Thanksgiving is tomorrow, which means Black Friday is just a day later, so it’s just about time to think about Christmas shopping. Does your husband or boyfriend (or wife or girlfriend, for that matter) love beer? Think they’d like to take a stab at homebrewing? Or, do they already homebrew, and are looking at stepping up their game? If so, today’s blog entry might be for you.
Let’s start with some gift ideas for people wanting to get into hombrewing for the first time, or for those using smaller systems, like Mr. Beer, wanting to step up to larger and more complex batches. If you’re a one stop shopper, you can’t go wrong with Northern Brewer’s Deluxe Starter Kit. The one linked here is the version with the Big Mouth Bubbler fermentors. I have two of these, and I highly recommend them. Unfortunately, though, they're not the kind with a spigot on the bottom, so transferring from the fermentor isn't as easy, but they're still great. It also comes with everything he/she (I'm just going to use "he" from now on for simplicity, but this all applies to anyone of either sex, gotta keep it PC!!) needs to start homebrewing, with a couple of exceptions. The biggest need is going to be a brew kettle. I started with an 8 gallon aluminum kettle, which worked fine for extract brewing. However, it's always a good idea to look ahead, and get something that will allow him to make the leap to all grain down the road. We'll talk about brew kettles a little later on. You will also probably want to get an outdoor propane burner, since the kitchen stove will take a very long time to bring 5-10 gallons to a boil, plus, as my wife pointed out after my first (and only) batch on the kitchen stove, "it made the kitchen smell like a brewery!"
Now, if you're not the one-stop-shopping kind, and want to put together your own starter kit, here is what you'll need. These also provide some great upgrade opportunities for those looking to improve their current equipment.
I have a 16 gallon stainless steel Bayou Classic kettle with a ball valve. It's awesome. I can easily do 5-6 gallon batches doing all grain Brew in a Bag (more on that later), or even larger extract batches. It works as a starter kettle, and you won't need to upgrade once you move to all grain brewing. It also happens to be on a pretty good sale at Amazon right now. I might have to look at getting a second one, and finding a false bottom for it to use as a mash tun!
There are plenty of other options out there for brew kettles, including keggles (a 1/2 barrel keg converted to use as a brew kettle), but the Bayou Classic is what I have experience with, so that's what I'm going to recommend.
Like I said before, I can't say enough about my Siphonless Big Mouth Bubbler carboys. I have two of the plastic ones, and love them. Some reviews I've seen saw they don't seal well, but I haven't had that problem. To start, you really only need one, but if he plans on knocking out batches back-to-back, it's nice to have a second one. The kit above comes with one 6.5 gallon, and one 5 gallon. If you're going with multiple, I'd just stick with all 6.5 gallon.
You'll also want to get a wine thief, or some other device to pull samples from your fermentor, and a hydrometer for testing these samples for gravity readings. There are many kits that you can buy that come with everything you need, including this one from Northern Brewer.
I, like most homebrewers, started out bottling my homebrewed beer. And, like most, I've since switched to kegging. Kegging is much faster and easier, plus you have the cool factor of drinking your hand-crafted beer on tap! It's not always feasible to go right with kegging, though, so we'll start with the essentials for bottling.
First, you'll need a bottling bucket and bottle filler (you'll also need a length of 3/8" ID plastic tubing). Once your beer is finished fermenting, it'll go into the bottling bucket, and from there into bottles using the bottle filler. Of course, you'll need bottles and bottle caps. For bottles, you can get these anywhere, as long as they're brown and not twist-top, they'll work. For the longest time, I used Sam Adams bottles from the beers that I drank. You'll need a bottle capper, to get those bottle caps on tight. For cleaning and sanitizing bottles, I used a Vinator bottle rinser and a 45-bottle drying tree.
For kegging, there are several places that have good starter kits. I went with Keg Connection for my starter kit. Kegs you can get all over the place. I'd shop around for the lowest prices on reconditioned ball lock kegs.
That's pretty much everything you're going to need to get your man/woman started in their homebrewing adventure. Next, we'll talk about some upgrades the more experienced homebrewers can make to really up their game.
Proper sanitation is probably the most important aspect of homebrewing, and cleaning is most of what brewing is, really. You'll want to get plenty of sanitizer. There are several different ones, and it mostly boils down to preference here. I use Iodophor, an iodine-based sanitizer, but I know people who swear by Star San.
Fermentation Temperature Control
If your homebrewer is like me, his first few batches will have zero temperature control for fermentation. In Texas, this generally means that fermentation occurs way too hot, which will lead to some serious off flavors, like fusel alcohols, which will give the beer a "hot" alcohol flavor. The simplest way to combat this is to use a "swamp cooler" setup. That's what I did for the longest time. If you're interested, there are a ton of articles on the Internet that talk about it, so I won't go into it. Since this blog entry is all about upgrades, we'll talk about one other way to control fermentation temperatures. The easiest way is to build some sort of fermentation chamber, and the most effective of these is using a chest freezer and a temperature controller. For the chest freezer, you can buy one new from any one of a hundred places, or you can check Craigslist. That's what I did, and ended up with a 5 cu. ft. chest freezer. I can fit one fermentor in it, which is all I need. You'll also need a temperature controller. I use an STC-1000, which is very popular with homebrewers. The only downside to it is that it will require some wiring to be done. Here's a very good article on how to setup your STC-1000. He uses a hairdryer for his heating element, I use a light bulb inside a paint can. They both work.
A wort chiller of some kind is a must, especially in Texas in the summer. Your homebrewer will want to chill his wort as quickly as possible to get nice, clear beer. There are several different types of chillers: immersion chillers, counter-flow chillers, and plate chillers are just a few of these. I currently use an immersion chiller, and it can take over an hour in the summer to chill the wort to pitching temperature (around 65F or so). Plate chillers and counter-flow chillers are both supposed to be faster, but I have no experience with either of these. If you go with an immersion chiller, make sure you get one that will easily fit into the brew kettle.
Making the Jump to All Grain
There are lots of homebrewers out there who never make the switch from extract or partial mash brewing up to all grain, and they make really good beer. All Grain doesn't make better beer, necessarily. The pros of doing extract include that it's cheaper, equipment-wise, and the brew day is much simpler. The trade-offs, though, are that it is more expensive, ingredient-wise, and you're limited in how creative you can get with your recipes. The creativity part is why I made the step up to all grain.
The big downside to all grain is that it can require some different equipment than extract brewing. If you already have a larger (15 gallons+) brew kettle, though, you can make the jump pretty cheaply if you want. There are really two ways to make the jump, multi-vessel or single-vessel. Multi-vessel means you have a separate mash tun and boil kettle (and sometimes a separate hot liquor tank). Some people use two or three kettles for this type of approach, and some use one kettle for the boil, and a combination of coolers for the mash tun and hot liquor tank. Single-vessel all grain brewing is mostly accomplished with Brew in a Bag. This is how I brew, so I'm going to spend the most time talking about how to go all grain that way.
As I said before, if you already have a larger brew kettle, you can almost immediately start doing Brew in a Bag, or BIAB. BIAB uses your brew kettle as a mash tun by using a large bag to contain the grains. You can make your own bag from voile (or similar) material, or you can buy them custom-made from wilserbrewer. I bought his "Grand Slam" package, which came with a custom-sized bag (you give him the dimensions of your kettle), a hop sock for boiling, a dry hop sock, and a pulley and rachet system (the bag full of wet grains can be heavy). For only $32, that's a pretty cheap way to upgrade to all grain. For an in-depth look at BIAB, check out this blog post on Beersmith.
Some all grain brewers turn their nose up at those of us who do BIAB, but I think my gold medal winning saison, and my friend David's best in show robust porter (both done with BIAB) prove that it makes just as good, if not better, beer than traditional multi-vessel brewing.
Dry yeast packets normally have plenty of yeast cells for a 5-6 gallon batch of beer. Liquid yeast, on the other hand, generally have only 100 million cells, and that number will drop as the package sits in a fridge at the homebrew store. Thus, you need a way to bump up the number of cells so you're not underpitching (although underpitching is desired in some instances, but that's a totally separate discussion). Mr Malty has a great calculator that will help you see how many yeast cells you'll need. For the saison I did a couple of weeks ago, I needed 190 million cells. The package was about 2 weeks old when I bought it, so it had around 85-90 million viable cells left. To get that to 190 million, Mr. Malty tells me I need a 2L starter. That will drop to 1.2L with intermittent shaking, or all the way to 1L with a stir plate.
So, what do you need to make yeast starters? Well, you need a vessel of some kind for sure. Erlenmeyer flasks are great for this, since they're Pyrex, and you can boil water in them directly on the stove. I would get at least a 2L, if not larger, one. As you can see above, a stir plate will really reduce the size of the starter needed. These can be either bought or you can try to make your own.
Hopefully this gives anyone out there looking for Christmas gifts for the beer-lover in their life some ideas. I'll also happily answer any questions people have! Happy Thanksgiving!