolbox.

Fitted the copper pipes, T-joints and elbows together, secured the manifold in a vice and went about cutting as many slots into it as possible, cutting approx half way through the pipe. I used a hacksaw mainly, but did use a Dremel drill with a cutting tool on it (although it just overheated too often and because of the steamed up safety glasses I managed to cut some bad angles!).

Stage 3: Fitting the Constructed Manifold

Simply connect the pipe from the manifold into the internal tank connector (inside the coolbox, with the slots facing down).  Testing found no leaks and the manifold drained the water effectively with a small dead space of 0.5L  (i.e. the amount of water left in the tun with the tap fully open).  Once happy with your mash tun and manifold, then some people choose to solder a few of the joints to hold the manifold together, but it is possible to lightly nip each of the joints together, which allows easy cleaning.

Hope this is of use to someone thinking of doing the same.

Next up:  I’ll be attempting build an Immersion Wort Chiller and a 30L plastic boiler (can’t really call it a copper can I!)