Gapers Block has ceased publication.

Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
 Thank you for your readership and contributions. 


Tuesday, November 29

Gapers Block

Gapers Block on Facebook Gapers Block on Flickr Gapers Block on Twitter The Gapers Block Tumblr

« Super Food Friday Foodporn: Tea Time »

Feature Fri Jan 29 2010

Home Brewed In Chicago, Part 2: Engineer Your Beer

In the last article (found here), we discussed the four essential ingredients of beer. In this article, we're going to take a look a the equipment you'll need to set up your own homebrewery. Most brewing suppliers have a kit version of this equipment, and on average it will cost you anywhere from $75 to $150 depending on what's included. This may seem like an expensive way to get started, but a starter kit will usually save you quite a bit (as much as 20%) as opposed to collecting all this equipment individually.

Another advantage is that a well-considered starter kit should be customizable or expandable depending on your experiences and desires.

Once we've taken a look at the necessary equipment needed to brew beer, we'll also look at some of the "nice-to-haves" for the homebrewer.

The first thing you'll need as a brewer is a stockpot large enough to comfortably hold 2 gallons of liquid. This will be your mash tun (brewing language for "beer stockpot"). Which means you'll want at least a 3 to 5 gallon stockpot. This isn't an item usually included in a starter homebrewing kit, so if you don't have something big enough, find your local restaurant supply and purchase a well-made, but inexpensive aluminum stockpot. You should be able to find something for about $15. Don't spend more than $20.

You'll also want a wooden spoon (for stirring your hot wort, of course). And speaking of hot wort, having a cooking thermometer on hand is particularly useful. A floating thermometer is even better.

Primary Fermenter.JPG

The first really specialized piece of equipment you'll need is your primary fermenter. Most homebrewers use a 6.5 gallon food grade plastic bucket with a tightly fitted lid with a hole drilled in it to receive an airlock.

Some homebrew stores sell ones with a draintap already fitted in the side near the bottom. This is a great feature for transfering your beer from one fermenter to the other. Otherwise you'll need learn how to siphon liquid from one container to another.

Another option is to use a 6.5 gallon glass carboy for your primary fermenter.

Full Carboys.jpg

Photo courtesy of Steven Jablonoski and Brew & Grow

If you're going to use a carboy, you'll need a funnel to help move the wort from your stockpot into it, and if you're using whole grain malt or whole hops, the funnel will need to be big enough for a strainer or filter.

I mentioned airlocks with the primary fermenter, and they're intrinsically necessary for the successful fermentation of your beer. Air-Lock.JPGThe purpose of an airlock is to allow the carbon dioxide produced by the yeast to escape (or you'd have a massive sugary sweet explosion as the carbon dioxide continued to build) without allowing dirty dirty air to enter your fermenter. As your beer initially ferments, you'll hear an occasional rattling as the escaping gas percolates through a watertrap much like the bend in your sink.

You'll need some rubber stoppers to firmly secure the airlocks in your fermenters. The stoppers should be fitted for both your primary fermenter (food grade bucket) and your secondary fermenter (carboy).

Another particularly specialized piece of equipment that you'll need is a hydrometer. Hydrometer.JPGWhat the hydrometer measures is the specific gravity of a liquid against water, and helps a brewer determine the specific gravity of the wort, and the potential alcohol content of the final fermentation.

So far we have covered the some of the basic components for brewing. The next set of items are useful for moving your beer from one vessel to the other, as well as to the bottle, and eventually your mouth, stomach and liver.

When you move your beer from your mash tun to your fermenter you siphon it, but when you move it from your fermenters to your bottles, you rack it. The reality is that you're doing the same thing either way, but in the brewing process, they are considered two different actions.
Racking Cane.JPG
Consequently, you'll need a racking cane and a bucket clip and some tubing. Another helpful tool for getting your beer ready for bottling is called a bottle filler, a short 8" tube with a spring loaded valve that allows you to accurately fill your bottles.

And speaking of bottles, you'll need quite a few: about 60 clean 12-ounce bottles (usually about $12 for 24) each time you brew a batch. Another option is to use 22-ounce bottles. You'll need fewer bottles, and the cost is comparable. Regardless of how big a bottle you use, you'll want to ensure that the bottles are not screw off cap. Bottle Caps.JPG You may have plenty left over or lying around, but they won't cap correctly, and you'll hear the caps shooting off in your pantry or closet as the final fermentation takes place in the bottle.

When it comes to caps, you'll need a bunch and a bottle capper. Usually the caps and a capper are included in a starter kit, but you'll need to purchase the bottles separately.

We've covered a lot of the essentials, so now we'll talk about some of the nice-to-haves.

Carboy & Bottle Brushes.JPG

First on the list are cleaning brushes. A bottle brush and a carboy brush make cleaning bottles and your carboy much easier. Another cleaning tool that makes short work of dirty bottles and carboys are jet cleaners, which use, you guessed it, a high pressure jet of water to remove stains and debris.

Another preference is to use a glass carboy for both your primary and secondary fermenter. While it's true that a carboy is heavy and you'll have to siphon your beer out of it, it is easier to clean, and harder to scratch (scratches harbor bacteria which can give your beer a funky taste).

Another "nice-to-have" item is an auto-siphon to replace your racking cane. Fermtech makes one that is easy to clean (very important!) and easy to use!

Finally, an immersion chiller is something that can be qualified as "very nice-to-have". It works by circulating cool (or cold) water through a circuit of pipes that you immerse in your hot wort. Essentially it's a heat exchanger that you immerse in your wort to cool it quickly. Since you should only add the yeast to the wort once it reaches 78° F, cooling your wort quickly can be an important step in preventing your very young beer from sitting around exposed to dirty dirty air. Of course, you could simply put a cover over your hot wort and wait for it to cool down. I would only recommend an immersion chiller for someone who knows that brewing is a hobby that they'll be pursuing for a long time, if not a lifetime!

Let's quickly review the shopping list:

  • At least a 3 gallon stockpot ($15 or so)
  • 6.5 gallon glass carboy ($33)
  • Carboy brush ($4.75)
  • Bottle brush ($2.75)
  • 6.5 gallon food grade plastic bucket with a fitted lid ($17)
  • Rubber stoppers for your bucket and carboy ($2 each)
  • A couple of airlocks (I prefer the 3 piece types $1.25 each)
  • A 6 foot length of 3/8" outside diameter hose (usually about a $1 a foot)
  • Tubing shut off clamp ($2)
  • A racking cane ($3.75) with a cane clip ($2)
  • Large plastic funnel (anywhere from $2 to $10 depending of if you want "anti-splash" straining technology)
  • 1 floating thermometer ($6, but a regular one will do in a pinch)
  • Beer Hydrometer ($13)
  • Beer bottles (60 12 ounce returnables will run you about $12 for 24, though I prefer "Grolsch" style resealable bottles myself which will cost you about $2 each)
  • A beer bottlecapper ($15 if you're not using resealables)
  • Bottle filler ($4)
  • A big ole bag of bottle caps ($5 for 100)

One of the final items I'd recommend is Charlie Papazian's book: The New Complete Joy of Homebrewing. Pretty much every homebrewer views this book as THE bible of homebrewing. With it's folksy and fun writing, Papazian demystifies brewing and encourages the reader to practice the mantra "Relax. Don't worry. Have a homebrew." Easy-to-read and full of brewing history, practical advice for the beginner, and recipes and ideas for the intermediate and advanced brewer, The New Complete Joy of Homebrewing is one of the indespensible tools you'll use to brew your own beer.

In the next article, we'll look at putting together the ingredients and the tools to produce that delicious nectar of the gods: Beer!

GB store

flange / January 29, 2010 11:06 AM

i got a mr. beer kit for $20. self-contained, no trouble, no extra space in a tiny chicago kitchen required, and i got a really amazingly good, crisp ipa. a stout is fermenting on top of my fridge now. and i have no doubt that the serious beer student can tell the difference, but i'm somewhere between casual and serious, and i can tell mr. beer's stuff is better than what i'd buy but i don't think i could tell the difference between what mr. beer makes and what the serious beer student's setup makes.

cliff / January 29, 2010 12:06 PM

The Mr. Beer kits are a fun, casual introduction to brewing, and are a great way to enjoy pretty good beer without a heavy commitment. And the quality of their kits are far and above that of most inexpensive brewing efforts.

I made the mistake of attempting my first beer in a "brew in bag" kit. Quite possibly one of the foulest concoctions known to man!

But as I began brewing more and more, I found that there were brewing techniques that I wanted to try (like using whole grain and leaf hops, sparging, using fruits and flavorants, etc.), and I wanted to brew in greater quantities. So I committed to a more extensive set of equipment.

Brewing is just like any other hobby. It's what you want to make of it, and there is no better or worse way to have fun doing it!

Sarah-Ji / January 29, 2010 1:10 PM

If you're interested in homebrewing, my husband started a homebrew club on the northside called the Northside Homebrewer's Connection. Check out his blog at The team had a homebrew contest sponsored by Hamburger Mary's and the winning team got to brew there, which is very exciting if you're a homebrewer. The winning brew (Muddy River Stout) is now available on tap @ Hamburger Mary's.

flange / January 29, 2010 1:45 PM

true nuff, cliff. i do have some homebrewing friends with setups like you describe and they're far more adventurous than i am. if i owned my home and had a bigger, more convenient kitchen, a full setup would be easier to consider.

on the other hand, the MB FAQs and forums have tips on adding flavorants and modifying recipes. i'll start playing with that with my next batch.

(i have to say, if i could do a good cask-aged beer, i'd fall, hard and completely.)

i'm sure there's plenty of bad MB beer out there... even their ads imply you could be drinking in only two weeks... yuk. i'm still aging a few bottles from a fermentation last spring, and it's worth it.

cliff / January 29, 2010 3:08 PM

Hey Flange, if you want to up the game on your IPA, try adding about 1/2 cup of oak chips to your primary fermentation.

It'll replicate that cask conditioning and flavor.

Just don't use treated lumber, or you'll wind up poisoning your liver more than you intended to!

kleinstadt / January 29, 2010 3:23 PM

Even better than Papazian's book is John Palmer's "How to Brew". Goes from very, very basic to mathematical models of fluid flow vectors with different manifold designs. I've been brewing for almost two years now, and I still constantly refer to it.

A couple of friendly corrections/additions:

- you want at least a 5 gallon stockpot to comfortably boil 3 gallons (which is the absolute minimum for an extract partial boil.

- many, many homebrewers never use a secondary. To go ultra cheap, buy a 6.5 gal. plastic bucket as a primary fermenter and skip the secondary.

- if you really want to see your beer fermenting, buy a plastic carboy ("Better Bottle"). They're cheaper than glass carboys and don't break.

- Oxyclean removes labels from old bottles and cleans everything.

cliff / January 29, 2010 7:21 PM

Thanks for the tips, Kleinstadt!

You're right that going with a single fermentation is cheaper, but I always like the clarification I got with a secondary fermentation. Personal preference is all.

And for some odd reason, my beers improved when I went to using all glass.

Hmmm. Maybe I should've kept my plastic cleaner...

Stan Hansen / January 30, 2010 10:46 AM

I think I would also recommend a cleansing/sterilization agent. This is used to make sure all equipment is 100% clean before brewing.

Mr Beer kits are fun to start with but you can get in to a more interesting concoction of home-brewed fun with a kit described above.

cliff / January 30, 2010 7:12 PM

Good Point, Stan!

The good thing about cleaning/sanitizing your brewing equipment is that an inexpensive bottle of chlorine bleach is all you really need.

Since a 6.5 gallon food grade plastic bucket can hold pretty much everything you need to brew with, simply adding 3 ounces of chlorine bleach to it and filling it with cool water is sufficient to sanitize your brewing equipment.

Kevin / January 31, 2010 12:37 PM

Sarah's husband is the man when it comes to talking to an experienced brewer.

I could take issue with a number of the things here, but I think that just dipping your toe in the water and trying it out is a good way to go. I definitely take issue with buying bottles though. Beer comes in bottles. Buy some. Drink it. Try out different beers. Then keep the bottles, soak them in hot water to get the labels off. I've been brewing for a few years, and I've never spent a dime on bottles. I'm probably reusing them from the first batch I did. New Belgium labels come off easiest. Save the bottle money, and spend a little more on other stuff.

And sanitation is the key. Being an absolute nazi about cleaning and sanitizing will save you a great deal of anguish with exploding bottles, and ruined batches that get poured down the drain.

Eric / February 1, 2010 11:02 AM

I would not recommend bleach as a sterilizer. You have to rinse it and plastic can leach the off flavors. Star San is relativity cheap, especially because you can reuse it and spot sanitize with a spray bottle.

Star San is my sanitizer or choice and is no rinse that is safe (and actually good for yeast) if a small amount of foam gets into your beer.

As for glass carboys, it only takes a few stories of emergency room trips for lots of stitches to keep me from using it. Any decent homebrew forum has tons of stories of the injuries resulting from using glass.

Shabbee Ahmed / April 9, 2010 1:58 AM

I have visited this site and got lots of information than other site visited before a month.

work form home

Adam / May 20, 2010 11:00 AM

Actually, bleach is a great, inexpensive sanitizer if used correctly. Charley Talley, the owner of the company that manufactures Star San, vouches for the use of simple bleach as well. for a detailed discussion on how to use either Star San or bleach, check out the Basic Brewing podcast.

GB store

Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

GB store



Drive-Thru on Flickr

Join the Drive-Thru Flickr Pool.

About Drive-Thru

Drive-Thru is the food and drink section of Gapers Block, covering the city's vibrant dining, drinking and cooking scene. More...
Please see our submission guidelines.

Editor: Robyn Nisi,
Drive-Thru staff inbox:



 Subscribe in a reader.

GB store

GB Store

GB Buttons $1.50

GB T-Shirt $12

I ✶ Chi T-Shirts $15