In general, home brewing is a hobby that requires very few pieces of dedicated brewing equipment to make good beer. I’ve tasted incredible beers made with very simple setups. However there are a few pieces of brewing equipment that could be considered absolutely essential for a brewer to really get the most out of their beer.
A boiling pot, or brew kettle, will be essential for anybody looking to step up from kits to making extract or all grain brews. For more information on the different ways of producing home brew, check out this article. A good brew kettle should be made of a non-reactive metal like stainless steel or aluminium, and should be large enough to boil the entire batch of wort with some space to spare. A good sized kettle for 25 litre batches would be at least 30 litres, to allow room for expansion of the wort and to reduce the likelihood of a boil-over. Kettles with thick, sandwich-style bases can be good if boiling over a direct flame, and kettles made of thicker materials are likely to last longer. A boil kettle is a significant investment in brewing, so buy the best you can afford and save yourself the need to upgrade later.
Adding a drain fitting to a boil kettle can be a very useful upgrade, and is also very simple. A drain fitting is essentially just a ball valve attached to the kettle so the wort can be drained without siphoning. This makes emptying the kettle significantly easier!
So you’ve boiled the wort in your shiny new kettle, now it’s time to pitch the yeast. How do you cool the wort to the correct temperature? With a wort chiller of course! There are a few different designs for wort chillers, but they’re all essentially just heat exchangers. The simplest wort chiller is called an immersion chiller. This is basically just a coil of copper pipe that is lowered into the boil kettle, and tap water is run through the pipe. The heat from the wort is transferred into the water, cooling the wort. These can be made at home, are reasonably cheap and work very well. Another option is a counter-flow chiller, which can be seen in the title picture above. Hot wort is pumped through a copper coil while cold water passes through a water jacket around the pipe. The principle is exactly the same as an immersion chiller, but they are generally more efficient than immersion chillers. They too can be made at home, but really require a pump to be most effective. Plate chillers are just counter-flow chillers condensed into a small size. Hot wort is pumped through and passes over a series of plates, while cold water is pumped through in the opposite direction. Plate chillers can be extremely effective, but also require a pump and are difficult to clean thoroughly.
My recommendation would be an immersion chiller, even though I use a counter-flow chiller. They work very well, especially if the wort is stirred during chilling. If you wish to upgrade later, an immersion chiller can be converted into a counter-flow chiller by adding a water jacket and a few extra fittings. It’s also possible to chill wort with a method known, somewhat confusingly, as no-chill. For more information about the no-chill method, check out this article.
Brewing is as much an art as a science. It’s easy to overlook the science part, but a few important measurements can really improve a brewer’s outcomes. Arguably the most important of these is measuring the sugar content of a brew, which is used to predict the final alcohol content, and confirm when fermentation is complete. Determining the alcohol content is necessary so you know how much alcohol you (or your guests!) are consuming. Measuring the end of fermentation is very important when you bottle condition your beer, as bottles filled with incompletely fermented beer have a nasty tendency to explode!
A refractometer looks like a miniature telescope. A few drops of wort are put on the viewing plate, and the brewer looks through the eyepiece to see the gravity reading. Refractometers work by measuring how much light bends (refracts) when it passes through the wort, which changes depending on the sugar content. More sugar means more refraction, which means higher gravity readings. Refractometers are great to use during mashing or boiling, as measurements are very quick and require only a few drops of wort. But after fermentation the alcohol in the solution changes the refraction amount. Calculators can be used to correct for the alcohol content to determine the final gravity of a brew if measuring with a refractometer.
A hydrometer is a glass float that is immersed in a tube of beer or wort. The amount of sugar in the solution determines how much the hydrometer will float. Lots of sugar means the hydrometer will float well, as the solution is more dense. As the yeast convert the sugars into alcohol (which is less dense than sugar), the hydrometer sinks. When fermentation is finished, the hydrometer reading will stay consistent over a few days, meaning that the sugars have been completely converted. Hydrometers can be used for post-fermentation measurements without needing to correct the readings, but require more wort for measurement, which can be wasteful.
With these 3 pieces of brewing equipment it’s possible to take your home brew to the next level. Depending on the options you choose they don’t need to be hugely expensive, and bang for buck can be surprisingly good. And the greater the bang for buck, the easier it may be to convince your significant other that the expense is justified!
Thanks for reading, please leave any questions or comments below!